Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [three panel], 1951
Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [three panel], 1951; latex paint on canvas, 72 in. x 108 in. (182.88 cm x 274.32 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Overview

Each of the five works in Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) consists of a different number of modular panels—there are one-, two-, three-, four-, and seven-panel iterations—that have been painted completely white. In each case, Rauschenberg’s primary aim was to create a painting that looked untouched by human hands, as though it had simply arrived in the world fully formed and absolutely pure. Considered shocking and even characterized as a cheap swindle when they were first exhibited publicly in 1953, the White Paintings have gradually secured a place in art history as important precursors of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Among the most radical aspects of the series is that these works were conceived as remakeable: Rauschenberg viewed them primarily as a concept and allowed for the physical artworks to be repainted and even refabricated from scratch without his direct involvement.

Many of Rauschenberg’s friends and studio assistants, including Cy Twombly (1928–2011), Brice Marden (b. 1938), David Prentice (b. 1943), Hisachika Takahashi (b. 1940), and Darryl Pottorf (b. 1952), either repainted or fully refabricated various White Paintings at different points in the series’ history. Although such efforts were often undertaken to maintain the pristine surfaces considered essential to these works, refabrication was sometimes necessary because Rauschenberg had reused the original canvases as supports for new paintings and Combines. White Painting [three panel] is believed to have been executed by Marden in 1968 while he was working as Rauschenberg’s studio assistant. It was subsequently repainted at least once, by Pottorf in 1998, while it was traveling in the Rauschenberg retrospective organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

In 1961, composer John Cage (1912–1992) famously referred to the White Paintings as airports for lights, shadows, and particles, establishing an enduring understanding of the series as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. Building on this reading, Rauschenberg once referred to the works as clocks, saying that if one were sensitive enough to the subtle changes on their surfaces one could tell what time it was and what the weather was like outside. Ultimately, the power of the White Paintings lies in the shifts in attention they require from the viewer, asking us to slow down, watch closely over time, and inspect their mute painted surfaces for subtle shifts in color, light, and texture.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
White Painting [three panel]
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
1951
Classification
painting
Medium
latex paint on canvas
Dimensions
72 in. x 108 in. (182.88 cm x 274.32 cm)
Date acquired
1998
Credit
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis
Copyright
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Permanent URL
https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C
Artwork status
On view on floor 2 as part of Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture Since 1900

Essay

White Painting [three panel]

By Sarah Roberts, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

In 1951 Robert Rauschenberg painted a series of stretched canvases a plain, solid white, leaving minimal brush or roller marks. Each of these works consists of a different number of panels—there are one-, two-, three- (as seen here), four-, and seven-panel iterations—and they are known collectively as the White Paintings.

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