Öyvind Fahlström on Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage

Related to Trophy IV (for John Cage), 1961

Öyvind Fahlström on Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage

Related to Trophy IV (for John Cage), 1961

Research Material

This essay by artist Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976) appeared in the Swedish journal Konstrevy in late 1961. The title, which translates as “A Street Full of Presents,” is drawn from an article Cage wrote about Rauschenberg that had been published by the Italian journal Metro in May of that year. Cage had characterized Rauschenberg as someone who makes those around him aware of the inherently pleasurable qualities of everyday things, writing that in his company “I noticed the streets were full of presents . . . you simply place yourself in focus, and everything . . . may be used as a poetry of endless possibilities.” The article includes a passage in which Fahlström describes the action of the swinging boot clanging into the crumpled metal form in Trophy IV (for John Cage), and quotes Rauschenberg’s explanation, “The sound is a tribute to Cage.” An English transcription of this article, translated from the Swedish by Lars Nordström, is available below.

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Öyvind Fahlström on Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage

A Street Full of Presents

By Öyvind Fahlström, New York, October 1961

CAGE: The atmosphere is such that everything can be seen clearly, even at night, or as when one leafs through a newspaper or a poem anno dazumal.

This is also true for Rauschenberg’s latest works and even more so here. Their atmosphere seems simultaneously more concentrated and thinner, clearer. The transformation of the material is stronger than ever. Yet they are, materially, more insistent and unambiguous consisting of a few simple elements – boxes, a wheel, a chain, a rug, pieces of rope, bricks, wooden boards and poles. Normally they should become less suggestive and illusory because they are freestanding objects that you can walk around. This is unusual for Rauschenberg. The earlier “rounded-plastic” works have often had the character of a four-sided painting, a poster column.

Nevertheless, all kinds of object making have been common in the United States recently. It seems that Rauschenberg’s visit to Europe this year, his first since 1953, and especially his time spent together with Tinguély, has given Rauschenberg the desire to create more sculpturally. Billy Klüver points out that Tinguély in his work, in the high-kicking mobile in Movement in Art, for example, also seems to get closer to Rauschenberg. RAUSCHENBERG: Well, then it is me stealing back from Tinguély, because it was in 1959 that Tinguély created a self-destroying sculpture, and he had received impulses from me and Stankiewicz and definitely abandoned the delicate, motorized reliefs. As for me, it was just as much that I, after my trip to Europe, had an enormous appetite for rough materials, for the full physical expression that comes from nailing, pressing, bending, tearing. Sort of like coming home from a long journey and out of sheer delight giving one’s love a hug that is a bit too strong.

The last finished piece I saw, “Empire,” was like an elongated cart on a single wheel almost hidden by a long, thinly vaulted wooden ceiling. It had a shaft, and at the tip of it hung a metal blindfold with a white star. In the rear: from a metal clad compartment in the ceiling came a long chain that ended with brownish-black bricks. Just as in several of his latest works, it dealt with resting elongation, cancelled direction (the brick “anchor”). Rauschenberg had originally thought of placing small plants in soil in the compartment, but will now fill it with concrete instead. He does not want to establish a counter movement of plants growing upward (notice: it is typical how the concept itself is important, recently moving forward, now growing, not just the verticality of form that the plants would have provided). What he wants is the unified, the played-down.

In a similar manner “Trophy IV” from the same time, dedicated to Cage (the interaction between Cage and Rauschenberg could be the subject of a study in itself): a moveable boot, suspended freely is kicked against a metal foil (RAUSCHENBERG: The sound is a tribute to Cage), but gets stuck in its frame when it swings back. The metal foil rises up in a crumpled, draped movement, but is still, a frozen representation of motion. This is a different kind of neutralization of opposites from those in the early works with their shaggy, tight play of pasted newspaper fragments against overlapping brush strokes, or, in the later works, the airy, molten unity of deliberately designed brutal accents in contrasting color and materials. This kind of counter-move (see for example “Fact”), tends to emphasize what has been crossed out or negated. (RAUSCHENBERG: Jasper Johns and I call the coarse daubs of paint “hinges”: around them, forms can “twist themselves” in different directions, connect in various ways.) The extreme simplicity and unambiguousness of the different parts, and the spontaneous clarity of the combination, reshapes the material and unites the seams into a more private ambiguity than before. Earlier it was the break, the seam between the different parts that constituted the most striking device; the fusion occurred entirely in the experience of the viewer. Now Rauschenberg seems to approach the uncommunicativeness of the sign, where the disparate elements more or less have fused already as form in the work itself. RAUSCHENBERG: In addition, the functional demands create a natural unity; a nail must be there if you want to hold two boards together in a certain way. A string is the only possible material for pulling a can up a rusty pipe.

