Robert Rauschenberg's Combine paintings are not only the artist's most outstanding achievement, but one of the pinnacles of 20th century art. This seminal body of work incorporates collage elements and found objects with Abstract Expressionist painting. Rauschenberg's earliest Combine works date from 1954-1955, following his White, Black and Red Paintings series. Rauschenberg's Combines range in scale such as Bed, 1955 (Museum of Modern Art), Charlene, 1954 (Stedelijk Museum) and Painting with Red Letter S, 1957 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery), and on a small scale such as Monk, 1955 (Private Collection) and the present lot, Untitled, 1957. All of the Combines share an explosive visual impact and a provocative range of subject matter that are brought together by the artist's unerring feel for composition and eye for poetry in found materials.
Rauschenberg often explores recurring themes and visual motifs in these works. The influence of Josef Albers, Rauschenberg's teacher at Black Mountain College, is evident in the studied layers of square collage elements and fields of paint. The open "window" in Untitled's canvas field allows for interplay between the texture of the paper and the canvas, and between positive and negative space. The falling/ejecting pilot in the center of the composition, and his abandoned plane above, offers a new meditation on the theme of flight that permeates other Combine works including Untitled, 1955, (Private Collection) which features a parachute. The intimate scale of the present work, Untitled allows Rauschenberg to explore these patterns of of fabric and paper, narrative and abstraction, color and absence of color as he would in larger-scale works such as the Albright-Knox Gallery's painting, illustrated opposite. The Combines are daring experimentations, poetic and dynamic revolutions in American art history.