(Pontus Hulten, “Afterword,” in Exh. Cat. Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, 2005, p. 211)
In a thunderous cataclysm of gestural bravura, arresting multidimensionality, and staggeringly innovative experimentation, Rigger is a seminal example of Robert Rauschenberg’s singular engagement with—and redefinition of—the very nature of artistic form in his celebrated Combine paintings. Executed in 1961, the astounding hybridity of medium demonstrated in Rigger distinguishes it as an unparalleled exemplar from the artist’s final series of Combines, executed in 1960-61, which explored an abstract vernacular simultaneously more painterly and more sculptural, enacting an unprecedented re-examination of the existing definitions of art. In the year following its creation, Rigger was included in the pivotal exhibition Group Show at Leo Castelli gallery, alongside such masterworks of Twentieth Century American art as Jasper Johns' Three Flags, 1954, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and Frank Stella’s Tuxedo Junction, 1960, in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The prestigious exhibition history of the present work is further marked by Rigger’s inclusion in both Rauschenberg’s early career survey at the Jewish Museum in 1963 and, more recently, the seminal exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective of 1998-1999, organized by the Guggenheim Museum and traveling to the Menil Collection and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Testament to the remarkable caliber of the present work, Rigger was initially acquired from Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964 by Sally and Victor Ganz, celebrated connoisseurs whose collection was predicated upon their singularly discerning eye for unparalleled examples from the oeuvres of Contemporary masters. Centered upon the paintings and sculptures of Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Eva Hesse, their collection included such masterworks as Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, which recently sold in May of 2015 for an astounding $180 million. A work of remarkable intimacy, vitality, and ingenuity, Rigger emphatically reinvents the terms of its own making in an enduring testament to Rauschenberg’s pioneering oeuvre.
In its radical integration of expressionistic painterly vivacity with arresting physical presence, Rigger boldly eradicates the restrictive boundaries of artistic medium with the emphatic force that characterizes the very best of Rauschenberg’s production of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In its very title, Rigger articulates the presence of mechanization within the composition, making explicit the tension between the industrial and the artistic suggested by the diverse materials of the present work. Illustrated alongside other examples from 1961, such as First Landing Jump, lent by the Museum of Modern Art, and Johanson’s Painting, from the Sonnabend Collection, in the catalogue for Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, the acclaimed 2005 survey of the series organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Rigger is distinguished by a particular gestural dynamism and compositional elegance. As Paul Schimmel recounts in the catalogue for the exhibition: “Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines represent the invention of a hybrid form of art that draws from the vocabularies of both painting and sculpture and invests objects with a sense of drama and theatricality as they become part of a larger whole…At a time when the primacy of New York School painting remained relatively unchallenged, the Combines paved the way for a new direction in art.” (Paul Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in Exh. Cat. Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, 2005, p. 211) Drawing upon the environmental ephemera and urban detritus of the artist’s New York environs, the Combines integrate found objects in a manner reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s anti-art and Pablo Picasso’s innovative sculptural oeuvre; furthering their example, Rauschenberg’s inclusion of personalized details in his amalgamated canvases introduced a new and wholly unprecedented element of autobiographical intimacy. However, in its remarkable, near opulent vibrancy, Rigger illustrates Rauschenberg’s conscious shift towards a more self-referential mode of painterly and sculptural creation in his Combines of 1960 and 1961. As the artist noted in a 1960 interview, his earlier works had “a souvenir quality which I am now trying to kill. Nostalgia tends to eliminate some of the directness. Immediacy is the only thing you can trust.” (Robert Rauschenberg cited in “The Emperor’s Combine,” Time 75, no. 16, April 18, 1960) Without sacrificing the poignant intimacy of his earlier, more intricately layered constructions, Rigger asserts the new character of Rauschenberg’s late Combines on a profound and monumental scale; a rare example of unmistakable verticality within the series, Rigger is amongst the tallest of the late canvases, significantly outstripping the impressive scale of other large works like Winter Pool, 1959, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Octave, 1960, of the Seattle Art Museum. Furthermore, Rigger exemplifies Rauschenberg’s increasing tendency in the late Combines to feature larger, more physically assertive elements within his compositions; isolated upon the canvas, slight left of center, the plunging rope defiantly asserts the paintings verticality. In comparison with the multilayered collage, accumulated imagery, and frenetically crowded canvases of the earlier Combines, the purity of form in Rigger, both painterly and sculptural, imbues the present work with an unmistakable elegance and pictorial unity.
