"I tend to see everything." Robert Rauschenberg
The early 1950's were years of precocious innovation for Robert Rauschenberg. Incorporating collage elements and found objects with Abstract Expressionist painting, he breathed new life into this painterly style with his successive White, Black and Red Paintings series. By 1955, these increasingly daring experiments would synthesize to become the influential Combines. Among the most exiquisite examples of this early series is Monk, Rauschenberg's homage to Thelonious Monk (the great jazz pianist) and his evergreen composition 'Round About Midnight.
Although Rauschenberg was not the first artist to combine found objects into art, it had never been done before on such a large scale and with an ambition to encompass an entire world full of subjects and ideas. Dating from 1954-1955, the pinnacle of Rauschenberg's aesthetic achievement, the first series of Combines is a small but seminal body of work that are without exaggeration, some of the most important works of the 20th Century. They include large-scale examples, such as Bed, 1955 (Museum of Modern Art), Rebus, 1955 (Private Collection) and Charlene, 1954 (Stedelijk Museum), as well as a small number of intimate-sized works such as Monk, 1955. What they all share is an explosive visual impact and a provocative (at the time, controversial) arrange of subject matter that are brought together by the artist's unerring feel for composition and eye for poetry in found materials. Fifty years later, the artist continues to develop and expand upon the ideas inherent Monk and the early series of Combines.
Their brilliance was not immediately lauded. Viewed within the downward spiral of contemporary abstract painting, Rauschenberg and his peers were considered passing fads. The New York Times published a scathing review of Rauschenberg's Egan Gallery show (which included both Red Paintings and Combines). "A far outpost of this extremism is to be found in work by Robert Rauschenberg. This exhibition is fun it its own way and there would be no point in taking it too seriously were it not absurdly symptomatic of the demon of novelty" (S. Preston, "Divisions of Today: Novelty to New Realism in Current Shows", Iew York Times, 19 December 1954, p. X12). Collectors initially agreed with Preston's negative assessment; Rauschenberg sold only two works from the Egan show- for a total of $50.
Apparently the Times had little praise for the work of Thelonious Monk either, defining Bebop in 1955 (the same year Rauschenberg's Monk was exhibited at Sonnabend Gallery) as "music so-called" (Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 172)
As the subject matter, Thelonious Monk is significant. Rauschenberg had already developed an understanding of modern composition through John Cage, whom he had met at the Black Mountain artist community, where Cage was investigating the creation of chance sound in performances. Shortly thereafter in New York, the two collaborated to make Automobile Tire Print (1951), a scroll-like assemblage of paper sheets (like Kerouac's) over which Cage literally drove a car inked with paint. During this same period Thelonious was busy uptown producing the body of work for which he is now most acclaimed. Leaning towards 'free jazz', his compositions shared similarity with Cage's. "One of the most immediately striking things about Monk's playing is that if he has no music to make he doesn't fill out a single bar with faked blowing or rambling. All is given in terms of a musical sensibility, or it isn't given at all" (Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1964).
Monk can be considered a combination of Thelonious' choice and Cage's chance. Rauschenberg has composed a musical montage, but not necessarily with the intention of offering an explicit melody. In this sense, he employs the Duchampian idea of art being completed by the viewer who makes his own associations and weaves his own narrative. Nevertheless, Rauschenberg's Monk can practically be played like a record. Intimate in scale, it is roughly the proportions of a long-playing album (the new recording format just then becoming popular). As with the best jazz soloists, Rauschenberg has overlayed a basic composition with passages quoted from the popular vocabulary along with new, challenging expressions.
Like a metered musical score arranged in 4/4 time, the movement can be visually separated into quadrants and can be 'spun' clockwise, starting from the upper right. Here in the first bar Rauschenberg has positioned, above a picture postcard, a map fragment of North Carolina (the state happens to be Thelonious Monk's birthplace and home to the Black Mountain School). The lower two quadrants (or measures) comprise overlapping patterned fabric and paper, possibly arranged in syncopation, possibly improvised. Both are supported by a rhythm section of sorts--a filmstrip at the base repeating Charlie Chaplin's most memorable image as "the tramp" pantomiming a dance with found objects. Notably, Chaplin released King of New York, a bitter satire of modern society and urban life during the same year Monk was created. The fourth quadrant is composed by a crescendo of four smaller measures incorporating newsprint, fabric, wooden block, and dripped paint centering a postage stamp depicting Patrick Henry. What more poignant a note on artistic and social independence can be sounded, save by the patriot who proclaimed, "Give me liberty of give me death!"? The composition concludes by focusing the viewers eye on the actual physical fragment of Thelonious Monk's sound recording of 'Round About Midnight.
"Make no mistake. This man knows exactly what he is doing in a theoretical way--organized, more than likely in a personal terminology, but strongly organized nevertheless we can further be grateful to him for such direct speech in an age of insurmountable conformist pressures" (I. Gitler, Thelonious Monk, Genius of Modern Music, Capitol, 1989). Though this statement was actually made of Thelonious and not Rauschenberg, the strong correlation between the two artists is certainly relevant. Monk is a complex yet clear expression of its time.
In his Front St. studio in 1958, Rauschenberg and his combines Photograph by Kay Harris
Album cover of Thelonious Monk, genius of modern music