J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Antiquity, Sexuality and Technology in the Mid-1960s Work of Robert Rauschenberg

"Art shouldn't have a concept. That's the only concept that I've ever been consistent with.(1)" In this statement, from Robert Rauschenberg's 1987 interview with Barbara Rose, the "most important American artist since Jackson Pollock,(2)" undermines his own motives, yet there still seem to be certain conceptual phases that mark Rauschenberg's work- there are the neo-dada proto-Minimalist 'white paintings,' the dirty, assembled 'combines,' the lithographs and silkscreens, the technology pieces and the 'jammers', as well as more recent combines and graphic compositions. The period (roughly) from the combines to the technology pieces is examined in this paper, and his use of conventional art-historical themes and allusion to sexuality, including Rauschenberg's own homosexuality, are explored in the context of his constantly changing and evolving body of work.

Milton Rauschenberg changed his name to Bob in 1947, in a bus station in Kansas City in the middle of the night, choosing his new moniker after " making up his mind that the first person who asked him his name, he would say 'Bob,' and if that person believed him, it would be Bob from then on.(3)" The man who took the ordinary name had not made upon his decision as a reaction to an ordinary life. Unlike his first wife, Susan Weil, he did not come upon the visual arts through a lengthy, ordered academic study. He went to college to become a veterinarian, and it was only after a stint in Paris, where he felt one had to study to be a serious artist, did he enroll one of the most influential arts institutions ever, Black Mountain College, where he met Cage and Cunningham and was "disciplined" by Josef Albers and his harsh criticism, which taught him

" not how to 'do art.' The focus was on the development of your own personal sense of looking. When he taught watercolor, for example, it was about learning the specific properties of watercolor—not about making a good picture. Drawing was about the efficient functioning of line. Color was about the flexibilities of and the complex relationships colors have to one another— Years later,— I'm still learning what he taught me.(4)"

His early shows, including a join exhibition with Cy Twombly, "managed to offend and even outrage a relatively large number of people,(5)" and served to establish his poor early reputation in the New York art world still dominated by the abstract expressionists, who reacted to Rauschenberg's combines as bad jokes and mockeries of their work.

The Pail for Ganymede (1959) and Gift for Apollo (1959) are among his works of the Fifties that seem to try to appease the artistic community, who, as mentioned, did not understand or appreciate his earlier work. He attempts give his 'serious' art weight by incorporating conventional art-historical mythology themes, in a gesture that seems almost to say "Serious artists have, for centuries, used these themes. Hence, because I can incorporate this mythology, I am a serious artist." Gift for Apollo makes reference to "the favored god's chariot, in which the sun was transported across the heavens,(6)" and Pail for Ganymede is a trophy-esque(7) construction including a mechanized pail that can be made to retract into to a box-like assemblage. These pieces are fairly interesting simply for their formal construction. However, there is a long history of using the 'Rape of Ganymede' or 'Apollo and Hyacinthus' myths as homosexual themes that can still be 'acceptable' to the general patronage, while allowing the artist to express personal issues and themes. These works probably fall into this category, along with, as Roni Feinstein mentions in an essay for a Whitney exhibition catalogue, an "extended series of combines based on homo-erotic themes.(8)" Canyon (1959) can be read as incorporating the Ganymede myth; the photo of Rauschenberg's young son and the mirror-image pose of the Statue of Liberty, combined with the great stuffed eagle illustrate the "boy snatched up by Jupiter disguised as an eagle and borne to the heavens, where he becomes a cupbearer to the gods(9)" and, in turn, express Rauschenberg's personal interest in the theme. The work may also may be read as "an expression of [his] deliverance from ordinary family circumstances. Under the protection of Jupiter, a powerful paternal substitute, is ushered into the company of gods.(10)" Johnston equates the classical myth to the intervention of John Cage, Josef Albers and Leo Castelli as surrogate father figures for Rauschenberg.(11)

Many critics point out a certain 'nostalgia' to Rauschenberg's work, but a closer look at a large, untitled 1955 combine sometimes subtitled Man With White Shoes shows that this perceived sense of rural folksiness has little to do with the piece. Katz argues, in "The Art of Code," that:

"[in this work] Rauschenberg specifically addressed aspects of his relationship with Jasper [Johns] and its place in his emotional life. He collaged drawings by Twombly, a photo of his young son, clippings about his family from a home town newspaper—a drawing of an American flag (the same year Johns painted his first), a photo of Johns that Rauschenberg once termed 'gorgeous,' as well as letters from Johns, judiciously torn up, merging seemingly incommensurable fragments of past (family) and present (love) into the integrated whole that was unavailable to the artist any other way.(12)"

Rauschenberg is able in these works to express themes of isolation, repression and longing in a cryptic, disguised, usually misunderstood manner. A conventional interpretation of this work would probably include the assertion that the combines are "somewhat nostalgic. They refer to life back home, and not to the metropolitan environment in which he was working.(13)" Obviously, this is quite an oversimplification; the 'nostalgic', colloquial formal elements do directly carry over into the 'meaning' and are not simply random formal elements in this work, which Rauschenberg considers his "first real combine.(14)" In other works, the imagery may be more elaborately disguised, but it remains a central iconographic focus.

