Disappearing Act Robert Rauschenberg
by Joan Seeman Robinson
"You are not going anywhere unless there's a wall in front of you." Robert Rauschenberg'
There's an early photograph of Robert Rauschenberg reclining full length across a high wall (Untitled [self-portrait], 1952).Barely visible above him is the edge of one of his own paintings, its flecked surface echoed in his paint-spattered pants. He appears preoccupied and withdrawn, his hands resting inactively near the center. Actually, Rauschenberg had directed the camera lens downward so that his cement floor occupies nearly two-thirds of the lower frame. It's a tricky image in which spatial recession becomes illusion-istically vertical. The result is that he appears to have been shelved, assimilated into his surroundings as if the camera, scanning its options, had equated concrete, mattress, man and painting. He once said to Barbara Rose in a long and informative interview, "When I go to work I have to feel invisible to get away from the inferiority that is attached to 'Bob.'" :With Susan Weil, his wife in 1950, he made Untitled [double Rauschenberg] by pressing his nude body on photosensitive blueprint paper so that, when exposed to light, his outline was preserved. It is his absence that we see, made apparent to us only after he has risen and removed himself from the surface. The white silhouette seems to invoke his activity; he undressed, determined his pose and lay down for a period of time. He created his double, and then — repositioning his body — made a mirror image of that. The radiant residue, a glowing vacancy hovering in ultramarine blue, is sternly braced, the lateral wings of its bent arms and legs subdividing the entire surface sothat figure and ground positive and negative, are interlocked and equivalent. But it is also a hieratic pose suggesting growth and re-emergence, one figure upending another, as if birthing a second self from the single "Janus" head they share.
These life-size blueprints record the artist at work, exploring alternative roles, innovative strategies transient substances, his fascination with light and shadows and with darkness itself. In 1951 he made some very large paintings, applying crumpled newspapers to them which he'd soaked in black paint sometimes pressed into gravel so their surfaces engaged with the ground that he walked on. His former teacher at Black Mountain College, Josef Albers, had stressed the values of black and white, and Rauschenberg obsessively documented this series in photographs. He followed them with stark white paintings, expunging from them any evidence of his handiwork. John Cage likened these radically reductive experiments to "airports for movement;" they were environments for the shadows produced by the activities of Rauschenberg and his colleagues. He photographed himself between two of these provocative works, one white and one black. Arranged at right angles to each other, their receding diagonals point to his seated figure at the center.
Strong diagonals are prominent in other early photographs — dramatic signs of the absence of bodies. In Quiet House,1949, (in memory of the death of Mark Drier, son of Theodore Drier and nephew of the famous art patron, Katherine Drier)slanting beams of light work powerfully to warp the frame of a ladder-back chair. In Man with Two Souls, his tilted camera throws the talismanic (some say phallic) assemblage of two light bulbs and a shaft into precipitous decline, as if challenging his surrogate. "I want to free my body, my head and my thoughts from my ego, "he has said. "I need to be free from my fears also ... I think fears are the same as ego."
The ghost of Rauschenberg's presence inhabits many more of his photographs. It's as though Albers' advice that he develop a personal sense of looking reinforced his attachment to vernacular objects. The worn seat of Untitled (Interior of an Old Carriage), 1949, suggests shelter, an easy pace and the passage of time. In his most austere documentary photograph, titled Monochrome Black Painting, (1953) geometric and planar severity are overtaken by sheen and shadow — reflected light across the glistening surface, the cast shadows of the object's stretchers and the whitewashed brick wall. Both of these images, the black carriage and the black painting, suggest his penetrating and empathetic engagement.
In 1952 he went to Italy and North Africa. Short on funds and with meager resources, he had two important companions, the painter Cy Twombly and, again, his own camera. Cy and Bob, Venice is a double exposure; they had photographed each other but failed to advance the film between shots. The scenery surrounding them resounds with other twosomes — the elegant horses over the west facade of St. Mark's (and a shadowy third), and the bell ringers high above them, astride the bell tower. While in Rome, Rauschenberg stationed Twombly in profile between colossal fragments of the 4th century statue of Constantine the Great, orienting him toward Constantine’s jutting finger and tall column on the right – projecting him into a prestigious classical context. In a sequence of four more images Twombly descends steps until confronting the camera, his head deleted for a selective emphasis on the advancing grey torso as it gradually supplants the spactial recession of the staris.
