image of Untitled [black painting with portal form]
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [black painting with portal form], 1952–53
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [black painting with portal form], 1952–53; oil, enamel paint, and newspaper on canvas, 54 7/8 x 51 3/4 in. (139.38 x 131.45 cm); Promised gift of a private collection; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


Over a period of two years beginning in 1951, Robert Rauschenberg developed a body of work created from black paint and scavenged newspapers that investigated the intersection of painting and collage. Although the artist did not consider these paintings to be a formal series, they all explore the gestural and compositional potential to be found in working with a highly restricted palette and range of materials. The 1951 paintings are glossy and uniformly saturated with black paint, while the 1952–53 works, including Untitled [black painting with portal form], display rough surface textures, incorporate black and even white paint of various sheens, and tend to reveal more of their collaged newspaper. Begun while Rauschenberg was taking classes during the 1951–52 academic year at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Untitled [black painting with portal form] features a deep black rectangle—the portal form—surrounded by a loose grid of exposed newspaper and layers of paint that are almost geologic in their application. The sheet of newspaper that forms the portal shape undulates and lifts, projecting a tactility that complements the caked and crackled paint around its perimeter.

Upon its completion, Untitled [black painting with portal form] was included in Rauschenberg’s fall 1953 exhibition at Stable Gallery, New York, where it was hung with the portal form oriented vertically. At the end of the exhibition, the piece was purchased by Rauschenberg’s friend Carolyn Brown (b. 1927), a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and her husband at the time, composer Earle Brown (1926–2002). Brown commented that the vertical black rectangle troubled her, so Rauschenberg suggested that they hang the painting as shown above, rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise from its gallery orientation. Since that time, both orientations have been considered acceptable.

True to the approach typical of the artist’s later Black paintings, Untitled [black painting with portal form] leaves certain newspaper clippings uncovered by paint. Although these snippets are legible at very close range, Rauschenberg did not choose them for their wording or imagery, as would become the artist’s practice in his collage and assemblage works of the mid-1950s. Instead, the criteria for inclusion were largely based on the color, shape, and texture of the fragments. This strategy marked a departure from earlier twentieth-century traditions of collage (as seen in Cubism and Surrealism), which meaningfully juxtaposed selected words and pictures. By contrast, Rauschenberg’s use of paper in this artwork parallels the paint handling of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. Ultimately, however, the rippled, stratified surface of Untitled [black painting with portal form], with its carefully wrought layers of text and paint, moves beyond the gestural vocabulary of the New York School, reflecting the unique syntax explored throughout Rauschenberg’s Black paintings of 1952–53.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Untitled [black painting with portal form]
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
oil, enamel paint, and newspaper on canvas
54 7/8 x 51 3/4 in. (139.38 x 131.45 cm)
Promised gift of a private collection
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.


Untitled [black painting with portal form]

By James Merle Thomas, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

In September 1953, visitors to the Stable Gallery in New York encountered three bodies of work by the twenty-seven-year-old artist Robert Rauschenberg. Installed among a number of large, monochromatic pictures, now known as the White Paintings (1951), and a few Elemental Sculptures (ca. 1953)—objects combining stone, wood, rusted metal, and found objects—was a selection of his Black paintings, an imposing series of large canvases layered with newspaper and dark paint of varying finish and consistency.

Research Materials


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