- Robert Rauschenberg
- signed, titled and dated 1963 on the reverse
- oil and silkscreen ink on canvas
Michael Abrams, London (acquired in 1963)
Christie's, New York, May 1, 1991, Lot 27 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, United States (acquired from the above in 1996)
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Krefeld, Museum Haus Lange, Robert Rauschenberg, September - October 1964, cat. no. 25
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-1964, December 1990 - March 1991, cat. no. 42, pl. 21, p. 63, illustrated in color and pp. 84, 145 and 179 (text)
Cambridge, England, Fitzwilliam Museum, Jubilation: American Art During the Reign of Elizabeth II, May - June 1997, cat. no. 24
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1978, p. 81 (text)
Lawrence Alloway, Topics of American Art Since 1945, New York, 1975, p. 134 (text)
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 305 (text)
Roni Feinstein, "Random Order: The First Fifteen Years of Robert Rauschenberg's Art, 1949-1964," Ph.D. Dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1990, p. 405 (text)
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, New York, 2005, p. 293 (text)
As a technical precursor to the silkscreened paintings, the solvent transfer drawings begun in 1958 were the foremost examples of Rauschenberg’s assimilation of printed ephemera into his work without the need to cut-and-paste collage elements. Depending on the type of ink used, Rauschenberg was able to integrate found images into works by soaking printed matter in turpentine or lighter fluid, placing it against his paper sheet, and pressing upon its surface using a blunt tool. This resulted in a suite of works on paper in which ghosted imprints of photographic images veil and overlay passages of fluid watercolor and exigent graphite marks. Taking his cue from the Abstract Expressionist artists that had dominated the New York artistic milieu during the 1950s, Rauschenberg combined the impassioned and gestural abandon championed by these artists and innovatively conflated it with the increasing social prevalence of the photographic image and its mass manufacture. In taking up the silkscreen during the very same year as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg steered the direction of his work towards the populist and mass produced dimension of contemporary image culture. However unlike Warhol, who entirely embraced a machine aesthetic as his modus operandi, Rauschenberg kept his distance from Pop Art by maintaining a distinctly personal and intuitive approach. As noted by Roni Feinstein: “[In] his hands, a mechanical process ironically became malleable, sensitive and personal, open to improvisation and the touch and motion.” (Roni Feinstein, “The Silkscreen Paintings” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962-1964, 1990, p. 22)
The initial silkscreen paintings in black and white explored the possibilities of this new technique in terms of composition and effect; as Rauschenberg explained to art critic Calvin Tomkins, “because I'm such a pushover for color and I didn't want that to interfere with what I was trying to work out.” (Ibid., p. 14) Many artists, from Franz Kline to Jasper Johns, had also temporarily abandoned color in order to prioritize other areas of investigation, only to return to the exuberance of color when they had mastered new challenges of format, technique, or subject matter. Having mastered his technique by the summer of 1963 with the completion of the monumental Barge (Guggenheim Museum, New York), the artist finally gave in to the seductive portent of a vibrant new palette of red, yellow, blue, and green, proclaiming: “I know how to describe this kind of color – delicious! It's so glamorous. Every color is trying to be a star.” (Ibid.) As superbly deployed in the present work, Rauschenberg’s ingenious manipulation of color imparts a chromatic balancing act with the structured application of black and white passages.
Twice removed from their original form, the silkscreened images ignite a vital dialogue surrounding the expedience of cultural replication. Images appear and reappear throughout the series, grouped around general themes of Americana: space flight and transportation, architecture, cultural icons, Old Master paintings, and more generic motifs such as a glass of water. In so doing Rauschenberg cannily accesses our collective memory and reformulates generic imagery into an explosive cacophony redolent with metaphoric portent. As in the present work, prosaic images beholden to modern life proliferate across the canvas’s surface: schematic blue prints coalesce with images of sparrows in flight, while the aforementioned glass of water appears below an image of a construction site that finds repetition as a red silkscreen print juxtaposed against a photograph of the Sistine Chapel. This startling contrast between an every-day construction site and one of the wonders of Western art history is emblematic of Rauschenberg’s inclination to combine and conflate past with present, high with low, and thus erase preconceived cultural distinctions. As in the the Philadelphia Museum of Art's painting, Estate, the character of Bait is distinctly urban in complexion. Where Rauschenberg reveled in the raw abundance of New York City, Bait abounds with sights of the metropolis and pays tribute to the overload of visual stimuli that constitutes urban life. Indeed, the primacy of the signpost in both Estate and Bait provides an apt metaphor for the confusing multiplicity that is the ordered chaos of downtown life. Robert S. Mattison has explained: “[the signpost] communicates vital information but the information is confusing and seemingly contradictory. This particular signpost tells us to go in two different ‘One Way’ directions and to ‘Stop’; an air raid shelter sign points in yet another path. This accumulation of opposing routes would be confusing to anyone, but to a dyslexic it would be particularly perplexing because of his/her frequently reduced ability to orient him/herself in terms of left or right directions.” (Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, New Haven and London, 2003, pp. 98-99) Both Bait and Estate thus contain unmistakably autobiographical content in relaying the artist’s very personal experience of living and working with dyslexia in downtown New York. However, on a more holistic level, with a host of generic subject matter lifted directly from magazines such as LIFE, Newsweek, and National Geographic, the early silkscreen paintings represent markers of conventional modern-day American life. Ordinary, commonplace, and every-day, these motifs are relayed as fragmentary, repetitious, and dream-like; Rauschenberg’s paintings thus speak directly to the rapidly changing landscape of technology, communication, and industry within 1960s America.
Nonetheless, this layering of meaning through the repetition of quotidian motifs runs much deeper than mere assemblage. By deploying gestural brushwork, Rauschenberg interlaces and interweaves between the silkscreened armatures which as a result offsets the perfunctory nature of the appropriated photographic elements. Often working on more than one painting at a time, Rauschenberg would screen and re-screen the same image from one canvas to the next, and when a composition began to take on an inner life, gesture and mark-making were employed to impart emphasis, erasure, and redefinition to each composition. Evoking the irascible gesture of the Abstract Expressionist painters, Calvin Tomkins described Rauschenberg’s execution of Estate in the following passage: “…he found a tube of artist's color, crimson, squeezed some out, and rubbed it on the canvas with his fingers... The painting he was looking at had a dozen or more images in it: an office building, the Statue of Liberty, an ad for woolen blankets, a glass of water, the Sistine Chapel with the superimposed clockwork diagram, a bird in flight, a Manhattan lamppost with street signs and stop signs. Eventually he started to work on it again with a paint rag soaked in benzine. He scrubbed at one of the four images of a bird in flight, blurring and dissolving it, giving that section a paler tonality that made it less competitive with the red stop signs. He stepped back again. ‘Look at that’, he said quietly marveling. ‘The birds have freed the stop signs’.” (Roni Feinstein, “The Silkscreen Paintings”, Op. Cit., p. 16) As described, the momentum with which Rauschenberg balanced ordered images and emotionally disordered expression was truly masterful. In Bait the grid-like architecture of the silkscreened images provide a cartographic backdrop against which painted gesture freely weaves; the effect is oceanic and enveloping, the viewer is invited into a mental map of free association that in its gestural advocacy of both abstract painting and the photographic helped inaugurate a new trajectory in the discourse of twentieth-century art history.