In search of inspiration and in keeping with his love of diverse materials, Rauschenberg foraged the dumpsters off the streets surrounding his Fulton Street studio, transforming the discards of industry into curiosities and archaeological remains from everyday life. Calvin Tomkins wrote that Rauschenberg "had a great fondness for the commonplace, the castoff, the worn-out and forgottenhumble relics like these turned up in combine after combine, where they entered another life in a strange balance between beauty and ugliness, the real and the abstract" (C. Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 2005, p. 125). The Combines began as autobiographical investigations of his surrounding: mosaics of newspaper stories and images, postcards, swatches of fabric, photographs and works by other artists. Created on a comparatively small scale, they are intimate, internal conversations that remain largely undiscovered by the viewer. The connections between elements are sometimes aesthetic or formal, but for the most-part, deeply personal to the artist. Eventually the Combines become increasingly large-scale and three-dimensional statements about the current ideological space of painting that would profoundly influence the coming movements of Minimal and Conceptual art. Rauschenberg coined the term Combine or Combination-painting, when describing these works that were not paintings or sculptures. Just as they occupied a unique formal space, the Combines also stratified two thematic realms: the recognizable everyday objects and the inventive rehabilitation of these elements by the artist.
Rauschenberg's Combines use found objects, and often incorporate clothing such as shirts, ties, pants, hats and scarves as compositional elements and personal narrative, embedded in the picture plane. Untitled, is consistent with this process; Rauschenberg has surreptitiously stretched a fragment of ribbed undershirt across the canvas, with two Pantone color chips and paper collage, along with other materials. A telephone number is written in reverse, referring to Duchamp and the mirrorical return.
Rauschenberg began these works in 1954, a turning point in his artistic career that along with the work of Jasper Johns heralded a larger transition that was taking place in the art world. The Pantone color chips are a pithy statement of antipainting; Rauschenberg often re-used objects and images in multiple works, paint chips also formulate the central compositional elements of both Rebus (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Small Rebus (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) as horizontal inflection points.
Untitled, has had an interesting history; as LC#8, it was one of the earliest works Rauschenberg sent to the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1957. It was acquired by Gertrude A. Mellon, married to Matthew N. Mellon of Pittsburgh. Gertrude was a young collector and friend of Dorothy Miller, the legendary Museum of Modern Art Curator. Untitled was then in the collection of the progressive Democratic Senator from Virginia, Clive L. DuVal and his wife, Susan Bontecou DuVal.