Robert Rauschenberg looms large as a key figure of American art at the mid-century, bridging the Abstract Expressionist years of the 1950s to the Pop and Minimalist era of the 1960s. The Silkscreen Paintings, a pivotal series for Rauschenberg, pioneered an artistic technique which would forever shift the dynamic of painterly discourse. The method allowed him to manipulate the collaging of imagery in a new manner. In contrast to his Combine paintings, which were muscular collages of mundane found objects, the Silkscreen Paintings are two dimensional collages, in which images (not objects) are enjambed and conflated. The present work includes several common themes from this series and is a particularly striking example from the artist's return to the two-dimensionality of the canvas.
With a historically great provenance (Castelli and Sonnabend) and a much-lauded exhibition history (Sonnabend, Documenta in Kassel, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the Whitney in New York ) Exile, executed in 1962, is one of Robert Rauschenberg's earliest silkscreen paintings. With the introduction of the silkscreen process into the realm of painting, the art of assemblage returned to the transfer and arrangement of images. Andy Warhol is of course the other giant in the history of silkscreen painting, and Rauschenberg acknowledged the near simultaneous contributions made by them both when he told Calvin Tomkins, "Us silkscreeners got to stick together." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: the Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-1964, 1990, p. 14).
In September 1962, the year in which the present work was painted, Rauschenberg visited Andy Warhol's studio with Ileana and Michael Sonnabend just as Warhol was experimenting with the silkscreen method himself. Both artists shared an affinity for imagery culled from popular culture and mass media, as well as the flatness of the silkscreen process. While inspired by the same technique, Rauschenberg did not embrace all of the qualities of Warhol's work. The screens could be re-used and encouraged repetition, but Rauschenberg manipulated this repetition to a higher degree than Warhol by scattering imagery throughout the series as well as within a single canvas. It was also important to Rauschenberg to retain an expressionistic, painterly element. Some screens have a thick application of paint while others very little, creating ghost-like presences that contrast with the bolder hues of his multi-colored silkscreens or the deep velvety blacks and varied gray tones of the black and white silkscreened paintings such as Exile. In the present work veils of thinned black pigment soften the edges of the cube form while thick black strokes push forward the dangling keys and offset the grainy screen of the The Rokeby Venus. White pigment punctuates the center of the composition in the form of two lights – perhaps ``stop and go'' lights at an intersection or headlights on a misty day.
Rauschenberg began the Silkscreen Paintings in black and white, focusing on and mastering the new process. By spring of 1963, Rauschenberg ordered new photo-silkscreens in color, sourcing the imagery primarily from glossy picture magazines such as Life, Newsweek and National Geographic. He was invigorated by the new vibrant palette of red, yellow, blue, and the occasional green, crying, "I know how to describe this kind of color – delicious! It's so glamorous. Every color is trying to be a star." (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: the Silkscreen Paintings, 1962 – 1964, 1990, p. 14). Rauschenberg was an ingenious manipulator of color when called upon, and even in the comparatively subtle Exile, he balanced the ecrus and pale greys – the tinges almost like those of hand-tinted photographs – with the strong structural use of black and white.
The female figure makes rare appearances in Rauschenberg's oeuvre; however, when it is incorporated in this series, he chooses one of two depictions of Venus, either the The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velàzquez, as in the present work, or another example by Rubens. Here, Venus languishes before her mirror held by an attendant Cupid, with her reflection gazing out toward the viewer. The luxuriant curves and complex spatial composition of the Velàzquez, dominate the top register of this painting but are also flattened by the silkscreen process and the monotone scale to emphasize that Rauschenberg's source is itself a two-dimensional reproduction. The gleam of vertically oriented keys leads the eye up towards the figures, urging the viewer to traverse the dark passages of the canvas that frame the light, central portion. The bottom register further grounds the light center with faint traces of Rauschenberg's familiar lexicon of imagery emerging from the inky black depths. Tires – one of Rauschenberg's key references to modern transportation and mobility – and a glass filled with water reiterate the translucence of the central Cubist image, a compositional device to be sure: a geometric outline of a three-dimensional box encasing a mosquito.
Thematically, one can trace similar imagery from painting to painting throughout the Silkscreen Painting series, though each single work contains unique juxtapositions and combinations. Rauschenberg imbued objects with a veiled symbolism. In 1968, he declared: "I've been influenced by painting very much; but if I have avoided saying that, it was because of the general inclination until very recently to believe that art exists in art. At every opportunity, I've tried to correct that idea, suggesting that art is only a part – one of the elements that we live with."
Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Rauschenberg: Seconde Exposition (Oeuvres 1962-1963), February - March 1963, illustrated
Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Palais de Rumine, 1er Salon International de Galerie pilotes, Artistes et découvreurs de notre temps, June - September 1963, p.224, illustrated (Galerie Leo Castelli)
Kassel, Documenta III, June - October 1964, p. 382, no. 1, illustrated
Geneva, Musée Rath, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Le Visage de l'homme dans l'art contemporain, June - September 1967, cat. no. 57, illustrated
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Cologne, Kölnischer Kunstverein; Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Robert Rauschenberg, February - July 1968, cat. no. 24, p. 43, illustrated
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962-64, December 1990 - March 1991, cat. no. 17, fig. no. 5, p. 33, illustrated in color
59 1/2 x 35 1/2 in. 151.1 x 90.2 cm.
Nicolas Calas, "Robert Rauschenberg", Kulchur, vol. 15, Autumn 1964, p. 37, illustrated
Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, Analyse du 1er Salon International de Galerie pilotes, Lausanne, 1964, p. 44, illustrated
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1969, p. 227
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York 1972, p. 81, illustrated
Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), Art About Art, 1978, p. 72 (text reference)
Douglas Crimp, "On the Museum's Ruins", October, no. 13, Summer 1980, p. 51, illustrated
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 305 (text reference)
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. 395 (text reference)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 133)
Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1963