In the Arcadian Retreat series, of which Catastrophe (Arcadian Retreat) (1996) is a part, Robert Rauschenberg combined images of the ancient and modern worlds in paintings that blend antiquated techniques of picture making such as fresco painting with the state-of-the-art technologies of digital printing. These majestic and physically weighty works exemplify his ongoing efforts to navigate uncharted creative territory and experiment with previously unexplored processes and materials. As this essay will demonstrate, both impulses were intimately connected with Rauschenberg’s artistic and personal history.
From 1962 until the early 1990s, the silkscreen process was the means by which Rauschenberg transferred photographic images onto his large-scale canvases. This method involved the use of commercially prepared screens imprinted with images he had found in mass-media sources. Over the course of three decades the artist created dozens of series in which he combined silkscreened images on any number of surfaces, among them canvas, paper, fabric, and a range of metals, including copper, brass, bronze, and aluminum.1 Sometime in 1991 Rauschenberg became aware of large-format color inkjet printers, which employ continuous, high-pressure sprays of ink to push pigment deeply into the paper, producing even, dot-free color prints.2 He quickly began to explore the digital print’s rich potential as a means of incorporating photographic images into artworks. His attraction to the medium was motivated by a number of factors, among them the fact that once he acquired an inkjet printer he no longer had to rely upon commercial screen makers and the time-consuming silkscreening process but instead could have literally hundreds of digital color images printed by assistants using computers in his Captiva Island, Florida, studio. Silkscreen printing, moreover, is cumbersome, and can be complicated when numerous colors are used, whereas the digital printing process is easy to manipulate and can readily produce a wide range of colors and tones. A critical change that accompanied Rauschenberg’s move away from silkscreening to inkjet printing was that from the time of the switch the photographic imagery used in his work came not from mass-media sources but from the cache of thousands of photographs and slides he had taken over the course of the previous decade during his travels around the globe.