Why Rauschenberg?

Robert Rauschenberg in the SFMOMA galleries with Phyllis Wattis during the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg, May 7-September 7, 1999.
Robert Rauschenberg in the SFMOMA galleries with Phyllis Wattis during the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg, May 7–September 7, 1999. Photo: Sidney B. Felsen

SFMOMA has one of the foremost collections of Robert Rauschenberg’s artwork, with holdings comprising more than eighty individual Combines, sculptures, paintings, photographs, prints, and other works on paper made over the course of the artist’s career. Dating from 1949 to 1998, these works represent Rauschenberg’s cross-disciplinary approach and the breadth of his appetite for experimentation. Fittingly, the museum has a rich history of exhibiting Rauschenberg’s work. Since 1971 SFMOMA has organized or hosted seven solo shows and served as the only West Coast venue for the artist’s 1976 retrospective and the groundbreaking 1991 survey Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s.

Collection (1954/1955) holds a special place in this history, having come to SFMOMA as a gift from Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson in 1972, at a time when the museum sought to raise the ambitions and broaden the scope of its collection. This critical early Combine painting has anchored the museum’s gallery presentations of mid-century American art and served as a center of gravity for the growth of the Rauschenberg holdings for more than forty years. In 1998, SFMOMA acquired fourteen works directly from the artist. This landmark purchase was made possible through the extraordinary support of Phyllis Wattis, with additional support from two other SFMOMA trustees. Among the works included in that acquisition were two icons of twentieth-century art—Erased de Kooning Drawing and Automobile Tire Print (both 1953)as well as other breakthrough pieces from the early 1950s, such as White Painting [three panel] (1951), Untitled [glossy black painting] (ca. 1951), and Mother of God (ca. 1951), one of the artist’s earliest surviving paintings. This concentration of important early works by Rauschenberg is unmatched anywhere in the world. The Rauschenberg Research Project represents the culmination of SFMOMA’s efforts to study and provide access to these works, a commitment to the artist that we have sought to honor since the time of the 1998 acquisitions.