CAGE: Is Gloria V. motif or idea?

What is meant by Rauschenberg’s use of mostly recognizable and readable fragments from posters and newspapers, as well as stuffed animals and other objects? Are they to be understood as something other than elements of form in a superficial sense, and other than as a display that anything is just as good to use as a material? It is not entirely clear what Cage means by motif and idea, but as far as I can see, the different parts of the question do not exclude each other. In the motif, the subject – which gives the work its elusive sum, its atmosphere – there is also the idea, the concentrate of Gloria Vanderbilt, eternally remarrying, or Eisenhower, or the anonymous bathing girl. That does not mean, on the other hand, that the painting is about Gloria V., in other words, that it says something about, to, or against her, just as little as a composition by Cage that includes barking dogs is about dogs. But it says clearly on the newspaper clipping that she is getting married for the third time, and she is depicted four times. Is it a “prediction”? Is it also about Gloria? RAUSCHENBERG: I found several newspapers with the same picture. I immediately became delighted and fascinated by the thought, and tried to express the innocently crying Gloria multiplied to millions of people.

In any case, Gloria is not a symbol on a basic, allegorical level. She does not represent something else, like “inconstancy,” “vanity,” “upper class,” “money.” She forms, more than anything else, a unity from which she cannot be separated, just as the paint cannot be separated, or the syllables Bi and Co, the wrinkles, the opening. It really is incomprehensible, but it must function that way.

Without a doubt it is the concentration, the everyday meaning that is significant to Rauschenberg. His predilection is to choose motifs that are banal and fading, or sometimes swamped with meaning (Eisenhower, Mona Lisa), and when they overlap, collide, and neutralize each other in unfamiliar contexts, all meanings come rushing in from different directions simultaneously. RAUSCHENBERG: The focal point of the vision, its concentration, usually makes you experience that which comes from different directions simultaneously.

You may say that this is a limitation, and as soon as I arrived here I immediately heard that a great deal in Rauschenberg’s work must escape me because I am not familiar with America. It is a limitation which one has to accept, at least Rauschenberg does that. He has not made up his mind to create art which is universal at any cost. Not “durable” either, neither as connotation nor material (what constitutes durable art? Art that lasts for 50 years? 200 years? 1,000 years? 100,000 years?). The kind of immaterial esthetical longevity that Gillo Dorfles suggests when he writes about Rauschenberg in Metro 2, is probably not something that any artist desires: that when current meanings and associations have been buried under the sand, some kind of timeless, inextinguishable value of the form should remain … The fish symbol representing Christ among the early Christians is certainly not alive for us if we forget its function, and as long as we do not give it a new one. Or will the people of the thirtieth century gather together in front of a faded photo of Gloria V., married for the third time, and experience refined, timeless beauty? Who knows.

CAGE: There is not more subject or motif in a “combine” than there is on a newspaper page. Everything there is subject.

All subjects or motifs can be treated in any manner. Dubuffet may incorporate the motif in incomprehensible messes of soil, paints, plants, butterfly wings, tin foil. But the moment arrives when the materials and the gestures have to be arranged in, for example, a figure. The opposition between technique and style, and the general opinion of what the motif is supposed to look like, has provided possibilities for enormous tensions, now most recently from Monet to Dubuffet. But it seems increasingly difficult to build on this basic absurdity when so many give “free expression” to the inherent form of the material or gesture, and also include shapes and signs that do no build on a certain notion of a single appearance. As a result, the structure of the material or gesture becomes a part of the appearance of the sign in an unbridled way. It becomes increasingly uncertain what a summarily inscribed “figure” has to say about “figures” or the material. It is after all a question of not conveying a routine meaning. One possibility is perhaps to emphasize, much more forcefully than the post-expressionists, the uniqueness of the motif and form, as, for example, Claes Oldenburg: inflated expressions of pieces of cake, shoes, and so on which are not depicted, but shaped in a “rounded-plastic” manner and then painted.

Rauschenberg confronts the same dilemma and solves it with a Gordian cut. He lets the figure be a figure, inserts it “as it is,” that is, as a relief: as a real object, or a stuffed animal. In a plane surface depiction: as a reproduction (pasted into combines, in the drawings transferred by wetting the printer’s ink and rubbing a pen on the back side of the reproduction; it gives the effect of a photo which is both crossed out and something intact, clearly visible). Then he places, next to or on top of the figure, material forms, traces of gestures.

