Robert RauschenbergAmerican (Port Arthur, Texas, 1925 - 2008, Captiva, Florida)
Mother of God
A quietly beautiful collaged work, Robert Rauschenberg’s Mother of God (ca. 1950) is one of the artist’s earliest surviving paintings. Created by layering thickly painted areas with fragments of found maps, the composition mixes mechanical reproductions with tactile brushwork to yield a central circular form edged by both paint and paper. This combination and juxtaposition of materials blurs the usual distinctions between figure and ground, creating a tension between the mass-produced and handcrafted elements that is further heightened by the contrast of the cold, flat stripe of faded metallic paint across the painting’s lower edge and the fleshy white of the oil paint. The maps, which span nineteen American states and sections of Canada, were originally from a Rand McNally & Company atlas printed between 1949 and 1956. Yet while all of the cities charted in these fragments are identifiable, the collaged pieces act as an abstracted gridded backdrop for the painted white circle at the work’s center, a simple yet enigmatic form that suggests a face, a cloud, or a moon over a landscape.
After it debuted in 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition, Mother of God was lost for a number of years. When rediscovered, it was thought to be untitled. Rauschenberg later reconnected this painting with the title Mother of God because he associated that phrase with a circle. His religious upbringing gave Rauschenberg a solid understanding of Christian symbols and themes, and during the early 1950s he produced a number of works whose titles referenced religion, such as Trinity (ca. 1949) and Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950). Though Rauschenberg never followed or established any strict iconography in his work, the white circle, seen through the lens of Christianity, may be read as a sign of eternity or motherhood. Mother of God’s religious undertones are amplified by a collaged advertisement for the Catholic Review, found in the lower right corner, which reads “An invaluable spiritual road map…” This bit of text draws together the title of the painting, the maps, and the spiritual allusions of the circle, yet it also walks a line between sincerity and tongue-in-cheek humor. With its interplay of paint, found materials, and puzzling text, Mother of God forecasts strategies and characteristics that would come to define Rauschenberg’s work by the late 1950s, and, in fact, occupy him throughout his life.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor, 1998
Paintings by Bob Rauschenberg, Betty Parsons Gallery, May 14–June 2, 1951.
Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 15–August 11, 1991. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, September 27, 1991–January 5, 1992; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 8–April 19, 1992; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 14–August 16, 1992; Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, October 24, 1992–January 24, 1993.
Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 9, 1995–February 4, 1996. Traveled to: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, June 2–September 15, 1996; M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, October 5–December 29, 1996.
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.
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 (on view December 19, 2009–July 10, 2010).
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, June 28–October 27, 2013.
In addition to appearing in the special exhibitions listed above, Mother of God was shown in SFMOMA’s galleries in 2006 and 2007 as part of rotating presentations of the permanent collection.
This listing is complete as of June 1, 2014.
Roni Feinstein, “The Unknown Early Robert Rauschenberg: The Betty Parsons Exhibition of 1951,” Arts Magazine 59, no. 5 (January 1985): 127, 130 (ill.).
———, “The Early Work of Robert Rauschenberg: The White Paintings, the Black Paintings, and the Elemental Sculptures,” Arts Magazine 61, no. 1 (September 1986): 28.
———, “Random Order: The First Fifteen Years of Robert Rauschenberg’s Art, 1949–1964” (PhD diss., New York University, 1990), 59, 89.
Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 70.
———, “Quiet House,” Museum & Arts Washington 6, no. 6 (November/December 1990): 48.
Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Menil Foundation and Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 29, 44, 49 (ill.).
———, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1991), 9 (ill.), 14, 16, 30. Produced for the Menil presentation only.
Jo Ann Lewis, “Rauschenberg, Bright and Early; Accomplished Works of the Young Artist, at the Corcoran,” Washington Post, June 15, 1991.
Roberta Smith, “Robert Rauschenberg, At Home and Abroad,” New York Times, August 6, 1991, (ill.).
Fred Camper, “The Unordered Universe: Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,” Chicago Reader, March 26–April 1, 1992, 31.
