description of Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone] by Robert Rauschenberg
This found object sculpture features a rock, a metal ring, a rusty steel strap, and a large iron bolt. The brown-gray rock, which is about the size of a large grapefruit, sits on a pedestal, encircled by the rusty, industrial ring. A simple hinge connects the ring to the length of rusty steel strapping, which twists along the floor and then bends ninety degrees and rises straight into the air, to a height of about one foot. Another simple hinge at the raised end of the strap connects the rusty-brown steel to a large, iron bolt. The bolt is long and corroded, but its threaded tip comes to a sharp point. The twisted steel strap and downward pointing bolt resemble a rising snake preparing to strike.
In September 1953, a selection of Robert Rauschenberg’s recently produced Elemental Sculptures debuted at Stable Gallery, New York. This series of small assemblages combined stone, wood, rusted metal, and other objects the artist had scavenged from construction sites around his Fulton Street studio. Originally numbering nineteen (of which only nine still exist), this group of mostly untitled artworks shared a drab brown-gray aesthetic defined by rust, dirt, grime, and age, and suggested a kind of archaeological appreciation of mid-century Manhattan. Vaguely reminiscent of improvised tools or handmade toys, the Elemental Sculptures emerged as the young artist was transitioning from a practice defined largely by painting and photography to a more experimental mode that would culminate in his Combines, an expansive body of works produced primarily in the mid- and late 1950s that bridged the gaps between painting, sculpture, and collage.
A crucial step in Rauschenberg’s artistic development, the Elemental Sculptures amounted to small-scale experiments in the combination of disparate forms and materials. In these works we see the artist considering qualities such as mass, volume, scale, and balance through a variety of means. For some sculptures he used frayed rope or twine to tether dense stones to roughly hewn fragments of wood, or placed stones atop (or inside of) weathered wooden boxes. In another, he adorned a fractured piece of concrete with a chunk of brick suspended from a twisted metal rod, capitalizing on both the geometric features of these materials and their shared association with construction. Significantly, Rauschenberg initially intended the audience to engage with the movable elements of these pieces: visitors to Stable Gallery were encouraged to rearrange the small sculptures to more fully comprehend their materiality, weight, proportions, and structure.
Consisting of a rusted steel strap anchored by a circular stone and tipped by an iron bolt, Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone] (ca. 1953) provides a vivid example of such an invitation. Because the steel strap and flange are hinged and therefore fully flexible, the piece may be displayed in a number of different configurations, each stressing a different sense of gravity or vaguely implied purpose. In some orientations the sculpture resembles an ancient sling loaded for launching, while in others the strap and bolt seem to defy the stone’s otherwise overwhelming gravitational force, recalling the arc of a snake preparing to strike.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis, 1998
Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 15–August 11, 1991. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, September 27, 1991–January 5, 1992; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 8–April 19, 1992; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 14–August 16, 1992; Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, October 24, 1992–January 24, 1993.
Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 19, 1997–January 7, 1998. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, February 13–May 17, 1998; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, June 27–October 11, 1998; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, November 21, 1998–March 7, 1999.
Robert Rauschenberg, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 7–September 7, 1999.
Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, January 30–June 24, 2003.
75 Years of Looking Forward: The Anniversary Show, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 19, 2009–January 16, 2011.
In addition to appearing in the special exhibitions listed above, Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone] was shown in SFMOMA’s galleries in 2012 and 2013 as part of a series of rotating presentations of the permanent collection.
This listing has been reviewed and is complete as of August 31, 2016.
Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 155, 159, 194 (ill.).
———, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1991), 23 (ill.), 24, 39. Produced for the Menil presentation only.
Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work, directed by Chris Granlund (London: BBC and RM ARTS, 1997), DVD, 57 min.
Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 23, 37, 44, 80 (ill.).
Tim Marlow, “Robert Rauschenberg,” Tate: The Art Magazine 16 (Winter 1998): 43 (ill.).
Bruno Marchand, ed., Robert Rauschenberg: Crítica e obra de 1949 a 1974 (Porto, Portugal: Fundação de Serralves, 2008), 61 (ill.).
Janet Bishop, Corey Keller, and Sarah Roberts, eds., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 75 Years of Looking Forward (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 151n3.
Susan Davidson and David White, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009), 29 (ill.).
Carolyn Lanchner, Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 11–12, 13 (ill.).
Josef Helfenstein and Laureen Schipsi, eds., Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (Houston: The Menil Collection, 2010), 29 (ill.).
This listing has been reviewed and is complete as of August 31, 2016.
- Artwork title
- Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone]
- Artist name
- Robert Rauschenberg
- Date created
- ca. 1953
- hinged steel flange, stone, steel strap, and iron bolt
- 13 5/8 in. x 18 1/4 in. x 9 1/8 in. (34.61 cm x 46.36 cm x 23.18 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.
Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone]
By Sarah Roberts, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project
A hinged flange grips an ordinary round stone; from its clasp, a ribbon of rusted steel arcs upward, culminating with a loosely attached, crusty iron bolt. The components of Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone] (ca. 1953), like those of many of the works in Robert Rauschenberg’s series Elemental Sculptures, suggest on first glance that the piece might once have had a useful function.