CAGE: … I noticed that the streets were full of presents … you simply place yourself in focus, and everything, a p a i r o f s o c k s, may be used as a poetry of e n d l e s s p o s s i b i l i t i e s.

For everything to be possible, there can be no preconceived notions about appearances (the type of form of the figure, the sign), proportions (composition), materials (its characteristics), that compel arrangements that leads to oppositions, as in Dubuffet’s figures, for example. N o o p p o s i t i o n b e t w e e n m a t e r i a l a n d m o t i f. When Rauschenberg places a daub of paint on top of a photo, it is precisely the unity that he marks. As Marcel Duchamp recently said during a discussion about the exhibition “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art, and Rauschenberg also said (in the long interview in the French Arts in connection with his exhibition at Daniel Cordier in the spring): the paint the painters use is manufactured mechanically; it is also a ready-made material: “tubes are ready-mades, so paintings are also ready-mades …

The intentionally “sloppy” or ugly” nature of Rauschenberg’s bands of paint function as a kind of ironic signals: “STOP! PAINTING!” and the viewer starts looking for “color,” “composition,” and so on – “It wasn’t more than that; no more was needed” Rauschenberg laughs.

(But there is also a kind of kinship with action painting, the spontaneous delight that comes from discovering the possibility of everything, the act itself, the gesture as material – motif. The fact that Rauschenberg increasingly is pulling back from this is indicated not only in his latest works, but also, programmatically, in the painting he recently sent to the exhibition of abstract expressionism at the Guggenheim Museum: an arrow marks an exit from the forms of gestures and the painting is entitled “Blue Exit.” RAUSCHENBERG: The only thing I really enjoyed painting was the attached, round metal piece which I painted blue; and the arrow, which was not depicted picturesquely at all, but as an object.)

But if Rauschenberg now daubs paint on a photo, is he making fun of the photo? No. He does not offer “restoration” for old, untidy, useless objects (Dorfles in Metro). Neither does he (according to Choay) quite want “to mark the painter’s presence in the world which he tries to incorporate into his works as well as into himself,” in other words, show a kind of peaceful coexistence between “what is painted” and “what is real.” This is still a polarity. No, he simply demonstrates that reproductions and so on, are materials just like the paint which you can paint over with an opaque or translucent color. And it does not have to be a reproduction; it can be a hat. But he does not make an effort to cover the reproduction or the hat. The color is definitely not like the black rectangle across the faces of people in the newspapers who are not to be recognized.

RAUSCHENBERG: No, I don’t want to censor anything. I definitely want to keep the identity. The image of the bathing girl is not “just paint,” just form, because form is not just form, but motif or idea. The view of representative and abstract as poles does not exist any more. This realization of the unity of everything is a positive, productive, and esthetic act.

NIETZSCHE: The first cause that occurred to man to explain a phenomenon satisfied him, and was regarded as truth, because no other existed that could make it seem doubtful.

Now, on the other hand, there is such an infinite number of truths that the first cause, just as in the original instance, can be taken as valid. The Dadaists experienced this situation as indifference and desperation, and realized it negatively, anti-esthetically (at least that is what they wanted). Marcel Duchamp explained during the assemblage discussion how he – by putting a bicycle wheel on a kitchen chair, or by adding a yellow and red dot to an oleograph landscape and calling it “Pharmacy” – attempted to visualize “a total indifference” and avoid involving esthetic norms and other implications of any kind. In addition, he did not want to repeat any of his devices; the objects he made should be exceedingly few and each of them completely different from each other. Duchamp surely realizes that the careful avoiding of esthetic norms is the best way to make art. He did not single out things blindly. Or more correctly, he did not remain inactive: only nothing could be non-art. What he could avoid doing was creating a style, in other words, create good or bad art (a pattern of value is created by style first).

The new New York School (where Rauschenberg is the one who has been active the longest and been the most energetic), does not build upon a zero point, desperation, protest, “by excluding the past.” Many criticize it for this. The Spanish artist Cuixart has, after a visit to New York, spoken with great indignation about how these artists only create Dadaist works “formally.” There is certainly a resemblance of appearance, of certain technical devices, but Rauschenberg has seen something in them, has seen the Dadaist objects as the works of art they have tried not to be, and by concretizing what he has seen, and repeating it, new meanings and values come into being. Duchamp has himself to blame – he should not have put the wheel on the chair.

