Contemporary Art

Taylor & Rauschenberg: Art in Motion

NEW YORK – The choreographer and the artist collaborated on numerous groundbreaking productions in the 1950s and 1960s. A group of works by Rauschenberg, including a sculptural piece he made specifically for one of Taylor’s dances, will be offered this month at Sotheby’s to benefit the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Meredith Mendelsohn examines the legacy of their creative exchange. 

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company Performing Tracer, in 1962. Robert Rauschenberg’s Bicycle Wheel was the only scenery on stage.

As a young artist, Robert Rauschenberg often incorporated in his work the least precious materials he could find, often picked up from the street or out of the trash. So it is no surprise that he had few qualms about discarding works he was not satisfied with. But when, in 1954, he threw a small work made of pink clay into the garbage, his friend the dancer-choreographer Paul Taylor had the good sense to rescue it. Rauschenberg gave the piece to Taylor, inscribing the back, ‘To Pete,’ Taylor’s nickname.

That work, Pink Clay Painting (To Pete), believed to be the only surviving example of Rauschenberg’s clay paintings, is one of four that the artist gave to Taylor, his close friend and collaborator, in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, the legendary 83-year-old choreographer is offering all four works at Sotheby’s on 14 and 15 May to benefit his New York-based dance company, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary season. 

Since its founding, the Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC) has only performed Taylor’s own original dance productions. But this is set to change. “Paul decided over the past few months to begin a new initiative, where the company will become a centre for modern dance in its entire art form,” says John Tomlinson, executive director of the PTDC. “We’ll be commissioning choreographers to create new work, and preserving some historic pieces that would otherwise not be performed again.” 

Along with Pink Painting (To Pete), Sotheby’s is offering Combine, 1954, a rare example of one of Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking hybrids of painting, sculpture, collage and found objects, and Tracer, 1962, a sculpture that the artist designed as scenery for Taylor’s dance production of the same name. “The creative overlap between these two artists is just incredible,” says Michael Macaulay, contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s New York. “And the fact that Taylor has held on to the works and is selling them only now, in the name of art, makes them particularly special.” 

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Rauschenberg at his 1953 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York, where he showed his black paintings and elemental sculptures, such as the Bicycle Wheel. Photo by Allan Grant/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Taylor met Rauschenberg when he visited a group show in the winter of 1954 at the Stable Gallery. “I used to go around to art galleries because I originally thought I’d like to be a painter,” says Taylor, who danced with Martha Graham and, just prior to forming his own company, with Merce Cunningham. Taylor recalls going downstairs, where Rauschenberg was tending to Growing Painting, for which he planted birdseed in dirt, framed it, let the seeds grow into grass and then hung it on the wall like a painting. Although he came to water it every day during the show, the grass died. “The dirt had all fallen out on the floor and Bob was cleaning it up,” Taylor recalls. “We started talking and he was very entertaining. He was a good talker.” 

He soon asked Rauschenberg to design costumes and set pieces for his new dance company; over the next ten years, choreographer and artist would join forces on nearly a dozen productions. It was a period of unprecedented collaboration during which Rauschenberg also worked closely with Merce Cunningham, serving as his manager, stage designer and technical director from 1954 to 1964. He was deeply influenced by his creative exchanges with Cunningham, composer John Cage, Taylor and others. 

In his own art, Rauschenberg was breaking away from illusionism and experimenting with incorporating found objects, photographs and newspaper clippings into his paintings. “I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world,” Rauschenberg once told the critic Calvin Tompkins. Dance, situated in the moment, had an obvious appeal. “I was so envious of the fact that it was such a total medium,” he said. “Painting tends to remain fixed, to be made out of its external materials. The idea of having your own body and its activity be the material – that was really tempting.”  

