Although Mother of God may be rooted in a kind of personal expressionism that Rauschenberg interpreted abstractly, the imagist attributes of the collage elements were an equally strong force in shaping the work’s composition and subject matter. Collage—whether it involved pasting, assemblage, or transferring—would become one of Rauschenberg’s most important artistic tools, one he would employ consistently throughout his career. His image bank was impressively large and encompassed art historical imagery, popular culture, and items from everyday life that he captured with his camera and paired in unexpected juxtapositions. The materiality of the image (and, particularly in later works, the object) was paramount to his artistic process. Joseph has observed that in Mother of God, “emphasizing materiality through collage was one means of opposing the transcendent status of the image.”30 Over the years much has been made of the relationship between Rauschenberg’s work and cubist collage practices. Rosalind Krauss put forth that the artist heroically transformed the Cubist model, establishing “a form of collage that was largely reinvented, such that in Rauschenberg’s hands the meaning and function of the collage elements bore little relation to their earlier use in the work of [either] Schwitters or the Cubists.”31 Feinstein quite rightly noted that “Cubist collage provided Rauschenberg with both his form and his means. For him, Cubism was a ‘given’ to be used and manipulated at will. He exploited Cubism’s gridded and rectangular structure, its fragmentary nature, and the fact that collage was a decision-making process. He used collage as a vehicle for content and as a metaphor for consciousness.”32 Rauschenberg, however, has downplayed the impact that formal aspects of Cubist collage had on his work.33 Instead, he has traced his use of the technique to his childhood, when his mother modeled a variety of collage processes through her work with scraps of fabric. Known as an especially frugal seamstress, Dora was the talk of Port Arthur for her ability to arrange her patterns so tightly that she used every inch of cloth.34 Rauschenberg recalled witnessing the creation of his mother’s patchwork quilts as a child. “That’s where I learned collage,” he once remarked, and knowing his background, it is not difficult to accept her example as his primary source.35 Indeed, the inherent and intuitive have always taken precedence over the formal and the learned in Rauschenberg’s art.
Rauschenberg’s exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery opened on May 14, 1951, and, as was standard for the time, remained on view for just three short weeks.36 The presentation consisted of thirteen easel-size oils in the smaller gallery while the larger main room featured works by Walter Tandy Murch, an artist known for his realistic depictions of mechanical objects and illustrations for such magazines as Forbes and Scientific American. “He was in the A string gallery and I was in the B string gallery,” Rauschenberg recalled, humorously acknowledging the art world’s hierarchy.37 The titles of many of Rauschenberg’s paintings followed the abstract expressionist convention of numbering (i.e., No. 1, No. 2, and so on, up to No. 5), while others included poetic phrasing, such as 22 the Lily White (ca. 1950) and Should Love Come First? (ca. 1951). Several others incorporated religious references, including Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950), Mother of God, Trinity, The Man with Two Souls (1950), and Eden (ca. 1950). Many of the exhibited works had not been made at the Art Students League but rather in Rauschenberg’s apartment/studio, where they were created, as Weil relates, “right in the apartment. Started and finished there.”38 Four paintings (No. 6, 1951; No. 7, 1951; Stone, Stone, Stone [ca. 1951]; and Should Love Come First?) appear as handwritten additions to the printed checklist, indicating that they were available for sale but possibly had not been installed on the gallery’s walls. The listings for another three works (No. 8, 1951; No. 9, 1951; and No. 10, 1951) in a recently located Parsons ledger book suggest that they were delivered to the gallery for consignment after the exhibition opened. Thus, there may have been as many as twenty paintings in the gallery at one time. Their prices ranged from $150 to $750, with most works priced in the $400 to $500 range.39