Then Rauschenberg explores the Flea Market, where he focuses on an old muffled automobile, its rear window peering out above shrouds of crusty tarpaulins. Another car, its bumper bent into a soft arabesque, is graced with a fringed satin brocade. These shabby vehicles are monumentalized, filling the frame, and treated respectfully as if in deference to their service. He has explained, "I like the history of objects. I like the humanitarian reportage." In another shot, a standing man peruses a book while displaying his wares — racks of eyeglasses — which seem to address us as we survey them.
The Scatoli Personali (personal boxes), 30 of which he arranged and photographed on the floor of the Pensione Allegli in Rome in 1953, are, by title and purpose, surrogates for the artist. As a child in the coastal city of Port Arthur, Texas, had constructed a "collection wall" of crates and planks for privacy in a shared room, creating compartments for what Walter Hopps called a "cultural environment" of the things that he valued — rocks, plants, insects and even small animals.3Inspired in this case by the primitive surroundings and the raw materials collected when he and Twombly visited North Africa, these modest boxes house bones, rags, dirt, mica, thorns, shells, beads, winged insects and, in one disturbing example, a photograph of the artist himself under a plastic lens, imbedded in dirt through which sharp pins are thrust. These diminutive scatoli presonali resonate with private references, the boxes distinguishing each from the other, as ifepisodically. The composition of the overall photograph recalls Matisse's The Red Studio in which paintings and sculptures, a precious compilation of his aesthetic interests, are arranged on a red ground that is faintly delineated as meaningful activities, just as Rauschenberg provides archival evidence of his own exotic itinerary. In The Red Studio, however, no further mystery is intimated. But Rauschenberg's scatoli have covers, and their scale is to the hand. The action implied is that of uncovering what is hidden, but which, when disclosed, just becomes more elusive.
Note how Rauschenberg photographs another group of fragile assemblages, the Fettici Personale or "hanging fetishes,"suspending them on moss-laden tree limbs in Rome's Pincio Garden. (They recall the contemporaneous surrealisticphotographs of another Gulf Coast photographer, Clarence John Laughlin of New Orleans, in which dead birds, fragile laces and mortuary memorabilia conspire to call forth both the underworld and the afterlife.) In one instance Rauschenberg draped one of his "personal fetishes" from a portrait bust as if ritualistically bewhiskering and adorning it with occult or tribal appendages — in pointed contrast to his congratulatory equation of Cy Twombly to the late classical likeness of the Roman general, Constantine.
Rauschenberg's photographs of windows and doors and of hanging fabrics such as shades and towels and tantalizing panels suggest their emblematic value as passages from outside to interiors, and the discrete shielding of things deeper within. Assuredly, Rauschenberg prefers planar treatments — the alignment of his subjects in blunt accordance with the face of his papers and canvases — but the allusive power of such features as ladders, walls, windows, doorways and curtains when emphatically frontal also stimulates our imagination. The screened doorways and windows surrounding the black paintings aren't there just to establish the scale of the works propped amidst them, nor do they merely amplify the architectonic infrastructure of these paintings; they are inherently discursive and integral to other works in which Rauschenberg divested his photographs of his obvious presence. For example, in Sneakers, 1952, his presence is equally equivocal. The toes of his worn shoes appear at the bottom as if he is walking a weathered plank, but the grid-like arrangement of the trued timbers and the adjacent areas of concrete also reads vertically as if the sneakers have been removed from his feet and affixed to a wall.
On his later world travels, his attention to the discarded, the humble and the outdated is pervasive. He remains fascinatedwith conjunctions of objects which become perplexing when isolated, and he is fundamentally observant of strict parallel planes, using curves and counter diagonals to contradict rather than reinforce the illusion of depth.
Finally, there is a touching concordance of a particular pair of early and late photographs affirming his formal sophistication, and which, iconographi-cally, traces his passage from youth to full maturity. In Charleston Window, 1952, Rauschenberg looked up at a wrinkled shade, visible through a dark screen, its torn edge a fragile border after long years of use. On his trip to China in 1983 he photographed the Great Wall from a distance as a ribbon of light whose serpentine shape gleams beneath a blue sky. Matter and space are reversed in these two images as if they were positive and negative ways of rendering a single perception. The frayed shade drawn over the black interior and the massive black mountains rising toward the lucid sky represent the breadth of a field of vision that never seems impersonal. •
Joan Seeman Robinson earned her doctorate in art history specializing in 19th and 20th century art and currently works as adjunct assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati.
1. Barbara Rose, Rauschenberg. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. All his quotations were derived from this interview.
3.Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s. Houston: The Menil Collection, Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991.