No. 1 is a truly historic painting whose life and periodic material transformation as a work of art reflects the unique breakdown of the barriers between art and life that Rauschenberg and Johns, Cage and Cunningham perpetually effected in their work throughout their careers.
No. 1 began its life as a painting on canvas by Rauschenberg's wife Susan Weil. Sometime in 1951 Rauschenberg painted over Weil's work and using collaged effects transformed it into a pink and tan collaged painting that, along with sixteen other works, he exhibited at his very first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the spring of 1951.
Only one work, 22 the Lily White, now survives from this seminal exhibition, but it appears that most of them consisted of similar collaged and painted-over-paintings that Rauschenberg had made in the last weeks before the show by painting over works that had previously been selected for the show by Parsons and her advisor Clyfford Still.
It was at this exhibition that Rauschenberg first met John Cage. Cage who had deliberately sought out Rauschenberg's work, liked what he saw so much he asked if he could have a work. The price, he said, was unimportant as he couldn't pay anything. It was in this way and in this form that this painting first entered Cage's possession.
A year or so later, when Rauschenberg was busy making his 'black' paintings by dipping torn strips of newspaper into black paint and gluing them onto canvases and then painting the entire work all over in black, that this painting changed its form again. When Rauschenberg's own apartment needed to be fumigated on account of an infestation of bed-bugs that had come in from the streets with a number of fish-boxes, Cage kindly let Rauschenberg stay in his own apartment while he was away. Rauschenberg decided that, as a way of saying thank you to Cage, he would transform this painting into one of his 'black' paintings and completely covered it in the black enamel paint he was then using.
For Rauschenberg, the main quality of his black paintings was the way in which these almost autonomous or authorless paintings lay emphasis on their own material qualities and enervated sense of surface. "I was interested in getting complexity without their revealing much", Rauschenberg said of these works, "in the fact that there was much to see but not much shown. I wanted to show that a painting could have a dignity of not calling attention to itself, that it could only be seen if you really looked at it." (R. Rauschenberg quoted in C. Tomkins, Off the Wall, the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 72)
This famous painting was subsequently again modified in 1985, when, it had become in need of some restoration. Rauschenberg chose to paint it completely all over in black again and bestowed upon it an accompanying note referring to the, by this time, historic and continuing dialogue that Cage and Rauschenberg had then enjoyed in both their art and their lives for over thirty years. The note reads: "This is part of the history of this single canvas - I hope the dialogue continues for many more years. I will if John dares, love Bob Rauschenberg."