Simply Rauschenberg

by Ed Osowski

In 1952, the first two works by Robert Rauschenberg to enter a public collection were acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Surprisingly, the works were not paintings, collages, sculptures, or assemblages – the works one identifies with the breakthroughs of Rauschenberg’s career. Rather, they were two photographs, dated 1949 and 1951, purchased by Edward Steichen for The Museum of Modern Art’s Photography Department.

These two photographs are among nineteen included in the exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s,” which was organized by the Menil Collection. Also included were four monoprints on exposed blueprint paper. (The catalog of the exhibition includes these twenty-three works and several others not displayed).

The two photographs Steichen bought are simple. What they possess is a spontaneity, an almost snapshot-like quickness, yet an absolute certainty of purpose as well. Interior of an Old Carriage, the earlier work, depicts a horse-drawn carriage. The other, Cy on the Bench, is a meditative and moody portrait of Rauschenberg’s friend and fellow artist, Cy Twombly. These two works develop ideas in what might, in short, be called the modernist struggle to define the place of image and abstraction in art – as Walter Hopps writes in the catalog – which is at the very center of Rauschenberg’s achievement. They are also about new ways of seeing that underscore the anti-hierarchical qualities of Rauschenberg’s art.

Interior of an Old Carriage is neither nostalgic nor descriptive. Fifteen years earlier a photographer like Walker Evans might have found the same object an appropriate vehicle to convey some sense of the loss or passage of simpler and purer times. No such symbolic weight attaches itself to Rauschenberg’s photograph. Two wheels, a cushioned seat and a backrest, a canopy, the rear window, a small white circle floating in the center of blackness: this is the photograph. What it demonstrates is Rauschenberg’s effort to strip the object, not to some essential “thingness” but from its normal context, and to affix, in a sense, no meaning at all to what is there. The viewer stares into the carriage’s beautiful and dark interior space and is stopped short by the globe-like circle of white that appears ready to float off the print. This is clearly not a photograph offered up as description. Carriage Interior tells us nothing about how this subject functions; there is nothing useful about this photograph of what once was a most utilitarian object. To use different words, there is no narrative content to the photograph; there is no story, no plot, nothing about it to refer us to anything beyond itself, just the inky purity of its rich blacks.

Like Carriage Interior, the portrait of Twombly avoids description. More correctly, one might call it an anti-portrait. Nothing about the male figure allows one to identify the sitter as Twombly; he carries no brushes, paints, paper. His face, free of details, is a sold, blank globe. If this is a portrait of an artist, then it requires us to consider the very nature of artistic expression. Is it in the idea or the execution of the idea that art comes to exist?

Twombly’s portrait was made during one of Rauschenberg’s stays at the experimental school Black Mountain College, outside Asheville, North Carolina. There, Rauschenberg worked with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Franz Kline, and others. A photograph by Rauschenberg of Cage, made at Black Mountain in 1952, avoids the clichés of portraiture. Cage sits at the wheel of his Model-A Ford, his face in profile, framed by an open window. Beyond him, through other windows, one sees trees and bushes. Central to the image is not Cage but an inverted “T,” formed by the door frame, and two door handles that serve as dramatic arabesques in the bottom third of the photograph. Cage looks ahead at something the viewer cannot see. For the viewer, however, options seem endless. There are five windows, each affording a different view. In Rauschenberg’s scheme, each window – and the view it possess – is of equal importance.

It would be an overstatement to talk about Cage’s influence on Rauschenberg. More correct would be to describe a general approach to making art that Cage, Twombly, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and others shared. This approach found value in spontaneity, freedom, and discovery, based on what Cage has called remaining “curious and attentive to what I happen to encounter.” (A photograph of Rauschenberg’s studio on Fulton Street in New York, c. 1953, documents a framed Cage score among other art works in his possession.) It would not be incorrect to call this approach “democratic” because of the presumption that the appropriate subjects for art had not been canonized. At its very core there is little that is elitist about this art.

