- Robert Rauschenberg
- signed, titled and dated 1955 on the reverse
- oil, paper, printed reproductions, cardboard, fabric and pencil on canvas
Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in April 1975)
Sotheby's, New York, November 11, 2008, Lot 39
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (and travelling), Robert Rauschenberg Combines, 2005, pl. 10, p. 24, illustrated in color (incorrectly dated 1954)
Embedded within the stratified compositional network of materials in Bantam are three primary pictures that Rauschenberg formally harnesses as found objects. Archetypal of the artist’s incorporation of photographs, postcards, newspaper, and various other printed ephemera in his work, the iconographic interplay of these images together allude to issues of sexual identity, a central focus pertinent to Rauschenberg's oeuvre. The reproduction of the supine odalisque painting is an obvious nod to art history; Rauschenberg incorporated female nudes into many of his Combines, particularly as a driving mechanism behind one of his most important works, Odalisk from 1955, now in the collection of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In Odalisk, female nudes are juxtaposed with photographs of the artist’s mother and various other references to his own home and family, creating a fascinating monument to his own identity radiating with a feminine sexual resonance. Like the rooster that perches atop Odalisk, the title Bantam also alludes to a small breed of poultry; the word can also be used to describe a person of a diminutive stature but potent force, often with a combative personality. Often incorporating chickens or hens in his Combines, the theme of flight or the inability to fly was oft explored in Rauschenberg’s work, thereby making this painting a characteristic take on self-portraiture.
In the left region of Bantam, veiled behind a swath of pearlescent grey fabric is an image of Judy Garland, the iconic American actress and singer who was as famous for her talent and beauty as for her personal struggles. Although it pictures a youthful Garland in a glamourous studio portrait from her MGM glory days of the 1930s and 1940s, Bantam was created at a very different time in her career, just a year after one of Garland's greatest performances in the 1954 musical A Star is Born. This film briefly revived her screen career but was her last Hollywood triumph. Garland’s symbolic role is often cited in relation to her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, in which her character sought to escape her small town black-and-white life in a journey toward big city Technicolor dreams, immediately accepting those who were different from her along the way. The two female images in Bantam are juxtaposed with the team photograph for the 1955 New York Yankees which runs the length of the lower portion of the collage. The 1950s Yankees won the World Series six times during the decade, and the virile stars of the team were celebrities in their time as well as ours. These male superstars included Mickey Mantle (pictured at center), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Elston Howard (the first African-American to play for the Yankees, who joined the team in the year Rauschenberg created Bantam). During this decade of Yankees glory the team was managed by Casey Stengel, pictured in the center of the bottom row, whose photograph graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1955. Thus one of the most prototypical of American male heroes—the professional athlete—is central to Rauschenberg's narrative theme of identity and gender in Bantam. A cryptic re-creation of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the positioning of the nude in the upper register above the band of Yankees echoes the composition of Duchamp’s complex glass sculpture—it is as though the odalisque is the anthropomorphized bride undressed by the team of baseball players that stand in for Duchamp’s bachelor machine. With the painting’s lush textural surface that harkens to the macho painting of the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg makes a potent comment on stereotypes of male expressionism that is both pictorial and conceptual. As William Rubin noted in 1960, "Everything the eye delights in is eligible to enter into the autobiographical poem. The iconography in Rauschenberg pictures seems to reach back through time and consciousness, memory by memory...they never relinquish their autobiographical intimacy." (William Rubin, "Young American Painters", Art International 4, no. 1, January 1960, p. 26)
With a celebrated sense of theatricality, Rauschenberg brilliantly fused the once disparate genres of painting and sculpture into a distinctive aesthetic, thus devising his own unique challenge to the preceding decades of innovation, as well as contributing 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.” He translated this dichotomy into his art with the use of found objects in the service of painting, merging them into landscapes of pigment, photography, and object. The paisley patterned fabric collaged atop a maze of sumptuous burgundy brocade in the upper register references popular home décor of the era, and speaks of the artist's frequent evocation of the quotidian, including fragments from the domestic sphere in the arena of his artwork. Merging the world of the everyday with the painterly, Rauschenberg layers his readymade materials with swathes of paint that conjure Abstract Expressionism. The bold yellow brushstroke at center evokes Franz Kline and the cascading drips of colored paint call to mind Jackson Pollock, while the scrawls to the upper right mimic Cy Twombly. 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 Willem de Kooning’s compositions, particularly in works such as Asheville (1949), and likely noted the subtle traces of newsprint left embedded in the pigment where the artist had blotted his surface with newspaper. As a remarkable early example of the distinctive combine-painting medium, Bantam 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 that brilliantly summarizes and incorporates the dominant stylistic elements of these foremost art historical giants, while letting the world into the picture plane in a mode that is unmistakably and exclusively the hand of Rauschenberg.