Totemic in form and mounted upon aluminium, Robert Rauschenberg’s Photems abolish the line between photography and sculpture. Rauschenberg has never been one to shy away from unorthodox combinations; his renowned Combines fused painting and sculpture together in ways that shocked audiences and reinvented the medium. Photem Series 1 #29 is a key example of the artist’s photographic investigation, uniting his experimentation of mediums with his interest in American life and culture.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg went on to become one of the pillars of contemporary American painting. It was at Black Mountain College, under the watchful eye of Josef Albers, where Rauschenberg was first taught of the wonders of photography. In fact, Rauschenberg went on to spend his career toying between being a painter and a photographer. Rauschenberg developed an obsession with an impossible project: to photograph his country inch by inch.
In Photem Series 1 #29, three images of American life are merged together, each of which touch on the key concerns for Rauschenberg; light, surface and texture. A shovel, drenched in the morning light, grounds the work at its base. Its handle guides the eye upwards as it merges with the wooden fences of the middle image. Atop the work, a wooden bench stands tall like an altar. Joined without margins or separation, the three images offer a snapshot into American life, untouched by Rauschenberg’s hand, observed only by his eye.
The name of the series – Photems – implies a combination of ‘photos’ and ‘totems’. Vertical and often monumental in size, the Photems take on the form of historical totems: a symbol of a community, a repository of life. Rauschenberg’s clan, the urban clan, keeps its memory in the form of photographs, fragments of American existence. Photographs are an imprint of reality and Rauschenberg, by placing his photographs on a metallic surface, imbues the images with its own reflectivity. Thus, the present work not only addresses Rauschenberg’s key concerns as an artist but contemplates the medium of photography as a whole. The Photems become symbols of urban life, totems of the modern experience.
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