Sleep for Yvonne Rainer is one of three related works from 1965 that connect to Robert Rauschenberg’s involvement with dance and performance, particularly in the context of Judson Dance Theater. Each celebrates a friend with whom the artist had developed a rich artistic exchange or collaboration in the early 1960s—in this instance the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934), whose significance to Rauschenberg’s practice will be discussed in greater depth below. The other two works recognize Öyvind Fahlström (1928–1976) and Robert Morris (b. 1931), respectively.1 All three works feature movable elements that allow for variable compositions, an idea that dates to the artist’s Elemental Sculptures of 1953. In each of them we also find Rauschenberg weaving together changeable compositions, imagery from his recently completed silkscreen paintings, and objects attached to the surface, in the mode of his Combines (1953–64).
Sleep for Yvonne Rainer’s primary support is linen over a wooden stretcher. Attached to that surface are eight silkscreened images—four pictures of an army truck, a crate of Sunkist oranges, a detail of an architectural fragment, and two pictures of a pair of pillows. The images are screened on cut or torn pieces of paper that were stapled and perhaps also glued to the linen. Joined sheets of Plexiglas attached with screws cover the whole surface and its edges, separating the inner layer of silkscreened imagery from an outer layer of assemblage elements. At the upper left, four empty caulking tubes are strung together on a bent wire, the ends of which are anchored through the Plexiglas surface. Between the third and fourth tubes, a tin can, crushed at one end, is also connected to the wire. Slightly below the tubes is another tin can, which is movable; although shown here at a thirty-degree angle, the can swivels and has been photographed in multiple positions. On the far right, a red plastic taillight is screwed to the surface. Below the taillight, fragments of chair rungs are secured with metal straps. At the bottom right corner, a small tube of paint is fastened atop the Plexiglas sheet.
The composition also includes three small movable panels, each measuring roughly nine by twelve inches. The panels are connected by thin chains of different lengths attached to open-eye bolts. Hooks at the top of the panels allow them to be hung in various configurations from right-angle hooks on the work’s surface (fig. 2). The first part of Rauschenberg’s inscription on the verso of the work (fig. 3) itemizes these units and emphasizes their mobility, which he considered a key feature of this piece: “(1 5' X 7' UNIT + 3 SMALL UNITS) / SMALL UNITS MAY BE HUNG ON ANY / HOOKS ON FACE OF LARGE UNIT / OR ON THE WALL WITHIN REACH OF / CHAIN.” Rauschenberg often lamented the stasis of visual art and sought ways to incorporate movement and change in his artworks. He once noted, “I’ve always attempted to bring art into real time—where it will change because of someone’s presence.”2 Accordingly, Sleep for Yvonne Rainer occupies the traditional two-dimensional space of painting but is also performative; the viewer is invited to “choreograph” the work by arranging the movable elements.