description of Automobile Tire Print by Robert Rauschenberg

This print is, in fact, a twenty-two-foot-long tire tread mark. Twenty separate sheets of yellowed paper have been glued together horizontally, each one overlapping the next by an inch or two. The overlapping stripes are slightly darker, and give the piece the look of a giant film strip. The black tire tread mark wavers slightly, but is kept within the narrow confines of the paper. It is darkest on our left, and begins to fade near the right. Zigzagging patterns can be found along the length of the print, though they are not uniform, and in some places have been filled in by smudged black paint. A triangular gap in the tread mark is present in three separate places along the print: once on the left, once in the middle, and once on the right, indicating that the tire made three rotations before reaching the end of the paper.

Robert Rauschenberg, Automobile Tire Print, 1953
Robert Rauschenberg, Automobile Tire Print, 1953; paint on 20 sheets of paper mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 x 286 in. (41.9 x 726.4 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


Automobile Tire Print (1953) records one of Robert Rauschenberg’s most intriguing collaborative efforts. In 1953, the artist directed composer John Cage (1912–1992) to drive his Model A Ford in a straight line over twenty sheets of paper that Rauschenberg had glued together and laid in the road outside his Fulton Street studio in Lower Manhattan. The car’s front tire left a faint embossed impression, while the rear tire, which had passed through a pool of paint Rauschenberg had poured in the street, deposited a juicy black tread mark that stretches in a diminishing line along the twenty-two-foot length of paper. Over the years, Automobile Tire Print has been interpreted as a monoprint, a drawing, a performance, a process piece, and a distinctive exploration of indexical mark making. In its serial imagery (it records nearly three revolutions of Cage’s wheel) and its exceptional length, the tire print is one of the earliest examples of Rauschenberg’s interest in the visual and psychological dimensions of temporal experience, themes he revisited in works such as Hiccups (1978) and The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–98).

Like Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, which was also created in fall 1953, Automobile Tire Print challenges traditional understandings of art and authorship. As such, it must be understood as a response to the aesthetics and practices of Abstract Expressionism, the movement then dominating the New York art world. Although the black line of paint made by the tire print held to the abstract expressionist ideal of capturing direct artistic expression, the fact that the mark was created not by Rauschenberg’s hand but through the action of an automobile driven by a friend proposed a new definition of what it meant to be an artist. Cage executed Rauschenberg’s concept much as a master printer collaborates with an artist by operating a printing press. Yet there was a particular history and connection underlying Rauschenberg’s choice of partner. At the time the tire print was made, the two artists were deeply engaged in a heated exchange of ideas that would continue to energize their respective work into the mid-1960s.

In its connection to the streets of New York, Automobile Tire Print relates to Rauschenberg’s Elemental Sculptures, a series dating from 1953 that incorporates rocks, wood, and scrap metal the artist gathered from the neighborhood around his studio. Such scavenging and reuse of found materials lent Rauschenberg’s art a sense of place and came to define the aesthetic of his Combines (1953–64), a group of works that blur the boundaries between painting, sculpture, and collage. With Automobile Tire Print, Rauschenberg picked up a trace of the city streets in another way, creating an artwork that strikes an irreverent balance between abstract gesture and deadpan humor.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Automobile Tire Print
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
paint on 20 sheets of paper mounted on fabric
16 1/2 x 286 in. (41.9 x 726.4 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.


Automobile Tire Print

By Sarah Roberts, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

In the fall of 1953, Robert Rauschenberg asked composer John Cage (1912–1992) to bring his Model A Ford to Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan, where Rauschenberg lived and worked. The artist then poured paint in front of the car’s rear tire and directed Cage to drive slowly over twenty sheets of paper that he had glued together. The resulting print records a twenty-two-foot tread mark, about three revolutions of the wheel.

Research Materials


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