Within the oeuvre of an artist whose work is unconditionally shaped and influenced by his immediate surroundings, Rigger pronounces an abstract vernacular that is exceptionally particularized to—and intimately revealing of—Rauschenberg’s life in Lower Manhattan at the time of its creation. Emphatically architectural, the explicit elements which make up the present work speak to both the specifics of his downtown neighborhood and the rapid changes occurring there, the result of major urban re-development in New York in the early 1960s. As described by Calvin Tomkins, “Rauschenberg was starting to think of himself as a reporter, someone who bore visual witness to the constantly shifting, gritty, tension-filled life he saw around him in downtown Manhattan.” (Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1981, p. 105) The highly structured system of suspension and opposing forces in Rigger, consisting of a rope, dangling through the tattered opening in a weather-beaten slab of scrap metal, from which hangs a battered, almost unidentifiable fragment of wooden barrel, is articulated in the painting’s very name, which conjures images of suspended objects and complex mechanical processes. Here, the objects enact a remarkable tension upon the surface of the picture plane. As in his earlier work, Canyon, 1959, the laws of opposing forces are made explicit in the construction of Rigger, reflecting Rauschenberg’s absorption of the rapid urban development occurring around him in his South Street studio. From 1958 to 1960, the neighborhood was transformed by the construction of the South Street Elevated Highway and, subsequently, the towering sixty-story behemoth of the new Chase Manhattan Bank skyscraper. Describing the palpable energy and motion of the area during this time, Rauschenberg enthused, “When I go out on the street, I’m fascinated to see how much higher they’ve built a new building, or how much deeper they’ve built a hole. Or I notice the construction workers’ hats are silver instead of orange. New York is so exciting because the edges haven’t got knocked off it…Here you can never predict what you’re going to see when you go out on the street.” (The artist cited in “Sistine on Broadway,” in Exh. Cat., New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, 1990, p. 14) Executed in 1961, the striking scale of Rigger simultaneously demonstrates the profound effect of Rauschenberg’s new and significantly larger studio on Broadway below 12th Street, which the artist moved into in 1960. The massive, continuous space of the Broadway loft, with its towering nine foot ceilings and soaring windows, is reflected in vast expanse of the upper third of Rigger, which is almost devoid of mark or color; this extravagant use of negative space is echoed in other compositions from 1961, such as Trophy II (for John Tinguely), of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Reservoir, of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In contrast, the nautical implications of Rigger, suggested in the title and reinforced by the ragged rope and barrel, which conjure visions of the detritus of a shipwrecked vessel, proclaim Rauschenberg’s fondness for the seaport environment of his former studio. The artist noted that, during the 1950s, the South Street area was one of the few places in New York where the city’s “origins as a seaport were still apparent.” (Robert Rauschenberg cited in Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, New Haven, 2003, p. 44) For Rauschenberg, who lived consistently close to the sea throughout his life—in Port Arthur, Texas, in New York, and, later, in Captiva, Florida—the exhilarating energy and constant movement of the city port provided an endless source of inspiration. Executed at the intersection of these two environs, Rigger performs the specificities of Rauschenberg’s inspiration and influences, the very sights and sounds of his everyday existence, with an extraordinary and unprecedented intimacy.
Exploding across the canvas in a flurry of vibrant hues, the exuberant painterliness of Rigger offers a pictorial contrapposto to the tactile physicality of the work’s structural elements. Featuring some of Rauschenberg’s most gestural painting of the period, the extraordinary visual dynamism of the saturated pigment invites associations to such heroic figures of Abstract Expressionism as Franz Kline and Hans Hoffmann, as, coursing down the canvas, the extensive drips of paint emphasize the energetic machismo with which the color has been applied. Challenging the privileged status of color and gesture upon canvas in the Ab-Ex abstract lexicon, however, Rauschenberg imbues his composition with the tangible mass of the suspended barrel, the protruding volume of the ragged metal, and the disquieting potential for movement inherent to the dangling object. Even as he asserts the three-dimensionality of his composition, Rauschenberg offers a further emphasis of the flatness of the picture plane by carefully balancing his composition: the downward pull of the barrel is opposed by a colorfully collaged section in the upper third of the canvas, while the slightly off-center scrap metal finds a visual equivalent in the black mass of pigment above. Emphatically sculptural and unapologetically painterly, Rigger brilliantly executes the very mediums that it subverts, asserting the terms by which art is defined and daring the viewer to apply them here. Running parallel to the increased self-awareness of the late Combines, however, there is an increasing self-awareness on the part of the artist, an intimate cognizance of his particular surroundings that is profoundly articulated in the present work. Eloquent and radical, universal and self-referential, Rigger exemplifies the new direction in art offered by Rauschenberg’s late Combines, one that was a courageous navigation of the treacherous hinterlands between life and art. In a remark that conjures visions of the compositional particularities of Rigger, the artist concludes: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two).” (Robert Rauschenberg cited in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Sixteen Americans, 1959, p. 59)
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale