Calvin Tomkins, "The Sistine on Broadway," in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-1964, 1990, pp. 28-29
Examining Robert Rauschenberg's Untitled, executed in 1963, is nothing short of an archaeological excavation. As one of the final monochrome silkscreen paintings Rauschenberg produced between 1962 and 1964, the work is an especially nuanced and developed example of the artist's ability to combine transfer-solvent images, silkscreened photographs, and paint to create a dense visual field of fragmented vestiges of urban life in New York City. The viewer is compelled to dive in and dissect the composition, pull out the familiar images, attempt to make sense of their articulation on the unmoored canvas, and interpret their role in the architecture of the artist's vision.
Rauschenberg began experimenting with mass-produced imagery in the 1950s, incorporating the solvent transfer technique into his paintings. This printing process was fairly simple: the artist would clip photographs from popular media sources and apply a chemical solvent to their printed surfaces, before pressing them to paper or canvas and rubbing the back of the image. The ink would transfer to the surface of his work, producing a reversed image of the original media. The resulting paintings, composed of a collection of transferred images, were similar to the Collages that defined much of his earlier practice. Like the Collages, the artist's solvent transfer paintings were amalgamations of material taken from the street and were, therefore, not merely representational but also literal evocations of his surroundings. In 1962, Rauschenberg discovered the silkscreen, a tool which transformed his paintings and ushered in a new era of visual production for many artists working in the 1960s, including Andy Warhol. Rauschenberg no longer had to transfer images on a one-to-one ratio. He could have screens produced which enabled him to enlarge images to a variety of dimensions, an innovation which allowed him to experiment with composition and form in his collage paintings in unprecedented ways.
At first glance, Untitled appears to be almost abstract, constituted by large blocks of black and white paint with punctuations of green and gray. Rauschenberg worked exclusively in this limited color palate until 1964, a choice which allowed him to concentrate on composition and to create a visual continuity despite the disparate images on the painting's surface. The large industrial building, printed in a deep, opaque black using one of the artist’s silkscreens is, of course, representational, yet it appears to primarily serve a formal function, providing a solid counterweight to the gestural, thin layers of black and white paint and graphite-like rubbings spread across the rest of the canvas. The sweeping swaths of paint evoke the fluid strokes of the New York painters who preceded Rauschenberg, the Abstract Expressionists. Max Kozloff writes, "It is as though the action painting of the previous generation of artists had suddenly 'fossilized'" (Max Kozloff quoted in Richard Meyer, "'An Invitation, Not a Command:' Silk-screen Paintings" in Exh. Cat. New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Rauschenberg, 2016, p. 192). Rauschenberg's painting preserves the formal structures of his creative environment. By employing his forerunners' mark-making techniques, Rauschenberg not only symbolically acknowledges their influence, but also physically embeds their legacy into his canvas.
Under closer inspection of Untitled, it becomes apparent the canvas is, in fact, rife with solvent-transfer images. The images are in some cases entirely obscured by patches of thick paint, but in most cases, they are only partially covered, as if half-buried in the ground. Once the images are excavated, the viewer is compelled to thematize their correlation. As Robert S. Mattison writes, "By 1963, Rauschenberg was concentrating primarily on urban subjects, particularly those images that related to his impressions of the South Street Area" (Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, New Haven 2003, p. 95). Untitled can be read as a concentrated study on the part of the artist to record the visual culture and identifying markers of his surroundings. Besides the industrial building filled with ladders, workmen and equipment, the canvas is replete with urban detritus, including fences, highway signs, fragmented architectural features, and even transfers of receipts. Of course, there are also elements that seem foreign to the city streets, such as racing horses, spiders, and sailboats. Richard Meyer suggests that all the images in combination “reroute the visual traffic of mass culture by interweaving multiple forms of photographic imagery and painterly abstraction” (Richard Meyer, "'An Invitation, Not a Command:' Silk-screen Paintings" in Exh. Cat. New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Rauschenberg, 2016, pp. 196-197). Rauschenberg transferred not only the images associated symbolically with urban life but also those images which appeared in his local media sources, creating a site of cultural memory. The fact that the artist used certain images repeatedly reinforces this notion. For example, one might look at this painting and be reminded of another featuring the same silkscreen of a massive industrial structure, the artist’s iconic work, Barge from 1962-1963 and in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Viewing the present canvas becomes an act of remembrance, of digging for recognizable images and associations.
In 1964, after presenting a series of silkscreen paintings at the Venice Biennale and winning the primary prize, Rauschenberg had the screens destroyed, effectively eliminating those specific images from his visual vocabulary. The destruction of the silkscreens is significant, because it indicates those photographs and media images were deemed extinct by the artist, perhaps because he felt that they no longer represented his environment or his particular viewpoint. The silkscreen paintings, including this nuanced example, stand as the only archive of those images which shaped Rauschenberg’s practice. They represent both the primary material and the creative inspiration of the artist during a pivotal period in his career. The observer is invited to peer into the world of the artist at a specific point in time, to uncover the images that intrigued him and to see them anew, as artifacts of a vanished era.
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