Erasure-Head: The Case for Robert Rauschenberg’s Greatness

A decade after his death, an SFMOMA exhibit catalogs Rauschenberg's importance to abstraction and Pop.

Mongram. By Robert Rauschenberg. (Photo by Jonathan Curiel)

The America that Robert Rauschenberg encountered in 1953 was a country in the midst of epic changes — in everything from the arts to technology to politics. Color TVs were sold for the first time that year. Playboy debuted. A U.S. test pilot flew at twice the speed of sound. And Americans had just elected as president Dwight Eisenhower, an Army general with no political experience who would become the first president to ride in a helicopter — and who’d say in his 1953 inaugural address, “We have passed through the anxieties of depression and of war to a summit unmatched in man’s history.”

At the art world’s summit stood abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Rauschenberg, who turned 28 that year, wanted to upend that state of affairs. He wanted to participate in abstraction but also marry it to elements beyond the museum’s walls — to create works that, as he put it, mirrored “the gap between art and life.” That gap is embodied in two pieces that Rauschenberg made in 1953: Erased de Kooning Drawing and Automobile Tire Print, which anchor one corner of the new SFMOMA exhibit “Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules.”

Persimmon, By Robert Rauschenberg. (© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.)

For Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg had the temerity to ask de Kooning for a work whose outlines he could eliminate — and de Kooning complied. The result is a framed parchment with a title but no discernible images. It’s art that, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, asks art-goers to question the very idea of art. De Kooning recognized the value of Rauschenberg’s ask — and tested Rauschenberg’s ability to pull it off.  

“Bill de Kooning understood it — he got it — but he said, ‘I’m going to make it as difficult as I can,’ ” Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, said on a press tour of the exhibit as he stood in front of Erased de Kooning Drawing alongside Sarah Roberts, an associate curator at SFMOMA who is project director of the museum’s Rauschenberg Research Project. “He got him a really richly worked, fully developed drawing. It wasn’t like some toss-away sketch. It was a full-on great de Kooning drawing. Bob used a lot [of erasers].” Garrels continues.  

Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s romantic partner, stenciled the artwork’s title in 1955, when it was first exhibited at a small gallery before being exhibited more widely in 1964. SFMOMA owns the piece, which Roberts calls a progenitor of the Conceptual Art movement that emerged in the 1960s. With Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg created an influential work that will always have importance in the art world.

“I think,” Garrels says, “this is the work in the museum’s collection that is the most requested for loans.”

Automobile Tire Print has that same groundbreaking foundation. Rauschenberg asked his friend, the minimalist composer John Cage, to drive his Model A Ford across paint in the street, then over 20 sheets of white paper. The result: a horizon of grids that, from a distance, could pass for abstract art that is brush-stroked and plotted. Hanging on a wall, the work becomes, like Erased de Kooning Drawing, a kind of performance piece, where Rauschenberg can engage with art-goers without being there himself.

Cage and Rauschenberg were friends who shared a belief that art should challenge, inspire, and provoke — as Cage did in 1952 with 4’33’’, a composition that has musicians play nothing for four-plus minutes, rendering the audience’s sounds (whether coughing, sniffling, or just silence) the piece’s “music.” Rauschenberg’s 1951 White Paintings — completely white, as if they were untouched — inspired Cage’s 4’33’’. One White Paintings iteration is in the exhibit.

Erased de Kooning Drawing, by Robert Rauchenberg. (© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Ben Blackwell)

If Erased de Kooning Drawing and White Paintings are Rauschenberg at his minimal best, Monogram (1955-1959) and Persimmon (1964) are Rauschenberg at his most expansive, where torrents of figures crowd into the same frame and create colorful collage-ish connections that exalt (and play with) the senses. Monogram is centered around a taxidermied goat. Rauschenberg encircled the animal with a tire whose tread he painted white. And he turned the goat’s nose into an artist’s palette — as if the domesticated creature were some kind of odd, animal-kingdom muse or oracle.

The goat stands on a floor of slats painted with half-letters, along with splashes and smears of black, white, and other colors. And on the floor’s right side is a small astronaut with arms bent at the waist, looking directly at art-goers. Monogram, named after the way the goat and tire intermingle to form a new symbol, isn’t quite a sculpture. And it’s certainly not just a painting. “Combines” are what Rauschenberg called these new pieces that he did into the mid-’60s. In its time, Monogram was rebellious, strange, funny, and open to interpretation. More than 50 years later, it still is. Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, wanted it that way.

“Adding the tire is the transformative act, and there’s been a lot of speculation about what the possible meanings could be of the goat having come through the tire,” Garrels says. “In the early 1980s, when Bob had started doing photography again — he had a show in Boston, and I was living and working there and writing occasional reviews for a little regional newspaper — I got to interview Bob and I tried to ask him about meanings of images and photographs and why things were put together, and he just relentlessly would not talk about it. He really felt that he was creating something for you to have your own imagination fired — to create your own speculations. It wasn’t to give you the answers that he had somehow distilled.”

Persimmon was part of Rauschenberg’s early-1960s’ silkscreen paintings that, as Stanford scholar Richard Meyer notes in an exhibit catalogue essay, were an outgrowth of Rauschenberg’s new quest: Transform the Combines’ multi-dimensionality onto a flat surface, where the odd connections and juxtapositions could still exist in full. Rauschenberg mixed his own photography with historic and everyday imagery, so Persimmon features a giant eyeball, a glass of water, a street scene, a cutout from Peter Paul Rubens’ 17th-century Venus at a Mirror, and splashes of paint here and there. It’s the old and the new bumping into each other, in a silk-screen process that Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol adopted around the exact same time — yet another example of Rauschenberg’s originality. Before Rauschenberg and Warhol, silkscreen painting with photography didn’t really exist in the fine art world, so Persimmon — like Warhol’s Triple Elvis [Ferus type], which SFMOMA has on its fifth floor — is both timeless art and art history.

“Erasing the Rules” features some of the technology pieces that also cemented Rauschenberg’s reputation for innovation and rule-breaking. Mud Muse (1968-1971) is a noisy, gurgling mass of clay and water on a 10-foot bed of glass and aluminum that’s activated through a compressed-air system — a strange, volcanic art piece with NASA-like console that looks like it’s from the set of Lost in Space. A few years before starting Mud Muse,

Rauschenberg cofounded the organization Experiments in Art and Technology, which paired artists with engineers and grew to some 5,000 members.

Rauschenberg was a restless collaborator who designed sets for dancer Merce Cunningham and did a collaged LP cover for Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues, for which he won a Grammy Award. “Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules” had earlier runs at London’s Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA, which co-organized the exhibit in association with SFMOMA. SFMOMA was like a second home for Rauschenberg because of its interest in his work and because of Phyllis Wattis, a trustee and patron who arranged for purchases of Rauschenberg’s output, including Erased de Kooning Drawing and Automobile Tire Print.

Rauschenberg and Wattis became friends, and in 1999, he was inspired to give SFMOMA an art piece called Hiccups — a work of 97 small panels of handmade paper connected by zippers. Each panel is its own distinct collage of images, among them a repeated planet, houses overlaid with lines, a turtle, a test-crash car, and a field of yellow flowers. The zippers mean that SFMOMA can rework the 1978 artwork however it wants — creating what associate curator Sarah Roberts calls a “life of its own” and a “different character.” The work, in other words, has no rules. It will always be new — always involve input from the museum’s curators, who can keep art-goers guessing what the next iteration will be.

Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules, through March 25 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org

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