Four days after the exhibition closed, Parsons submitted her expenses for the advertising, announcements, and postage (for a total of $121.10) to Rauschenberg, noting that there had been no sales. She spent $71 to advertise the show in two dailies (the New York Times and Herald Tribune) and one monthly magazine (ARTnews), an investment that generated three short reviews.40 Two of the reviews were matter-of-fact, preferring to describe the works rather than comment on their execution or effectiveness. Dorothy Gees Seckler acknowledged the youthful nature of the work, characterizing it as “naively inscribed with a wavering and whimsical geometry.”41 Stuart Preston, in keeping with his usual curmudgeonly manner, was more pointed. While conceding that the paintings were visually compelling, “stylish doodles in black and white and liberal helpings of silver paint,” he nonetheless believed them to be ill conceived, concluding that they were a “spawning ground for ideas rather than finished conceptions.”42
Today it is difficult to imagine what some of the Parsons-era paintings may have looked like; the reviews offer scant evidence, no installation photography has been located, and the artist kept no records from that time. Photographs by Aaron Siskind (1903–1991) document four works (Eden; Trinity; Stone, Stone, Stone; and Should Love Come First?) that have since been either painted over, lost, or destroyed.43 When the exhibition closed, Rauschenberg was faced with the problem of storage. Only those works that he could fit into his car were saved; he divided them between friends, including artists Sari Dienes (1898–1992) and Knox Martin (b. 1923), and stored others at his in-laws’ summer home on Outer Island, Connecticut (the works kept there were lost the next summer in a fire). The remaining paintings were broken up and left with the trash in the basement of the gallery. Of the twenty works exhibited or offered for sale in connection with the show, only five are extant today: Crucifixion and Reflection, Mother of God, 22 the Lily White, The Man with Two Souls,44 and Untitled [with collage and mirror] (ca. 1951).45 Three others—No. 1, 1951; Should Love Come First?; and No. 10, 1951—were later repainted black.46 The Parsons ledger book indicates that three pieces were left on consignment longer than previously known: Pharaoh and No. 6, 1951 remained at the gallery until September 13, 1951, and No. 8, 1951 (the highest priced picture at $750) was returned to the artist on December 12, 1951.
Reflecting on the Parsons exhibition, Rauschenberg was unusually self-critical, admitting “how completely indulgent” he had been when he started painting.47 He acknowledged that the works were youthful attempts at producing “allegorical cartoons, using abstract forms.” Painted mostly in “black, white and yellow [and silver] . . . they were very simple-minded paintings.”48 However, his sense of experimentation was evident from the outset: “The first one that I used mirrors in was in the Betty Parsons show . . . so that the room would become part of the painting. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Now I can rationalize it. . . . I did crazy things in those early Betty Parsons days—like cutting off my hair and putting it behind plastic and gluing it in.”49
Although none of the paintings sold (perhaps not surprisingly given that they were created by a novice and Parsons generally did not have a great track record for sales), Rauschenberg’s work registered with fellow artists, and the show led to several important friendships. The exhibition also prompted Jack Tworkov and Leo Castelli to ask Rauschenberg to participate in their exhibition Today’s Self-Styled School of New York, commonly known as the “Ninth Street Show” in reference to its venue, the first floor and basement of a building on East Ninth Street that was slated for demolition. 22 the Lily White was removed early from the Parsons exhibition for inclusion, a fact that surely accounts for its consistent presence in Rauschenberg’s exhibition history. Most significantly, John Cage (1912–1992) visited the Parsons exhibition and, intrigued by the works, somehow finagled No. 1, 1951 as a gift, conveniently announcing, “the price doesn’t matter since I have no money.”50 At the end of 1951, Rauschenberg was invited to join the Artists’ Club established in 1949 by the so-called Downtown Group of artists then working in Lower Manhattan. Despite the fact that this honor was bestowed on him ahead of other artists of his generation, such as Alfred Leslie (b. 1927) and Larry Rivers (1923–2002), Rauschenberg was never interested in becoming a member.
