Robert Rauschenberg
Catastrophe (Arcadian Retreat), 1996


One of the largest of the twenty-five works in Robert Rauschenberg’s Arcadian Retreatseries, Catastrophe (1996) looms over viewers. Comprising three plaster panels, the work has a post and lintel structure that evokes the classical art and architecture represented throughout the Arcadian Retreats, such as the statue of Dionysus and worn stone column visible here. Rauschenberg traveled to Istanbul and Ephesus, Turkey, in June 1996 as a participant in the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, which explored environmentally sustainable urban development. With Catastrophe, the artist took up the themes of development and change, bringing together disparate and asynchronous imagery to highlight the sometimes oddly juxtaposed layers of history one encounters while traveling in an ancient city. Here, the Dionysus stands in front of a decidedly modern brick wall and intermingles with images of an urban building facade, rusty food cans, and a cast-off table. Musicians, animals, and blooming roses complete the composite landscape, suggesting a cycle of regeneration despite the ruin invoked by the work’s title.

Representing a modern take on an ancient technique, the Arcadian Retreats showcase technical developments in fresco made through Rauschenberg’s experiments with a longtime collaborator, master printer Donald Saff. Printing his photographs with specialized inks and paper enabled Rauschenberg to use water to transfer the images onto wet plaster. This application method allowed him unprecedented freedom to manipulate the photographic impressions and resulted in a fluid, vibrant composition that belies the substantial weight of the work’s three-panel plaster structure. Once the image transfer was complete, Catastrophe was sealed with wax. This smooth, finished surface contrasts with the disintegration suggested both by the architectural forms the work depicts and the watery, dreamlike effect created as the plaster was rubbed and pressed during the image transfer process.

Ownership, Exhibition, and Publication Histories

Ownership History

Vicki and Kent Logan, purchased through PaceWildenstein, New York, 1997

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Vicki and Kent Logan, 1997

Exhibition History

Rauschenberg: Arcadian Retreats, PaceWildenstein, New York, September 19–October 18, 1997.

This listing has been reviewed and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Publication History

Bernice Rose, Rauschenberg: Arcadian Retreats (New York: PaceWildenstein, 1997), 9 (ill.).

Robert Rauschenberg, “Seen of the Crime,” Grand Street 62 (Fall 1997): 17 (ill.).

Diane Haithman, “S.F. Museum of Modern Art Goes on a Buying Spree,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1998.

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), 150.

Katherine Hardiman, “Four Brodsky and Utkin Etchings and Rauschenberg’s Fresco Contest,” in Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting, ed. Kristine Stiles (Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014), 38; online edition. Accessed February 9, 2015.

This listing has been updated since the launch of the Rauschenberg Research Project and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Marks and Inscriptions

Recto: Lower right corner, signature in light blue: “RAUSCHENBERG”

Verso: Right edge, inscription in black: “STONE HEDGE 110 11/16 x 74 1/2”; lower right, inscription in black on Saff and Company label: “RR96-076”

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Catastrophe (Arcadian Retreat)
Artist name

Date created
inkjet transfer and wax on fresco panels
111 in. x 75 in. (281.94 cm x 190.5 cm)
Date Acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Permanent URL
Artwork Status
Not on view at this time.

Research Materials

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