When someone does it once, it becomes art. When someone repeats it, it becomes a style (which? – “Neo-Dadaism” is at least a term which Rauschenberg & Co. has neither coined nor asked for). With even more repetitions of what one has begun to repeat, it becomes a mannerism, a fashion (a specific way of working can only fit the artist who invented it). Bruce Conner, who recently exhibited in New York, is very skillful, certainly talented. Figures and materials show a slightly morbid symbolism: soft conglomerates of black lace, veils, nylon stockings, hair and so on, a Sarah Bernhard atmosphere (Rauschenberg usually avoids ingredients that are striking by themselves). Conner assembles these things in brutal “combining”. The pieces of junk, the scraps of wooden boards, and the splashes of paint are there because fashion prescribes it, not the totality of the work itself. Rauschenberg has himself to blame – he started repeating.

RAUSCHENBERG: I try to keep an eye on my habits to see, to counteract them to achieve a greater freshness. I try to become unfamiliar with what I do.

Naturally, no one wants to repeat himself in the literal sense. Non-repetition requires a kind of spiritual preparation, a constant readiness that art begins everywhere, that life is not something separate, some kind of time off. Rauschenberg is an unusually open and direct person. He can see outside himself. He continually questions, even in conversations. With an almost aggressive appetite he tucks right into the comfortable generalizations, the routine phrases which everyone will swallow discreetly in silent agreement: Of course, we know – but that’s nothing to quarrel about after all … Rauschenberg is of the opinion that anything expressed explicitly is an acknowledgement. The discussion at the Museum of Modern Art it started very promisingly when Rauschenberg made mincemeat of the stilted constructions of the opening speakers, but he was stopped by the chairman. The first time I saw Rauschenberg was at a night performance for the opening of the kinetic exhibition at the Arena Theater. Thelonious Monk remained – large, bundled up, huffy – in his dressing room and refused to go on stage, while Monk’s wife argued hysterically with Rauschenberg, who, small and hopping mad, called Monk Judy Garland.

I think it is particularly easy and unproductive to get stuck in a n a l o g i e s. It is so easy to talk about a cart when you stand in front of “Empire,” the early work I described earlier. But it is no cart.

The other day when we drove past a station wagon with a rear window folded down, everyone laughed. I immediately thought “jaws” (and almost: “dragon”). I am convinced that Rauschenberg and Johns did not think like that.

RAUSCHENBERG: I see that as European; I myself have no urge to go beyond what I perceive, beyond by using words, thoughts.

One of the ways to encourage the unfamiliar is to create limitations. Rauschenberg’s series: He made images (and they really deal with) each and every one of the 34 songs of Dante’s Inferno. (It is one of Rauschenberg’s greatest works.) He made four combines with exactly the same amount of paint and other materials, but distributed them differently. Furthermore, in “Fact I” and “Fact II” he distributed the elements equally. This year he made a series of combines with a timepiece in each: each combine was created during a predetermined number of hours. The idea came from a performance at the American embassy in Paris in June this year, together with Jean Tinguély, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Jasper Johns (target made of roses), and the pianist David Tudor who improvised according to Cage’s prerequisites. Rauschenberg created a combine on the same terms, the materials made up the prerequisites and the concert set the time. (See the photo of Rauschenberg.)

The material itself must also possess a freshness and an unusual quality. It is typical for Kalinowski to store his material in a disciplined and organized manner, to arrange it in categories, and use it as a ready-made keyboard. Rauschenberg wants to collect new material for each work; collecting it is an important aspect of the work. The piece should be allowed to grow unpredictably, in a certain sense surprising the artist himself.

RAUSCHENBERG: What I enjoy is the actual work, to be occupied with all the possibilities, with what is not yet definitive. That’s when I have my focus open (“everything becomes poetry”). Everything I see on the street can become a material and determine the appearance of the work. Even the l i g h t that day: it makes me see certain objects, they achieve a certain character from the intensity and color of the light which enabled me at that very moment to observe them.

Afterwards, when Rauschenberg is finished with a piece, he tries, as far as is possible, to throw away any left-over materials.

CAGE: The paintings were thrown in the river after the exhibition.

In the early 1950s Rauschenberg lived for a while in Florence. He collected scraps of wooden boards, stones, corks, feathers, bones, and tied them together with twine. He exhibited his works in a gallery in the city. The reviews were not favorable. One critic even vented the opinion that the entire exhibition was worth throwing in the Arno. After the exhibition Rauschenberg threw the works into the river. RAUSCHENBERG: It was not done as an extravagant gesture. I thought it was a beautiful idea, even if my reasons were different from that of the reviewer. For example, the notion that the work of art would not have to be something eternal, elevated, privileged. And it was practical. Art works are so difficult to transport when you travel.

