Scanning (1963) belongs to the extended series of silkscreen paintings (numbering about eighty in all) that Robert Rauschenberg executed between fall 1962 and late spring 1964. This series is devoted almost exclusively to photographic images, representing a departure from the artist’s immediately preceding Combines (1953–64), which incorporate all manner of found objects and materials—taxidermy animals, articles of clothing, automobile tires, working clocks and electric fans—along with photographs and images derived from mass-media sources. In the silkscreen paintings, commercially produced screens were used to transfer to canvas images derived from contemporary periodicals, such as LIFE and Newsweek, as well as Rauschenberg’s own photographs. On canvas, these images were joined with other silkscreened images and hand-painted marks. Like photographic negatives, each image could be reproduced multiple times. Andy Warhol (1928–1987) also used silkscreening around this time, creating repetitive, grid-like compositions that were often impersonal and designed to be executed by others.1 Rauschenberg, however, made the mechanical process malleable and highly variable, leaving it open to improvisation and the touch of his hand (via the squeegee used to spread ink through the screens).
Scanning’s incorporation of both photography and painting reflects the artist’s long-standing commitment to both media. This dual interest, which persisted throughout his life, can be traced back to his days as a student at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 1940s. Indeed, much of his work subsequent to the Combines consisted of an integration of the two media. Within Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, photographic images first assumed a central role in the transfer drawings. This process, which he “discovered” in 1952 but did not exploit extensively until 1957–58, involved moistening a magazine or newspaper illustration with a solvent (turpentine or lighter fluid), placing it facedown on a sheet of drawing paper, and then rubbing the back to impress the image on the paper surface. Although he made a few attempts to apply the transfer technique to canvas, he apparently found the small scale and pastel tones of the images incompatible with the demands of painting and did not pursue it.