description of Untitled [glossy black painting] by Robert Rauschenberg

Torn strips of paper and thick layers of glossy black paint make this canvas a cross between a collage and a traditional painting. The small pieces of paper that blanket the piece curl up and peel away from the canvas, like dead leaves or sunburnt skin. Black paint smothers the entire work in layers so thick that it appears to have been applied in sheets. The paint is glossy, though not uniformly so, and some patches of the canvas appear flat and dull. The canvas would be entirely dark if not for the light that lands on the textured, curling paper. This relative play of light creates patterns, suggests hidden images, and conjures illusions.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [glossy black painting], ca. 1951
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [glossy black painting], ca. 1951; enamel and newspaper on canvas, 71 15/16 x 53 in. (182.7 x 134.6 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


Untitled [glossy black painting] (ca. 1951) is part of a body of work known as the Black paintings that Robert Rauschenberg began in 1951, while he was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and developed intermittently over the next two years. Although the Black paintings are not a discrete series in the same sense as the artist’s White Paintings (1951) or Red Paintings (1953–54), they are all composed of layers of newspaper and dense black paint, and together they represent Rauschenberg’s extended study of the boundary between painting and collage. One the most lustrous of his Black paintings, Untitled [glossy black painting] is believed to date from the earliest phase of Rauschenberg’s involvement with this group of works, but the chronology of his production in the years 1951 to 1953 remains somewhat loosely defined. The painting reveals its complex construction and texture as light reflects off of the collaged, dipped, and painted newspaper fragments teeming on its highly articulated surface. The individual curls and ripples of paper echo the contours of traditional brushstrokes, in some passages even taking on the gestural quality of abstract expressionist paintings.

Spots of red-orange and pink visible along the work’s tacking margins indicate that Untitled [glossy black painting] was created on top of another work, possibly one of his own or that of a friend. Rauschenberg frequently painted over previous efforts, both out of economic necessity and because he considered his artworks to be living, changing entities. This highly unconventional belief led him to substantially repaint Untitled [glossy black painting] sometime in the 1980s, adding a fresh coat of black over much of the left side in order to cover up some drips of white paint that had accidentally marred the work’s surface.   

In a 1963 interview Rauschenberg noted that he wanted his Black paintings to have “complexity without their revealing anything.” Although the dark surface of Untitled [glossy black painting] has been associated with destruction or burning, the color black did not carry such negative connotations for the artist. The use of dark pigment was simply an ideal means of highlighting the texture of the newspaper while concealing its text. Here Rauschenberg’s skillful use of black resulted in an austere, inky surface that plays with notions of expression and gesture, challenging the very idea of what makes a painting a painting.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Untitled [glossy black painting]
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
ca. 1951
enamel and newspaper on canvas
71 15/16 x 53 in. (182.7 x 134.6 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 [glossy black painting]

By Caitlin Haskell, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

In the late 1940s, American painters developed an art that could be practiced with just two colors: black and white. Critics tended to describe these paintings as an apotheosis, a sign that art had reached a point of exhaustion. Artists offered more pragmatic explanations.

Research Materials


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