Frances Colpitt, “Rauschenberg: In the Beginning,” Art in America 80, no. 4 (April 1992): 126 (ill.), 127.
Lisa Phillips, Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995), 51 (ill.), 275.
Patricia Holt, “The Beats Go On at de Young—Landmark Exhibit Celebrates Rise of Free Thought,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 4, 1996.
Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 35, 44, 51 (ill.).
Yve-Alain Bois, “Early Lead,” Artforum 36, no. 1 (September 1997): 97.
Michael Kimmelman, “Clowning Inventively with Stuff of Beauty,” New York Times, September 19, 1997.
Francine Prose, “Artifacts of the Age of Anxiety,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1997.
Jen Scoville, “Rauschenberg’s Repartee: Facetious Facets of the Retrospective in Houston,” Texas Monthly, 1998. Accessed June 23, 2013. http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/rauschenberg%E2%80%99s-repartee.
Janet Tyson, “Robert Rauschenberg reste saisi,” Le journal des arts, March 13, 1998.
Jeffrey Kastner, “Houston: Sins of Commission?,” ARTnews 97, no. 4 (April 1998): 52 (ill.).
Joachim Jäger, Das zivilisiert Bild: Robert Rauschenberg und seine Combine-Paintings der Jahre 1960–1962 (Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter Verlag, 1999), 112.
Robert Rauschenberg, video interview by David A. Ross, Walter Hopps, Gary Garrels, and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 1999, 4–6, 10–13, 45–46, 66. Unpublished transcript, SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.
Branden W. Joseph, “Blanc sur blanc: Robert Rauschenberg et John Cage,” Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no. 71 (Spring 2000): 5, 6 (ill.), 26n3.
———, “White on White,” Critical Inquiry 27, no. 1 (Autumn 2000): 91.
David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 368.
Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 26, 27 (ill.), 295n4, 315n14.
Barbara Rose, Gilbert Perlein, and Bruno Corà, Robert Rauschenberg On and Off the Wall: Oeuvres des années 80 et 90 (Nice: Éditions Nice Musées, 2005), 22–23, 50.
Barbara Rose and Mikael Wivel, Robert Rauschenberg On and Off the Wall (Aarhus: ARoS, 2006), 36, 63.
James Rondeau and Douglas Druick, Jasper Johns: Gray (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2007), 143, 144 (ill.).
David A. Feil, “Notebook: Rauschenberg’s ‘Mother of God,’” That’s Not It, April 18, 2007, (ill.). Accessed June 23, 2013. http://thatsnotit.wordpress.com/2007/04/18/notebook-rauschenbergs-mother-of-god/.
Charlie Gere, Digital Culture, 2nd ed. (2002; reprint London: Reaktion Books, 2008), 85.
Bruno Marchand, ed., Robert Rauschenberg: Crítica e obra de 1949 a 1974 (Porto, Portugal: Fundação de Serralves, 2008), 13 (ill.).
Barbara Rose, “Seeing Rauschenberg Seeing,” Artforum 47, no. 1 (September 2008): 434 (ill.).
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), 145, 146 (ill.), 151n1, 432.
Alexandra Munroe, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009), 202, 203 (ill.).
Barry Vacker, Crashing into the Vanishing Points (printed by the author, 2009), 43.
Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2010), 308n9.
Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4'33'' (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 157.
Jerry Bleem, “Gate of Heaven,” U.S. Catholic 75, no. 5 (May 2010): 50 (ill.).
Elizabeth Richards, “Rauschenberg’s Religion: Autobiography and Spiritual Reference in Rauschenberg’s Use of Textiles,” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 16, no. 1 (2011): 43.
Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 228–30.
Catherine Craft, Robert Rauschenberg (London: Phaidon, 2013), 10, 15 (ill.).
This listing is complete as of June 1, 2014.
Verso: Top edge of Masonite panel and center of adjacent wooden support, Rauschenberg studio registry number written in pencil: "50.3"