Robert Rauschenberg Combines Objects and Identity

May 28, 2017

Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008) was an American artist who drank Jack Daniel's 1 and redefined what art 'is'.   I would have chosen Jack for this post but I hate it so I'll have a rum and coke instead. Let's go! 

Rauschenberg's earliest notable works were:


black enamel paint on newspaper


Untitled (glossy black painting), 1951. Enamel and newspaper on canvas




and white panels. 


White Painting (three panels),1951, Latex on canvas


Some peers found Rauschenberg's work too aggressive and satirical. Criticism made him pause to evaluate his own definition of aggressive art. Rauschenberg's answer??? the color red.2  


 Untitled ,1954. Oil, fabric, and newspaper on canvas 


So what was the purpose of this aggression? Zachary Small argues it was the 'angst of a post-war, nuclear world' prompting Rauschenberg to create works "unrestricted by ... the authoritarian dogma of Modernism."3 Rauschenberg annihilated the 'religion' AbEx art had become. 


Both articles The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg and Why Can't the Art Wold Embrace Robert Rauschenberg's Queer Community?  suggest Rauschenberg was also destroying the inherent masculinity of AbEx art. He emasculated AbEx art by covering old objects with new or erasing it all together like in the piece below.*

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Traces of drawing media on paper

Once 'liberated' Rauschenberg became interested in connecting with the objects themselves. Zachary Small beautifully describes Rauschenberg as a "Duchampian editor, a purveyor of objects that constitute the thingness of identity."4 Rauschenberg said "I  don't want a picture to look like something it isn't ... I think a picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world."5  He also "refused to dismiss anything as a possible subject or medium."6  His combines exemplify his philosophy. 


Factum I and Factum II,1957.  Oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and painted paper on canvas.




Canyon, 1959,  Combine painting: oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons, mirror, taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube and other materials


Random aside: Canyon makes me think of the Portlandia 'put a bid on it' skit ... anyway ... 





 Bed (1955)Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports



Monogram,1955–59, Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters



The combines, like most great art, initially evokes a 'what the f%&*k is this?' reaction. Is that a goat wearing a tire?!

Yes, yes it is and it makes you contemplate its identity as an object and as art. 

How the hell do you top a tire wearing goat? Silkscreen collages, that's how. Rauschenberg used Old Master paintings, photographs, newspapers and found objects mixed with bold freehand painting.7 He again redefined modern art by covering old with new



Scanning, 1963. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas





 Press, 1964, Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas



Persimmon, 1964. Oil paint and silkscreen ink on canvas




Sky Garden, 1969, lithograph on canvas


Rauschenberg continued to experiment with found objects and new technology, like digital photography, for the rest of his career. Some examples are Yellow Moby Glut, 1986 and Early Bloomer, 1998.


 From black enamel paints to goats wearing a tire, Robert Rauschenberg's art is pivotal in deconstructing and then reconstructing modern art. My favorite description of Rauschenberg's work is "irreverence brought to the point of malice."8 I think that sums up his work perfectly.  

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at a revolutionary artist. If you'd like you can see more in my gallery and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I also suggest reading Off The Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg by Calvin Tomkins.



1) Tomkins, Calvin, Off The Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, Picador, New York,  2005, pg. 281


2) Tomkins, Calvin, Off The Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, Picador, New York,  2005, pp. 77-78


3&4) Small, Zachary "Why Can't the Art Wold Embrace Robert Rauschenberg's Queer -Community? ",, May 19, 2017  accessed May 23, 2017


5) Tomkins, Calvin, Off The Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, Picador, New York,  2005, pg. 79


6) Gray, Maggie "Robert Rauschenberg's escape to Florida" Apollo Magazine, November 30, 2016. accessed May, 24 2017


7&8) Schjeldahl, Peter "The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg" New Yorker Magazine, May 29, 2017 accessed May 26th 2017


*According to Peter Schjeldahl's  New Yorker article 'The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg' legend has it that Rauschneberg traded Willem de Kooning a bottle of Jack Daniel's for one of his drawings and then proceeded to erase it. 















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