Taylor, similarly, was incorporating routine gestures and natural postures into his dances. Rather than traditional backdrops, Rauschenberg typically created structures around which the dancers moved or introduced unconventional props. One of these, Tracer, comprises a bicycle wheel affixed to a motor and was the only scenery on the stage when the performance of the same name premiered in 1962 at the Théâtre des Nations in Paris. The wheel rotated at different speeds as a quartet of dancers, including Taylor, performed around it. Rauschenberg also created the dancers’ costumes, leotards emblazoned with tire tracks.

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Taylor and a partner performing Tracer outfitted in the tire-track streaked leotards designed by Rauschenberg. Photography by Alix Jeffrey.

Wheels and tires, as well as their traces, were a favourite theme for Rauschenberg. In a memorable instance from 1953, he inked the tires of John Cage’s Model A Ford and asked him to drive it over 20 sheets of glued-together paper. Easily found in junk heaps, tires also found their way into his Combines – assemblages of seemingly unrelated components, materials and processes. The central element of Monogram, 1955–59, one of his best-known Combines, is a taxidermy goat with an automobile tire around its body. These revolutionary works merged two and three dimensions, illusion and reality, the found and the fabricated. “I consider the text of a newspaper, the detail of a photograph, the stitch in a baseball and the filament in a light bulb as fundamental to the painting as a brush stroke or enamel drip of paint,” the artist wrote in 1956. 

The circa 1954, freestanding Combine to be offered at Sotheby’s is one of the earliest examples of the format. The artist gave the work to Taylor in 1964. “I’ve seen it in Paul’s guest room for the past 20 years,” says PTDC director Tomlinson. “And I’d ask, ‘what is that?’ And he’d just say, ‘Oh, that’s just something that Bob gave me.’” It consists of a square “canvas” covered on both sides with a collage of charcoal, oil paint, fabric and newspaper fragments – one relating to an electrical patent from 1913, the other a page from 1954 featuring a review of a musical with Eartha Kitt. This collage is fixed to a wooden base that also supports a working light bulb and two Crookes radiometers. “This is an absolutely phenomenal example, with the light bulb and radiometers. And the free-standing Combines are especially rare,” says Sotheby’s Macaulay. “But the real story here is the connection with Paul Taylor.” 

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Robert Rauschenberg, Combine, circa 1954. Estimate $5,000,000–7,000,000.

ART, ARTISTS AND DANCE
More than a few artists have recognised how dance and theatre breathe life and dynamism into a static work of art. Likewise, many choreographers have sought out artists to bring their creative vision to a production. Here are three high points in the rich history of artist-choreographer collaborations.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM AND JASPER JOHNS
Cunningham famously and frequently teamed up with artists throughout his long career. For the set of Walkaround Time (1968), Johns created inflatable vinyl boxes that, Cunningham said, “took a long time to make.” The inflatables were screen-printed with motifs from The Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp, who attended the production’s premiere. 

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Photography by James Klosty.

LES BALLETS RUSSES AND PABLO PICASSO
In 1917, Picasso created sets and costumes for Parade, a Sergei Diaghilev and Ballets Russes production with music by Erik Satie. Many of the tall, angular costumes, some shaped like skyscrapers, were made from solid cardboard, which greatly restricted the dancers’ movements. The entire performance lasted only fifteen minutes and was panned by Parisian critics.

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MARTHA GRAHAM AND ISAMU NOGUCHI
Their storied 30-year collaboration is perhaps one the most productive between an artist and a choreographer in American modern dance. Noguchi’s abstract scenery and props for Dark Meadow (1946) refer to the inner depths of the mind and memory, echoing Graham’s exploration of myth, ritual and the psyche through dance.

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Courtesy of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

Meredith Mendelsohn writes frequently about art and design for Art + Auction, the Wall Street Journal and ARTnews

Works by Robert Rauschenberg will be sold to benefit the Paul Taylor Dancy Company at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening and Day auctions, 14 and 15 May.

To further explore the wonderful working relationship between Paul Taylor and Robert Rauschenberg, watch Kindred Spirits, with Sotheby's Hugh Hildesley and Paul Taylor.