In Bantam (1954), the juxtaposition of Judy Garland, a gay popular icon, with a photo of the Yankees, a group of masculine men, may reflect tension within the artist(15). Also interesting formally and perhaps symbolically is the literal piece of gauze glued over Ms. Garland's photograph. While this item may simply be another random element in the formal construction of this collection of objects, I much prefer to think that he is playing with his audience, pasting an obvious allusion (to those familiar anyway) onto his picture under the guise of randomness.

Sexuality is treated in radically different terms in Rauschenberg's later work, most startlingly and interestingly in the 1969 series, the Carnal Clocks. In contrast to the more abstract aim of the combines, this series, as with most of Rauschenberg's major technological work, tries to accomplish something other than making a picture that spends eternity fixed to a wall, unmoving. Rauschenberg wants to enter into a dialogue with his audience and get them involved in their own view of the art. Formally, each work is

"a shallow box about ten inches deep—the inner and outer squares of light mark the hours and minutes, respectively. At 12:00, all the lights come on for two minutes and thirty seconds, the interval by which the minutes lights otherwise change. At other times of the day, other lights burn, one for the hour and one for the minutes past the hour.(16)"

and presents a variety of close up photographic imagery, including photos of his own and his friend's sex organs. The element of the constant change in this work marks its departure from the more conventional media Rauschenberg had worked with in the past—the flat surface of a painting or print remains, but the use of time as a new material element is intriguing and adds a great deal of interest to these pieces. The artist also points out that

"Carnal Clocks could be considered offensive. I think Carnal Clocks was racy. My flesh tells the time marked by real people who are all still living. It was an embarrassing project. Part of the project was embarrassment as a medium, because it t was about my working out my shyness to photography my friends' intimate parts. It was as dedicated a project as the Dante's Inferno series.(17)"

And as interesting. As in the combines, the sexual imagery is hidden behind something…in this case the presentation is designed specifically to make it complicated to see what's going on. The viewer is confronted with their own reflected image as they view the piece, and the aim seems to be to startle the audience with the graphic imagery. In fact, there was a sign placed outside the gallery forbidding minors to enter. Unlike as in the combines, the sex is treated more as a formal element than symbolic subtext: the nakedness (as defined by Kenneth Clark, opposed to nudity or eroticism) of the figures (well, parts of figures) is as startling upon understanding of the gestalt as in the realization of the implication of Judy Garland's gauze-encased photo, and certainly more obvious to a larger cross-section of viewers.

A similar comparison can be made between the series Thirty-four Illustrations for Dante's Inferno (1959-60) and Opal Gospel (1970-71). Through his use of technology in the 60s, Rauschenberg developed a completely new vocabulary for taking his personality out of the work. The major technology pieces are more cool and mechanical than earlier works, which retain much of the quality of the 'abstract expressionist brushstroke,' as in the splashes of paint in a combine, or the aggressive, powerful use of line in the drawings of the 50s and 60s.

Both the Inferno series and Opal Gospel illustrate pieces of literature: Dante's 13th century documentation of his journey through Hell and a series of American Indian stories, songs and poems. To create the Inferno drawings, Rauschenberg developed a technique that allowed him

"to incorporate fragments of the 'real world' into work on a small, intimate scale. The technique, in its present stage of refinement, involves wetting a piece of drawing paper with lighter fluid—, placing on it, face down, a photograph from a magazine and rubbing—it transfers the image.(18)"

Rauschenberg illustrated one canto at a time, using a narrow range of color, working in loose bands, left to right, giving the piece the scale (each folio is only 11 by 14 inches) and general feeling of a medieval illuminated manuscript, like the grisaille Utrecht Psalter or similar. Rauschenberg becomes a modern illuminator, enveloping him in a grand work that occupies him for two years, developing his "sustained inventive power" and "inner consistency.(19)" Also of note is Rauschenberg's use of a tracing of his own foot to illustrate the passage describing the fate of the sodomites. Perhaps he was contemplating his own fate as a sodomite, as this was when he and Johns dissolved their relationship.

Opal Gospel is another illustrated manuscript, but in this case, it includes the complete text of the literature illustrated. In its easily accessible construction and clean text, this piece performs its book like function better than the Inferno series, making the piece more "religious and functional," the artist comments, "Spiritually and factually, their drawings improved the hunt and chronicled their history both generally and personally so that it could be understood by other tribes and other generations—. It [Opal Gospel] could be read or felt at one instant— [Art] should be a form of therapy.(20)"

