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Contemporary Art

Rauschenberg and the Art of Recycling

Scouring second-hand shops, flea markets and the streets of New York, Robert Rauschenberg made a name for himself creating some of his best-known works from other people's "junk." Sotheby's Institute of Art's Pierre Saurisse shares how Rauschenberg was so successful at incoporating everyday objects, from taxidermy to tennis balls, into his works.

THE ENTRANCE TO ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: AMONG FRIENDS  AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, 2017.

When the young Robert Rauschenberg was developing his artistic vocabulary in the 1950s, a distinctive trait of his work was that it simply did not look like art. Stepping away from the heroic undertones and existential nature of Abstract Expressionism, he culled myriad mundane objects from his everyday environment and gave them a new lease of life in what he called his Combines paintings.

To imagine Rauschenberg finding inspiration in the streets of New York, where he moved in 1949, is to evoke the figure of a scavenger. Shops, flea markets, but also the city streets were a gold mine for this tireless object hunter. Striding along the streets, he brought back to his studio a vast array of artifacts which would be integrated into his Combine paintings. These objects include newspapers, a crank, gears, a mirror, photographs, stamps, wax, fabric, a mirror, a quilt, a pillow, socks, shoes, maps, plastic, a light bulb and a tennis ball. The list, of course, is far from complete.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: AMONG FRIENDS  AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, 2017.

A very different kind of object is the taxidermy Angora goat Rauschenberg bought in a second-hand shop in 1955, still early in his career, and brought back to his studio on Pearl Street. There was no doubt that the long-haired ruminant stood out among the bric-a-brac dragged in from the streets. Soon the goat found its way onto a shelf attached to the upper part of a Combine painting. Majestic and somewhat intimidating with its long curving horns, it was the largest object Rauschenberg had ever incorporated in a single piece.

But this was not the final destination of the goat. As the original work was dismantled, the animal found itself not only encircled by a tire but attached to another panel, this time near the floor (the first panel was reworked into another combine, Rhyme, in 1956). However, this pairing was also short-lived, as two years later Rauschenberg separated the goat and the new panel. The latter was incorporated into yet another Combine painting, Summerstorm (1959), while the goat, still caught in a tire, landed on a square canvas placed horizontally. It was only then, in 1959, that Monogram took its definite form.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, MONOGRAM (1955–59), FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE MODERNA MUSEET IN STOCKHOLM. PHOTO VIA THE RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION.

The convoluted fate of the goat in Rauschenberg’s studio is less a symptom of the artist’s indecisiveness than a sign of his extraordinary ability to recycle his own works. It epitomises his unique propensity to rework his Combines and reuse parts of them in other works as he saw fit. Recycling was at the very heart of his artistic strategy during the years he spent in New York.

By the end of the 1950s, other young artists were incorporating everyday materials into their works, both in the US and in Europe. In reference to an avant-garde movement not uncommonly associated with nonsense and madness, the label "Neo-Dada" was, rather inadequately, sometimes used to refer to this trend, and it was not meant to be flattering. In 1961, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition on The Art of Assemblage, in which two works by Rauschenberg were shown, anger and outrage ensued, that such a prestigious temple of art was opening its door to, literally, junk.

 

Pierre Saurisse is a faculty member of the MA in Contemporary Art program at Sotheby's Institute of Art in London.

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