Rauschenberg’s Collection (1954): A Whole World of Materials
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
These days Hannah Höch is lodged in my brain like a visual “earworm“—images of her photomontages pop into my consciousness repeatedly and unexpectedly. They are not unwelcome; I’m dealing with a new set of challenges in my own montage work, and Höch is always an inspiring companion on the artistic journey.
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that, while revisiting SF MOMA’s 75th Anniversary show recently, I lingered in the Rauschenberg corner, reflecting on his unique contribution to the collage aesthetic. As has oft been recorded, Rauschenberg credits his mother, a seemstress who arranged her patterns so tightly on the fabric that no scrap was wasted, with inspiring his approach to collage. Surely, Höch, who for many years designed fashion patterns for Ullstein Verlag in Berlin, must have been directing my subconscious that day.
Collection is one of Raushenberg’s earliest Combines. On the second floor at SF MOMA it’s paired on the wall with the 1955 Combine Untitled and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing. The former demonstrates delightfully well the artist’s particular genius at compositional arrangement. More importantly, in Untitled, the artist has masterfully transformed a plethora of otherwise mundane materials into a strikingly beautiful and refined object. By comparison Collection, though monumental, is to my eyes somewhat less aesthetically elegant.
Like any serial work, the Combines, which technically refer to five distinct stages of work completely roughly between the years of 1954 and 1964, are uneven. Some are incredibly polished, irrefutable proof that the artist paved a truly revolutionary path for new forms of artistic expression. Others are undeniable messes of visual cacophony. On the occasion of the artist’s 2006 retrospective at The Met, Peter Schjeldahl astutely observed: “Junkiness and elegance, equally intense, don’t always cooperate.”
Despite their imperfections, the essence of Rauschenberg’s legacy is evident in the Combines. To fully appreciate that legacy, consider what the artist was rebelling against.
In the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism held sovereign authority over the art world. Inspired by the AbEx’s rebellious spirit, but not their venacular, Rauschenberg daringly challenged the prevailing AbEx philosophies that art was best created subconsciously (borrowed from Surrealism) and that color had symbolic meaning (borrowed from the Expressionists). Consider De Kooning’s “Woman” series, which was also painted in the mid 50s—despite the relative abstraction of these paintings, they were still rooted in traditional painting materials and visually still grappling with the commanding influence of Picasso.
Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919
Wood, metal, cord, cardboard, wool, wire, leather, and oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 35 inches.
Rauschenberg anchored himself in a different tradition, riffing off the collage/montage example provided by the Dada circle (of which Höch was a Berlin member), Duchamp’s Readymades, and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, who was already affixing objects to his canvases in early part of the 20th century. (As it turns out, Rauschenberg wasn’t far from the Picasso legacy either; in the late 1940s, the influential Clement Greenberg credited Picasso with turning collage into bas-relief and then into sculpture.)
The fractured nature of Dada collage mimicked the chaos of modern life; fragments of mass-produced images were used to reconstruct reality. Rauschenberg pushed that notion farther. By incorporating everyday banal objects into the picture space, Rauschenberg Combines didn’t refer to reality, they were their own reality. While the use of discarded materials as appropriate art material is commonplace today, fifty years ago it was a revolutionary proposition for an artist. But it paid off. Robert Hughes notes in The Shock of the New:
During the fifties artists realized “there might be a subject in this landscape of waste, this secret language of junk, because societies reveal themselves in what they throw away.” Street junk. Rauschenberg was one of them. He never worked for long in one style. To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumption that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, anywhere, for any purpose and any destination it chooses from the museum to the trash can.
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954
Oil, metallic paint, fabric, newspaper, pencil, printed reproductions, paper, hair, gelatin-silver photographs, glue, nails and glass on canvas, 16 1/8 x 18 inches
(Jasper Johns collection)
Collection stakes out what would become familiar visual territory for the Combines—paint and three dimensional objects co-habitate with fragments of newspaper, fabric, photographs, hair. Early on, these elements revealed specific autobiographical facets of the artist’s life. Later, they tended to suggest a life. A number of the objects reside outside the traditional picture plane; is this a playful thumbing of the nose to traditional art that respected pictorial boundaries? Among the myriad of elements in Collection, I was particularly drawn to patch of sheer fabric (organza?) hanging off the canvas’s middle panel for its intriguing suggestion of the tension created by concealing and revealing.
Abandoning the representation of reality, and with it formal perspective, forced Rauschenberg to devise another unifying principal for his compositions. Like his other Combines, that structure in Collection is a grid—in this case, three separate but joined panels, each subdivided visually into rough thirds. It’s amazing how it well that system links and calms an otherwise confusing mass of visual data.
The Combines would liberate art by introducing a “whole world of materials” into the picture plane. In Rauschenberg’s brazen hands, art was anything its creator said it was. For that achievement, Rauschenberg might just qualify as the most influential artist of the 20th century (aside from Picasso that is).
Calvin Tomkins—Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg. In true Tomkins fashion, there is never a dull moment in this informative and insightful look at Rauschenberg and the New York art scene 1950s-1970s.
The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research—“Louise Nevelson”