``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.''
--Robert Rauschenberg, 1968
Robert Rauschenberg looms large as a key figure of American art at the mid-century, bridging the Abstract Expressionist years of the 1950s through the Pop and Minimalist era of the 1960s. Rauschenberg's hybrid inventions of new forms of art, most notably the Combine Paintings and the Silkscreen Paintings such as Overdrive embodied the shared impulse of the younger artist eager to strip away the recent past and re-examine the nature of painting on their own terms. Embracing the wealth of innovation in aesthetic theory throughout the early 20th century, Rauschenberg confronted this challenge with a bravura and liberal spirit for experimentation that was unrivaled. In the manner of Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso before him, Rauschenberg integrated found objects into his work but he went further than either artist by exploiting the dimensionality of collage and its implicit character of message-laden imagery in his Combine Paintings. With the Silkscreen Paintings, Rauschenberg helped pioneer an artistic technique which would forever shift the dynamic of painterly discourse and which allowed him to manipulate the collaging of imagery in a new manner.
Rauschenberg identified with Duchamp's acute observations about art and anti-art as he designated commonplace found objects as art on a plane equal to painting, sculpted bronze or marble. Rauschenberg explored the tension between the `real' and the `recreated' as a reflection of the duality of `life' and `art'. He translated this dichotomy into his art investing the individual components with a sense of drama and import, constructing a vivid slice of life that transcended simple collation to become aesthetic, urban poetry. The composition of Overdrive embraces the visual detritus of contemporary existence, particularly of the vibrant New York streets, in a swirl of expressionistic color effects, emblematic of this artist's endless ability for brash, restless experimentation.
Equally important to Rauschenberg, Duchamp shifted artistic focus away from the mythology of the painter baring his soul through his art. Rauschenberg has stated ``There was something about the self-confession and self-confusion of abstract expressionism – as though the man and the work were the same – that personally always put me off because at the time my focus was in the opposite direction. '' (Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 89). For both Duchamp and Rauschenberg, the role of the spectator was the final element in the alchemy of life into art – the observer, like a spectator to a play, translates their own meaning out of the myriad of imagery that the artist has chosen to cull from his own surroundings and transmute into a painting of lush detail, color and dynamism such as Overdrive.
The radical integration of painting and sculpture that characterized the Combine Paintings such as Summer Storm had subverted the notions of dimensionality in ``painting'' with the incorporation of objects that often retained their discrete character within the whole, enlivened by grand gestural celebrations of expressionistic paint. Beginning with the black and white Silkscreen Paintings in 1962, Rauschenberg playfully reversed directions and returned to the two-dimensionality of the canvas. 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 silk-screen 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) Warhol's first silkscreen painting, Baseball, was executed in 1962, and it is commonly acknowledged that his use of the process predated Rauschenberg by a slim margin. In fact, Rauschenberg visited Warhol's studio on September 18, 1962 with Ileana and Michael Sonnabend, resulting in a series of silkscreen painting portraits of Rauschenberg by Warhol in October 1962. Rauschenberg's Silkscreen Paintings also began in the fall of 1962, but the results were as divergent as the two artist's personalities would portend. In place of Warhol's cool repetitious use of imagery and emphasis on the mechanistic replication of the technique, Rauschenberg devised a heady mix of imagery that acknowledged the flatness of the canvas but remained expressionistic and painterly.
The initial Silkscreen Paintings were in black and white as Rauschenberg explored the possibilities of the new technique in terms of composition and effect - as he told 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. 13-14). 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 the new challenges of format, technique or subject matter. 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. In the end 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.'' (Ibid., p. 14) He was an ingenuous manipulator of color when called upon, and the vibrant yellow, red and blue of Overdrive balance the quadrants of the tableau within the strong structural use of black and white.
Professional four-color separation process requires exacting control in the layering and application of a different screen for each color layer, and Rauschenberg was initially frustrated in trying to perfect the technique. Inevitably, he soon found the blurred effects and imperfect registrations much more to his liking, as his love of chance and unique effects took command. In watching the artist at work, Calvin Tomkins astutely observed how he was ``laying in colors too quickly or out of register, putting one color down over another that was still wet, often scrubbing the canvas clean again with benzine and starting over ..The materials he was working with stubbornly asserted their particularity. He had the sense (an illusion, perhaps, but for Bob a necessary one) that he was collaborating in a process over which he did not exercise complete control, and that the results might therefore turn out to be more interesting and surprising than they could have been otherwise.'' (Ibid., p. 15)
Images appear and reappear throughout the series, grouped around general themes of Americana, space flight and other modes of transportation, architecture, cultural icons, Old Master paintings, and more generic images such as a glass of water. Rauschenberg cannily accesses our collective memory and associations with such images and re-presents them to us in an explosive cacophony. Rauschenberg reveled in the raw abundance of New York City ``because the edges have not got knocked off it'' and Overdrive is a myriad of collaged images of city life colorfully spread before its citizens and mirroring the overload of visual information that is urban life. The painting abounds with sights of the metropolis to the point that one can sense the city's background noise and bustle. Street signs, stop signs, the Statue of Liberty, office buildings, iron railings and the birds that flock the cityscape all scatter across the canvas in an urban symphony.
The layers of meaning and aesthetic achievement of Overdrive are much deeper than a mere assemblage of imagery as Rauschenberg did not ignore the painterly in the alchemy of this work. He often worked on more than one painting at a time, screening and re-screening the same image from canvas to canvas. When a composition started to take on an inner life, gesture and mark-making entered the arena to bring emphasis, erasure or redefinition to the individual images. Calvin Tomkins writes evocatively of Rauschenberg's completion of another colored Silkscreen Painting with many of the same elements as Overdrive. With a brush, Rauschenberg began ``using the black and white silkscreen paints to get a whitish gray that he applied here and there, tying together the different images. ....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.' '' (Ibid., p. 16)
Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas
Paris, Ileana Sonnabend, Rauschenberg, February - March 1963, n.p.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Robert Rauschenberg, October - November 1963
Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'histoire, Art du 20ème Siècle, June - September 1973
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962-64, December 1990 - March 1991, cat. no. 41, fig. 18, p. 60, illustrated in color and p. 145, illustrated
84 x 60 in. 213.4 x 152.4 cm.
Mildred Constantine, "Visit New York", Art in America, 52 (June 1964), p. 128, illustrated
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1969, pp. 207 and 227, illustrated
Lucy R. Lippard, Lawrence Alloway, Nancy Marmer, and Nicolas Calas, Pop Art, New York, 1970, fig. 149, p. 162, illustrated
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1972, p. 81
Carl Becker, ed., A Survey of European Civilization, Boston, 1972, p. 944, illustrated
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 305
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
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 160)
Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1963