Robert Rauschenberg's Combine Paintings emerged as a radical new force in art history during the latter half of the 1950s, a decade already acclaimed for the arrival of Abstract Expressionism and the New York school of Action Painting. In the intervening years between the triumphs of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the early 1950s and the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, Rauschenberg's hybrid invention of a sculptural form of painting, that was equally a painterly object of sculptural relief, embodied the impulse of the younger artists of the 1950s to strip away the recent past of New York Abstract Expressionism and to re-examine the nature of painting on their own terms. Embracing the wealth of innovation in aesthetic theory and practice throughout the 20th century, Rauschenberg confronted the challenge to devise his own unique contribution to the preceding decades of innovation with the wholly individual Combine Paintings such as Photograph. 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.
A decade before Photograph, Clement Greenberg coined the term "sculpture-construction" in a prescient 1949 essay. Greenberg referenced Modernist collage masters such as Picasso and a new form of pictorial sculpture that "more or less abandoned the traditional materials of stone and bronze" and "has no regard for the unity of its physical medium and will use any number of different materials in the same work and any variety of applied colors - as befits an art that sees in its products almost as much that is pictoral as is sculptural." ("The New Sculpture", Parisian Review 16, no. 6, June 1940, p. 640)
Around this time, Rauschenberg's spare and minimalist paintings gave way to more colorful and materialistic work in reaction to many disparate influences. At Black Mountain College in 1950-1952, Rauschenberg would come into contact with John Cage as well as Dadaist collage, all contributing to his appreciation for chance and accident in free-form composition. His growing affinity for "sculpture-constructions" found a kindred spirit in his friend Barnett Newman's 1950 plaster and wood sculpture Here I (1950). Newman's vertical composition rose from a white painted wood crate to create one of the artist's early signature "zips" that would predominate his later paintings and sculptures, and would find a significant echo in Rauschenberg's addition of the vertical architectural molding in Photograph that anchors the work as it projects into pictorial space toward the viewer. Rauschenberg's friend Cy Twombly also referenced the vertical white Here I in his own free-standing sculptures of the 1950s, and their travels together to Italy in the Fall of 1952 would infuse both their work with the element of grafitti and mark-making to be found on the ancient and contemporary walls of Rome. For his part, Rauschenberg would translate found imagery and objects more literally into his painting-sculptures while Twombly devolved such references into a private vocabulary of signs and symbols.
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 with the use of found objects in the service of painting, merging them into landscapes of pigment, photography and object. Rauschenberg's hybrid invention invested 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 Photograph embraces the detritus of contemporary existence by incorporating a sweatshirt, photographs, torn paper, a necktie, metal, fabric and wood. The bravura combination of collage objects and expressionistic, highly colored paint-strokes is emblematic of this artist's seemingly endless ability for brash, restless experimentation.
In 1959, the year he created Photograph, Rauschenberg was included in the Museum of Modern Art show, Sixteen Americans, one of the exhibitions curated by Dorothy Miller over the years to showcase the work of young avant-garde artists. The catalogue contains one of Rauschenberg's most oft-quoted statements, "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two)". Since 1955, an autobiographical element entered the artist's Combine Paintings with the use of family photographs, personal mementos and found objects with intimate and private meanings. As William Rubin noted in 1960, "Everything the eye delights in is eligible to enter into the autobiographical poem. The iconography of the Rauschenberg pictures seems to reach back through time and consciousness, memory by memory... they never relinquish their autobiographical intimacy." (William Rubin, "Younger American Painters", Art International 4, no. 1, January 1960, p. 26). By 1959, direct references give way to more intellectual and subtle imagery, rendering the compositions less overt and more impressionistic. In Photograph, the white sweatshirt splayed across the right edge of the work is a ghostly presence, more an artistic element of composition than a sentimental or personal remembrance. The striped necktie almost dissolves into the activated surface surrounding it: the drips of light blue paint are a more privileged part of the composition, recalling the earlier black and white paintings of the artist's Black Mountain period. This pigment mirrors the verticality of the molding and the vertical reflections in the water of the photographic scene above.
Photography and text play a poignant and predominant role in the cerebral content of this work, reflected in the title. The middle range of Photograph is a sumptuous visual feast. The central image of industrialized towers is almost an abstract linear design of verticals, light and dark, solid and reflection, while the photograph of the inner circuitry of some device is in essence a baroque mass of circles and arcs - a delicate tracery in contrast to the bold black stars collaged on the bottom rim. Finally, an enigmatic and haunting photograph of a raised hand hovers above this panoply of imagery, balanced by bright passages of yellow, black and white paint. This compacted display of visual richness is framed on both sides by calmer passages: the painted white sweatshirt to the right and the quiet beauty of the Italian cityscape photographs to the left. Yet the muscularity of Rauschenberg's visual technique and mental acuity is also present in the texture of the fabric and the bold visuals of the veiled collaged text and brushstrokes of orange, black and white paint.
Rauschenberg had said "I like the history of objects. I like human reportage." (Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg, New York, 1987, p. 96). Like his friend, the composer John Cage, he was open to the assimilation of disordered information - in his case, visual - in all its multiple facets and interpretations. In his found objects from the street and from his own life, Rauschenberg transforms urban detritus into a secret, unearthed language resurrected from the discarded traces of existence. Widely regarded as the zenith of his creative vision, Rauschenberg’s Combine Paintings vibrate with an intellectual vigor that open our eyes to the chaotic beauty of the lives we live.
Oil, paper, photographs, metal, fabric, necktie, and wood on canvas
Paris, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, First Biennale de Paris, October 1959
New York, The Jewish Museum, Robert Rauschenberg, March - May 1963, cat. no. 27, illustrated
Washington D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution; New York, The Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert Rauschenberg, October 1976 - January 1978, cat. no. 53, pl. 70, p. 103, illustrated in color
Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum, Word as Image: American Art, 1960-90, June - August 1990, pl. 100, illustrated in color
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-1962, December 1992 - October 1993, p. 38, illustrated in color
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Under Development: Dreaming the MCA’s Collection, April - August 1994
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; Paris, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Robert Rauschenberg Combines, December 2005 - May 2006, pl. 95, p. 110, illustrated in color
46 3/8 x 54 5/8 x 2 3/4 in. 117.8 x 138.7 x 7 cm.
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1969, p. 57, illustrated
Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, (condensed version of the full-length monograph), pl. 24, illustrated
Branden W. Johnson, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Cambridge, Ma., c. 2003, p. 359
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Donald M. and Betty Weisberger, New York (acquired from the above in December 1959)
Sotheby’s, New York, May 4, 1973, lot 161
McCrory Corporation, New York
Mitchell-Hutchins, Inc., New York
Donald Marron, New York
Vivian Horan Fine Arts, New York (acquired from the above in 1984)