Although it is unassuming, particularly within the context of Robert Rauschenberg’s vast and ambitious oeuvre, Postcard Self-Portrait, Black Mountain (II) of 1952 is among the most evidently carefully staged works of the artist’s career. In it, an expanse of floor taking up more than half the image is topped by two thin, striped mattresses on which Rauschenberg lies in dark clothing, his head on an equally dark pillow, body tightly squeezed into the upper portions of the frame. Other of Rauschenberg’s photographs from this time willfully, and seemingly effortlessly, transgress their edges, an effect particularly emphasized in an image of a marshy lakeside that seems to spread entropically beyond all four of the photograph’s sides.1 In Postcard Self-Portrait, Black Mountain (II), on the contrary, Rauschenberg has wedged himself not only into the confines of the photograph but also beneath the lower portion of one of his Black paintings, which seems to press down on him from above. The artist’s right knee just grazes the painting’s bottom edge, while his hands, chest, and head vigilantly avoid blocking our view, helping to counter any effect of spatial depth that might be created between him and the wall behind. The left and right ends of the mattresses have been cut off by the frame so as not to reveal their width, causing them to register primarily as horizontal striations across the pictorial surface. Countering the camera’s built-in perspective is clearly Rauschenberg’s goal. The entire visual field seems upended, made to resemble something like a section cut through sedimentary rock, the artist’s body encapsulated within it like some sort of fossil. Only a slight blur across Rauschenberg’s face conveys even a hint of possible motion; everything else is locked in and frozen still.
The photograph’s tour de force is its verticalization of the studio floor, which comes to resemble an abstract block of gray. Those few feet closest to the viewer lack focus (likely on account of the camera being placed on or very near to the floor), which only resolves in a narrow band just below the bottommost mattress, where one can make out what appear to be dust motes. A washy expanse of smudging, including possible traces of fingerprints, lightly stains the emulsion in the photograph’s lower quadrant, lending the floor an additionally contradictory character, for it reads not only as both horizontal and vertical but also as both hard as cement and ever so slightly atmospheric, even liquid. Cover the top portion of the image and one could be looking at a reflection on shallow water, an effect Rauschenberg captured in another photograph, Untitled [Folly Beach, S.C.] (ca. 1952, fig. 2), which, incidentally, also retains visible smudging in its emulsion.2