Rauschenberg began to work with bold combinations of materials very early. At an exhibition some time ago of G. O. Thompson’s famous collection at the Guggenheim Museum, there was a painting by Rauschenberg from 1949 when he was an art student. Even this early a small mirror was glued on and framed by a streak of paint.

CAGE: I remember an exhibition of the black paintings in North Carolina. So fast! They have become masterpieces.

I remember a showing of the red paintings in a warehouse. They were masterpieces. It was a large warehouse where there was art on every floor. The elevator was so big that I thought it was one of the rooms that started moving. Friendly men speaking with a southern accent, wearing overalls on which The 7 Santini Brothers was written, carefully and competently brought out the works of art. They knew exactly where they were kept and who had made them. The large, early red works (“Charlene” and Rauschenberg’s anonymous combine) were made as irregular triptychs (in other words, they could be taken apart – until quite recently Rauschenberg lived near the harbor on the southern tip of Manhattan in a place with low ceilings and a small door) and the panels were carefully joined together in front of the huge, electric light blue elevator door. None of those present had seen these works for a long time. We stood there completely silent and amazed. Mrs. Ileana, a patron of the arts, said: “They have become so noble!” It is true – they were so wild; they were a hurricane of happiness with their hundreds of small images overrun with red paint: mostly minium red and English red, with purple red mingled in, a landslide of rain-beaten red soil across small towns, people, thoughts; around a distorting mirror, the pinwheel colors of a parasol, the hard blue, the violet, the rectangular fields of dirty orange, the glimmering light bulb in its niche, the pieces of lace and wax cloth. And at the same time there really was such an elegance, such an implacable control of the interacting parts, an exquisite calculation both of the large, amazing accents and the multitude of overlapping elements which are in effect reminiscent of Pollock’s paintings where hundreds of “Yes!” everywhere are met by “No!” until the whole thing rears up like one enormous twisting and vibrating immutability.

There were also later works, paintings that were economical, airy, and fused, with a dirty white canvas and large, blank forms pasted on, occasionally a raw punch of color or a tie glued on, or something sticking or hanging out: abruptly, like an effect but still not merely as a simple shock of contrasts. Furthermore, steel grey and ash grey, works nailed together and strong in relief, with openings, lowered gangplanks. A great span; and this was still only a handful of works.

CAGE: A row of small color samples in an upright format …

Rauschenberg seems to have a predilection for painting about color (meta character). In other words, not the raw accents, but the distinct rectangles, often arranged as in a scale: the anonymous, early triptych; the long row of color samples in the painting that Cage talks about, or the parasol whose sectors are painted in different colors or are partly empty, creating a child’s top of colors that can be twirled toward something red and bloated. It is as if he wanted to create a distance to the color: “Look! Here’s color, this way and that!” just as “This is a bathing girl!” or “Here you have an action painting!”

It is always shown in the simplest way possible. Re-phrasing is unnecessary when everything is possible, even that which is direct. RAUSCHENBERG: I want to make the colors disparate, give the impression that this color could just as well have been another, actualizing that fundamental experience of equal value that I mention in the interview in Arts.

Just as Rauschenberg removes materials and figures from their ordinary context, he wants to separate the color into pure tones next to each other. But he also dirties the paint, and then prefers to do it directly: painting dirt – soil mixed with glue – next to or on top of the color. Everything can be done directly. Everything is just as possible. But why does Rauschenberg do it in precisely that way; why does Rauschenberg’s way of doing it become so beautiful (powerful, nice)?

CAGE: Now that Rauschenberg has made a painting with three radio sets …

Cage has composed a piece of music including three radio sets (which, incidentally, was done prior to Rauschenberg’s painting). Now, for his November exhibit in New York, Rauschenberg is creating a piece that includes five radio sets. Together with the Swedish engineer Billy Klüver he will make a kind of control desk for the five radio sets/works of art. The volume can be adjusted from it, just as it can be turned on in such a way that a movable mechanism shifts the tuning from one station to the next, different for each radio. The viewer and the mechanism: two significant roles that emerge next to the artist as the creator of the work of art.


p. 176. Rauschenberg at the American embassy in Paris, June, 1961.

p. 177. “Trophy IV,” 1961.

p. 178. To the right. “Gift to Apollo,” 1959.

p. 180. “Mona Lisa,” combine-drawing, 1958.

p. 181. Anonymous triptych, 1954.