- Robert Rauschenberg
- oil, charcoal, newspaper, canvas and fabric collage, lightbulb and two glass radiometers on nailed wooden structure
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, New York, 1980, p. 86
Constructed circa 1954, Combine is situated at the chronological head of one of the most remarkable artistic journeys of the Twentieth Century. An entirely free-standing combine-painting, the present work is a magnificent summation of Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration into what was to become the most defining format of his utterly unique practice. Every inch of this superb piece’s richly variegated surface serves to describe Rauschenberg’s distinctive conceptual project, one that remained steadfastly creative and experimental for over sixty years. A quintessential artist in every sense of the word, Rauschenberg pursued a diversity of media, from oil paint to photography, sculpture and collage, in his embrace of the impulse of fellow artists in his generation to challenge the traditional notions of painting. As described by Calvin Tomkins, “Rauschenberg’s real motive was curiosity, an intense and constantly renewed curiosity about what a picture was or was not, and his curiosity led him to test, more and more radically, the boundaries that other people had set up around art.” (Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, New York, 1980, p. 86) He worked tirelessly to disrupt these traditional distinctions, creating phenomenal works such as Combine,which would set the stage for the remainder of his inimitable career.
In the intervening years between the triumphs of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the early 1950s and the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, Rauschenberg's hybrid invention of a sculptural form of painting, that was equally a painterly object of sculptural relief, embodied the impulse of the younger artists of the 1950s to strip away the recent past and to examine the nature of painting on their own terms. With a celebrated sense of theatricality, Rauschenberg brilliantly fused the once disparate genres of painting and sculpture into a distinctive aesthetic that became his answer to the challenge of devising his own unique contribution to the preceding decades of innovation, as well as the ultimate breakthrough for the visual arts in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In defiance of Renaissance perspective, he began to build his pictures out into the viewer’s space so that they came to operate somewhere between painting and sculpture, in a new frontier of the visual arts described by Rauschenberg as “combine-paintings.”
Though the combine-paintings represented a groundbreaking approach to art, Rauschenberg’s aesthetic was deeply informed by the influence of both his forebears and his contemporaries. In 1954, Rauschenberg was living and working out of a studio on Fulton Street in downtown Manhattan, directly upstairs from his close friend and fellow innovator Jasper Johns. Though their practices were fundamentally at odds, both conceptually and aesthetically, the two men supported each other’s stylistic experimentation during this critical time of immense growth and evolution. While he was establishing his own aesthetic Rauschenberg remained deeply involved with and connected to the work of his contemporaries, from whom he drew continual inspiration: in December 1949 he saw the work of Joseph Cornell at Egan Gallery; in Spring 1951 he met Cy Twombly in New York; he visited Alberto Burri in Rome in March 1953; he met Jasper Johns at the end of 1953 in New York; Marcel Duchamp visited his studio on Christmas Day in 1959; Edward Kienholz created Odious to Rauschenberg in 1960, intended as a gift for him; he collaborated with Jean Tinguely for an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in March 1960; he participated in the creation of a Niki de Saint Phalle “tir” near Värmdö, Sweden in May 1961. The best examples of his oeuvre benefit immensely from the personal and professional relationships he had with his fellow artists. These years also marked the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and Rauschenberg readily acknowledges the influence of the master painters of that genre, especially Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, both of whom he had developed a friendship with after proactively travelling uptown to the famed Cedar Tavern to make their acquaintance. Rauschenberg admired Kline’s bold gestural compositions, his starkly reduced, predominantly achromatic color palette, and insistence on a unified figure-ground relationship. He appreciated the grid-like nature of de Kooning’s compositions, particularly in works such as Asheville (1949), and likely noted the subtle traces of newsprint left embedded in the pigment when the artist had blotted his surface with newspaper. As a remarkable early example of the distinctive combine-painting medium, Combine acts as a sort of repository for these critical stylistic influences: its structure displays a grid-like organization of collage elements overlaid with expressive swathes of paint on one face, and a stark reduction of color and form on the other in a way that brilliantly summarizes and incorporates the dominant stylistic elements of these foremost art historical giants.
Combine was given as a gift to Paul Taylor in 1964, and has remained in the renowned choreographer’s collection ever since. Though it is one of the earliest examples of Rauschenberg’s combine-paintings, this work is remarkably sophisticated and fully resolved. Entirely free-standing, every bit of the dense surface of the present work is covered by an array of media so that, as we move around it, we are ceaselessly confronted by new visual stimuli. The rectangular canvas here acts both as a seamless continuation of its sculptural base, and also as a vessel to house Rauschenberg’s found materials. As opposed to the strictly controlled and precisely selected collage elements in the works of his illustrious predecessor Pablo Picasso, who said in 1935, “I put all things I like into my pictures. The things – so much the worse for them; they just have to put up with it,” (Ibid., p. 80), Rauschenberg sought to let the materials he included in works such as Combine be themselves. He chose to forego personal self-expression in favor of a form of collaboration with his materials; as Tomkins describes, “Total control was to be avoided because it ruled out surprise. He accepted the world as it was and tried to work with it, not by imposing order but by collaborating with the disorder around him.” (Ibid., 166)
Hidden amongst the oil, charcoal and fabric assemblage of the present work are torn fragments from newspapers. One fragment, which describes the patent for an “Electrical pneumatic switch” designed by John Desmond, was taken from page 672 of the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, published on February 18, 1913; the other is from December 1954, and features a report on a television interview given by the legendary silent movie star Lillian Gish in which she declared the need for a department for fine arts within the Eisenhower Administration, as well as a review of the musical Mrs. Patterson starring Eartha Kitt. These fragments, which address independently the realms of the mechanical and performance arts, seem to communicate the essence of Rauschenberg’s combine practice when read in concert on the collaged surface of Combine. The canvas plane, forged jointly through deliberate thought and impassioned painterly release, is suspended above a light bulb and two Crookes radiometers nailed to a wooden base. The radiometers feature an internal spindle supporting a number of vanes which, when exposed to the light of the bulb, rotate with varying degrees of speed. With his juxtapositions of collaged elements, Rauschenberg explored the tension between the 'real' and the 'recreated' as a reflection of the duality of 'life' and 'art'. He translated this dichotomy into his art with the use of found objects in the service of painting; the newspaper fragments and mechanical elements, souvenirs of ‘life,’ confer an undeniable sense of ‘reality’ upon the painted and sculptural aspects of Combine.
Rauschenberg distilled the fundamental philosophy of his practice when he said, “In most cases, my interest is in acknowledging the fact that man is able to function on many different levels simultaneously…yet intellectually for hundreds of years the idea of uninterrupted concentration has been considered the most serious attitude to have in order to use our intelligence…If we are to get the most out of any given time, it is because we have applied ourselves as broadly as possible, I think, not because we have applied ourselves as single-mindedly as possible.” (the artist cited in Richard Kostelanetz, The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments, and Other Mixed-Means Performances, New York, 1968, pp. 93-4) With works such as Combine, Rauschenberg excelled at applying his artistic facilities as broadly as possible, incorporating exuberantly applied paint and sculptural forms with found everyday objects to create a dynamic viewing experience that operates on many different levels simultaneously. Approaching Combine is like engaging in a conversation: the work confronts us replete with vestiges of past experiences, newspaper fragments and swathes of repurposed fabric that constitute a personal history. We commune with this superb piece on equal terms, thus fulfilling Rauschenberg’s ultimate conceptual project.