When Rauschenberg returned to Black Mountain in 1951, he left Mother of God and several other works with his friend Knox Martin for safekeeping. It is unknown when or under what circumstances Rauschenberg reacquired the painting. Martin maintains that he held on to the work for several decades before selling it to Castelli.51 By 1980, the first year for which records exist in the artist’s archives, Mother of God is noted as belonging to the artist and being stored in New York. The first published reference to the picture appears in Seckler’s review of the Parsons show, which notes that in some of the works “collage is introduced, either to provide textual effects—as in the picture whose background is made entirely of road maps—or to suggest a very tenuous associational content.”52 The work was known simply as Untitled until the title Mother of God was (re)attached to it by Hopps, who in the course of his research for Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s showed the artist images of his work and asked him to match them to the Parsons checklist. When Hopps read the title Mother of God, Rauschenberg replied in no uncertain terms: “Had to be a circle. For some strange reason, I think that it could be that one,” and pointed to a photograph of the painting, which was then known as Untitled [Road Maps].53
Forty years passed between the first presentation of Mother of God at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 and its next public showing, in Hopps’s 1991 exhibition, which opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The painting appeared publicly three more times in the 1990s. It was next included in the exhibition Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965, which was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and traveled to Minneapolis and San Francisco between 1995 and 1996. The following year, it was included in the artist’s third retrospective, which toured four museums in America and Europe from 1997 to 1999. As the decade closed, Mother of God entered the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of an unprecedented acquisition that also included fifteen works (one of them a promised gift), all purchased directly from the artist. The painting was first shown at the museum in 1999 in an exhibition highlighting these acquisitions. It was next exhibited in Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA in 2003, and then in a permanent collection presentation from 2006 to 2007. Most recently it was included in the celebratory exhibition 75 Years of Looking Forward: The Anniversary Show in 2009–10; Feinstein contributed a general text on all of the museum’s Rauschenberg acquisitions to the accompanying catalogue.54
As noted at the opening of this essay, in heralding Rauschenberg’s work from the early 1950s as a demonstration of the artist’s precocious inventiveness, Hopps’s 1991 exhibition contributed greatly to establishing the significance of the years 1949 to 1954 to the artist’s future artwork. The show’s impact was underscored by the reactions of art critics. In response to the exhibition’s debut in Washington, D.C., one reviewer associated Mother of God in particular with the work of artists, poets, and musicians of the Beat generation, of which Rauschenberg had not been an active member: “The gentle irony here gives an inkling of the Beat sensibility. Kerouac’s On the Road wasn’t published until 1957, most of it was written between 1948 and 1951, and Rauschenberg’s Mother of God is its visual equivalent.”55 In a joint review of the Hopps exhibition and a concurrent presentation staged at the National Gallery of Art as the finale for his ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) project, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith drew parallels between the artist’s early use of photographs, newsprint, and other printed paper and the treatment of these materials in his later, large-scale works. Referring to Mother of God, she wrote: “One of the most arresting works in this first gallery is a crude white sphere painted on a background made of cheap blue-and-white city maps. . . . Titled Mother of God, this painting exudes an antique, pre-cartographic charm and a non-Western mysticism, but it also hints at global ambition.”56
Indeed, as his art and career developed, Rauschenberg took full measure of the world, incorporating images—mostly his own photographs—from around the globe into his expanding repertoire. Both as an artist and as a person, he knew few boundaries, and his artistic vision invariably evinced optimism, hope, and humor, while at the same time sustaining serious insight into the human condition. When the Hopps exhibition traveled to Chicago in 1992, one reviewer noted these qualities in Mother of God, writing: “It is a measure of this work’s complexity that the [Catholic Review] quote seems to function simultaneously as an ironic joke and as an utterly sincere message. On the one hand, it’s hard to see what sense even the least demanding and least literal traveler might make of this collision of map fragments, to say nothing of the empty circle that aggressively cuts off each map and dominates the viewer’s attention. And yet in his juxtaposition of maps and circle Rauschenberg appears to be making a pretty clear statement—to be drawing, particularly in light of his later work, his own ‘spiritual road map.’”57 The road map the artist followed while executing Mother of God certainly served him well, charting an approach to art making that in its spirit of invention clearly distinguished him among his peers.