Executed in 1962, Andy Warhol’s Rauschenberg Family was created in the immediate aftermath of the seminal meeting between the artist and Robert Rauschenberg. Standing at the cross-roads in the history of American art, the work unites the old guard of Modernism with the future godfather of Pop Art, a movement which would change the course of art, and American art, irrevocably. Adapted from a personal family photograph supplied by Rauschenberg himself, Warhol tightly crops the image, presenting only three of the eight figures: the infant to the left of the young woman’s shoulder could be the young Rauschenberg himself, while the man to the right resembles his father. Subverting the mechanical aspects of silkscreening through uneven and off-register printing, Warhol screens the image in a method that retains the photograph’s graininess and immediacy, purposefully cropping the image to heighten its anonymity. With Rauschenberg Family, Warhol brilliantly works through the possibilities of the medium by combining conscious intent with accidental results - developing some of the major themes that he would explore for the rest of his spectacular career.
It was on the evening of September 18, 1962 that Rauschenberg accompanied Ileana and Michael Sonnabend on a fateful visit to Warhol’s studio. Warhol had only a few months prior discovered the silkscreening process and showed to them his now infamous Marilyn and 210 Coca-Cola Bottles screenprints. Though Warhol was on the precipice of his meteoric rise to fame with his inclusion in the infamous ‘The New Realists’ exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in October and his seminal solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in November 1962, during this studio visit he was still the unrecognized ‘high-art’ artist seeking affirmation from the old guard that had hitherto largely ignored him for his low-art’ commercial background, effeminate attire and idiosyncratic mannerisms. Attempting to ingratiate himself with Rauschenberg, Warhol offered to make silkscreened portraits of him to which the famous reacted with much enthusiasm, later providing Warhol with five family photographs from which Warhol subsequently created a sequence of ten screenprints. Later expanding the series to include other works entitled Let us praise famous men, Warhol evokes Walker Evans and James Agee’s celebrated photo-essay of the rural South during the Depression, which would become ubiquitous and charged imagery representing a distinctively ‘American’ identity in the politically turbulent climate of the 1960s. Executed in a technique that would become synonymous with Warhol himself, however, we see the artist firmly planting himself in the canon of American art history only to then depart from it.
Whilst marking the beginning of what would become an enduring friendship with Rauschenberg, Rauschenberg Family more specifically encapsulates the decisive turning point in which Warhol would exclusively focus on the silkscreen process – having previously still been experimenting equally with his hand painted compositions and stenciled pictures of multiplied images. As David Bourdon has observed, “…it was his innovative use of the silkscreen technique on canvas, combined with his startling adaptation of commonplace imagery, that secured his position as of the most important artists of his time’ (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 123). The fact that Rauschenberg promptly adapted the silk-screening technique to his own practice following the studio visit and produced a substantial body of photo-silkscreened pictures, including his tour-de-force Barge, 1962-1963, certainly emboldened Warhol. Having ultimately found an artistic language that would be uniquely his, Warhol finally gained the recognition he was seeking. In the spring of 1963 he was spectacularly included alongside, amongst others, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at the Guggenheim Museum’s Pop exhibition that prompted critic Barbara Rose to state, ‘only Andy Warhol has actually offered anything new in terms of technique, by adapting the commercial and purely mechanical process of silkscreen to the purpose of painting on the canvas’ (B. Rose, ‘Pop Art at the Guggenheim’, in Art International, vol. 7, no.5, 25 May 1963, pp. 20-22).