The shift to a seemingly more formal vocabulary and the emphasis on the collaborative element of the artform are hallmarks of the technological style and are not confined to sexual subjects and manuscript illumination. Barge, the massive 1963 silkscreen and Soundings (1968) show a similar breakdown in narrative, symbolic quality as the mentioned combines and Carnal Clocks. Jill Johnston asserts that Barge tells the story of life in America, using images of caged animals, a Venus "being screwed from below by the upward thrusting section of highway cloverleaf,(21)" swimmers, firemen and football players. The piece is a narrative that can be read like Rebus in a long sentence. A very long sentence. At 6 by 32 feet, Barge is powerful for its scale as well as the grand story it tells. It seems that Rauschenberg wanted to impress upon his audience the weight and importance of his themes; to pull the viewer into the painting as in something like Pollock's Autumn Rhythm or Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Another massive (at 7 by 36 feet) silkscreened composition, Soundings, is totally dependent on its audience to make it work. The piece responds to sounds in the gallery to activate the lightbox-like apparatus to make the imagery visible. If nobody speaks, the wall is dark. Unlike Barge and like Carnal Clocks the viewer is involved in the collaboration required to make the piece successful. It is not fair to say whether or not the earlier, more conventional (well, relatively speaking anyway) style of symbolic narrative is more successful than the later, more conceptually-based technology pieces, but both are fascinating in their own way. Where Barge comments on creation, Soundings actually does it.

Although Mud-Muse (1968-71) was not the last or even the greatest work of this general period, it sums up the development of Rauschenberg's aesthetic nicely. This great construction of driller's mud and sound-activated electronics to make it bubble and splash is the most totally bizarre and 'concept-less' piece in his oeuvre. Like the works made with living, growing grass, "those about looking and caring(22)", this piece had to be watered and mixed daily. It must be taken care of and interacted with to function. The piece uses "ocean sounds, animal sounds, some generated on a synthesizer and some processed at variable speeds(23)" to encapsulate humanity using a collection of random sound elements, which could possibly be interpreted as an interesting extension of the imagery in a piece like Barge. This bubbling vat of mud exudes its own sort sexuality as well, in this case in the tactile, sensual quality of the smooth, flowing mud.

Viewers reacted to this work immediately: "People reached their fingers in and felt the mud, it was very silky. Then they started putting their whole hands in and making brown mud prints on the dove grey wall. One woman was about to jump in and do body prints on the wall. An exiting night. From then on, we had to put a guard at the entrance… to keep people out of the mud.(24)" As far as that viewer was concerned, she could literally be taken in by the art work. Mud-Muse also operated on gallery sounds, like Soundings, and the theme of audience participation is again underlined in this work. The element of collaboration is also important in this work As in the other major technology pieces, engineers were employed to execute and fabricate this work:

"He couldn't 'learn' the process or make immediate hands-on experiments to see what the image would be. He had to be able to sustain decision-making over months since there was a long lead time from the moment he articulated an idea until the engineer built and tested the equipment.(25)"

Rauschenberg's relationship and collaboration with his materials is in this case shared with his co-producers and with the audience, adding dynamism to the work that is somewhat absent from earlier phases.

Even if you hate it all, you have to give Rauschenberg credit for being prolific: a recent Guggenheim retrospective featured over 400 works spanning his 50 year career(26); his work is a course in contemporary art in and of itself. Themes of technology, sexuality and antiquity are developed throughout his career. By examining pieces of different periods, I have shown the breakdown of symbolism and narrative into the more formalist, conceptual language of technology, and, by the same token, how the evolution of sexual or erotic imagery and allusion follows the pattern of the work in general, away from a more personal expression towards a sense of mechanized depersonalization. Whether the change stems from frustration and feelings of isolation about his own homosexuality, or simply as a means to an art as removed from his own hand and own self, it is truly fascinating to examine Rauschenberg's constant changes of style.

Stony Brook, NY, December 1999.

1. Rose, Barbara, Interview with Robert Rauschenberg, (New York: Vintage, 1987). 2. Tomkins, Calvin, Off The Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, (New York: Doubleday, 1980). 3. Tomkins (1980) 22. 4. Tomkins (1980) 32. 5 Tomkins (1980) 85. 6 Taylor, Joshua, et al, Catalog of the 1976-77 Rauschenberg retrospective, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1977): 105. 7 Taylor 105. 8 Quoted in Johnston, Jill "The World Outside His Window," Art in America (April 1992): 120. 9 Johnston 122. 10 Johnston 123. 11Johnston 123. 12 Katz, J "The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg" in Chadwick and Courtivon eds, Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, (New York, London: Thames and Husdon, 1993). 13. Solomon, Alan, Robert Rauschenberg (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1963) 14. Rose 58. 15 Katz ?. 16 Craft, Catherine "Grand Central: Rauschenberg's Carnal Clocks and Other Experiments with Collaboration" in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997): 13. 17. Rose 100. 18 Tomkins, Calvin, The Bride and The Bachelors. (New York: Penguin, 1965). 19 Tomkins (1965) 225. 20. Rose, 108-9. 21 Johnston 120. 22.Rauschenberg, interview in Maurice, Tuchman Art and Technology: A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art1967-1971 (New York: Viking, 1971) 280. 23 Robie, Petrie Mason, interview with Billy Klüver, quoted in "Four Collaborations" in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997): 88. 24 LaHaye, Frank, interview with Billy Klüver, quoted in "Four Collaborations" in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997): 89. 25. Klüver, Billy "Four Collaborations" in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje: 1997):93. 26 Hughes, Robert, "The Great Permitter," Time vol. 150, no. 17 (17 October, 1997), rpt. at http ://www.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1997/971027/aart.the_gret_per.html


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