Rauschenberg seems indifferent to the subject of the 1950 photograph Ceiling and Light Bulb. Yet, there are questions it raises: Is this a photograph? Is it a photograph of a work of art? Is it a photograph of an idea for a work of art? Or, is it proof that the world contains, if one looks with the proper vision, the subject of one’s art? Most likely the photograph partakes of all. Ceiling and Light Bulb challenges the very notion of what is an appropriate subject for art. What could be more banal – a blank, black ceiling, a light bulb, and its pull string descending from it? It is a photograph of what was there, in a certain place, at a definite time. But it also shares something with a sculpture by Rauschenberg, The Man with Two Souls. Both works seem concerned with finding objects, things about which one ordinarily feels nothing, and then, as Cage would have it, becoming “attentive” to them. One thinks of Ceiling and Light Bulb, then, as a wonderful accident, an example of Rauschenberg’s finding in his private space an “accident” that resembled closely the sculptures he would assemble.

In Hopp’s installation at The Menil Collection, photographs, paintings, and other works communicated in a silent dialogue: one work reinforcing, redefining, or clarifying and idea seen in another work. A good example is Charleston Window, a 1952 photograph set against two large, black, untitled canvases. In the photograph, a torn window shade is photographed from low and outside. It is framed by work wood and seen through a screen. Shapes – a hint of windowpanes, a ledge – are almost abstract. The paper shutter is torn and creased. In the companion canvases, paint interacts with paper – rippling, curling, creasing, and twisting from the effect of the paint. The black paint is the very essence of blackness.

In the fall of 1952, Rauschenberg sailed to Europe with Cy Twombly. He traveled through Spain, Greece, and Morocco, and settled in Rome where he stayed until April 1953. In a group of photographs taken in 1952 at a flea market in Rome, Rauschenberg found “art” everywhere. These are street photographs – photographs that record art that exists on the streets before one’s eyes – ironically, not the grand monuments one associates with Rome’s classical heritage. In several photographs, fabric – canvas in one, brocade in another – is twisted and folded, both concealing and revealing the objects behind. The treatments call to mind the way the window shade is creased and torn in the photograph Charleston Window, 1952, and the use of fabric, painted and layered, in the monumental black “untitled” canvases.

As a group, the Rome flea market images seem concerned with covering and revealing, masking and uncovering, losing and finding. In Rome Wall a poster announcing “Stalin E’ Morto” has been torn from a wall. The wall itself is a texture of stains and random hatchings. Several letters, MA, El, O, and a fragment of a phrase, “…ovimento,” emerge gradually from the wall’s surface. These syllables have no meaning; they do not add up in any traditional sense to a sentence that one can read and understand. Their context has been removed by the overlays of other posters that once covered and concealed them. But like the wordless sounds John Cage employs in a number of his compositions, these random letters create a new meaning of design and shape.

Rauschenberg completes his photographic explorations with a series of five photographs, Cy and Roman Steps, 1952. The operative word in the title is the small conjunction and for these are not images of Twombly but are images in which the steps and Twombly are equal participants. What the five closely resemble are snapshots a tourist would reject; in each image the photographer has moved closer to his subjects until Twombly’s torso, from chest to knees, fills the print. Never do we see Twombly’s face. Never do we see anything that concretely places these steps in Rome. Like the earlier Cy on the Bench, nothing except for the artist’s words, tells us that this is Twombly. These are images of five specific moments, five movements through space and time, five ways of defining and imaging Twombly’s position on the steps and his relation to the steps, and five ways of recording Rauschenberg’s movements toward Twombly. The five photographs – the body gradually becoming more central in each work – coax and tease the viewer to apply some narrative framework to them. But what actually is occurring here? Twombly himself isn’t moving toward the viewer, although he shifts his position slightly. If anything, the group of five resembles the movement of sound, of words without meaning. Trying to find “meaning” in them leads only to frustration.

More accurate, then, would be to call the five images an anti-series. Nothing actually becomes clearer in them. If anything, they are photographs of a non-Western way of perceiving reality. They are photographs that find and lose perspective, that lead one to expect a grand revelation in the final frame, but conclude, instead, almost arbitrarily.

What photographs in “Robert Rauschenberg: the Early 1950s” make clear is that for Rauschenberg, art emerges from the encounter between the imagination and the object. These are photographs that reject the hierarchal and traditional values of space, time, content, and narrative for a freer and looser approach to meaning. In them one finds a purity of trust in the power of the object itself to hold our attention.

Ed Osowski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and his reviews appear regularly in the Houston Post.