Robert RauschenbergAmerican (Port Arthur, Texas, 1925 - 2008, Captiva, Florida)
Part of the celebrated body of work known as the Combines (1953–64), Robert Rauschenberg’s Untitled (ca. 1955) blends painting, sculpture, and collage, bringing together an array of imagery and materials in a manner that simultaneously honors the original context of each element and prompts new and unexpected connections. Approximately midway down the right half of the work is a collaged fragment of a prayer card, notable as one of the few elements in the composition that Rauschenberg did not paint over. The card features an illustration of The Doubting Thomas (1881) by Carl Bloch (1834–1890), a Danish artist whose depictions of the life of Christ have been widely reproduced in Europe and the United States. Such illustrations were likely a familiar part of Rauschenberg’s religious upbringing, and he may well have known the Bible verse associated with Bloch’s painting, which likewise engages a tension between the visible and the invisible: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
The surface of Untitled (ca. 1955) evokes a similarly visceral series of associations, its alternating areas of layering, fragmentation, and exposure calling to mind an expanse of battered flesh. The most colorful element in the composition, a flourish of thickly applied orange, white, and yellow paint, slices across the canvas directly beneath the image of Jesus and his skeptical apostle. The surrounding plane of green-gray pigment is further gashed by the contours of painted pieces of collaged fabric and newspaper. These divots and creases appear to radiate from the wound-like outline of the splayed sweatshirt neckline attached near the top center of the composition, its form suggestive of trauma even as its opening seems to offer a portal into a domain of painterly space beyond or behind the disruptions of the work’s skin.
To interpret Untitled (ca. 1955) solely in these terms, however, would be to miss the painting’s altogether irreverent punch line: the funnel perched at the bottom of the work’s left corner, on a small shelf that juts out toward the viewer. Within this vessel’s smooth metal walls is a humble tangle of string, from which one loose end extends to attach near the top of the canvas. This delicate skein—which Rauschenberg unceremoniously repaired with a knot when it wore through decades after the work’s inception—quietly bridges Untitled’s engagement with surface and skin and the realms of experience that lie beyond the confines of the frame.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis, 1998
Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 19, 1997–January 7, 1998. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, February 13–May 17, 1998; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, June 27–October 11, 1998; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, November 21, 1998–March 7, 1999.
Robert Rauschenberg, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 7–September 7, 1999.
Robert Rauschenberg at SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 27–September 8, 2002.
Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, January 30–June 24, 2003.
75 Years of Looking Forward: The Anniversary Show, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 19, 2009–January 16, 2011.
In addition to appearing in the special exhibitions listed above, Untitled (ca. 1955) was shown in SFMOMA’s galleries in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2005 as part of rotating presentations of the permanent collection.
This listing is complete as of June 1, 2014.
Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 100, 112 (ill.).
Kenneth Baker, “Rauschenberg’s Reality,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 1998, (ill.).
“Shock of the New,” Art & Antiques 22, no. 3 (March 1999): 72 (ill. only).
David Bonetti, “Rauschenberg Coup Cements SFMOMA’s Ascendance,” San Francisco Examiner, May 28, 1999.
Paul Schimmel, ed., Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), 33 (ill.), 289.
Graham Bader, “Rauschenberg’s Skin,” Grey Room 27 (Spring 2007): 110 (ill.), 118n16.
Janet Bishop, Corey Keller, and Sarah Roberts, eds., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 75 Years of Looking Forward (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 432.
This listing is complete as of June 1, 2014.
Verso: Lower left corner of wood frame, Rauschenberg studio registry number written in pencil: “54.018”