Robert Rauschenberg
Untitled [black painting with portal form], 1952–53


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.

Ownership, Exhibition, and Publication Histories

Ownership History

Carolyn and Earle Brown, purchased 1953

Purchased by an anonymous donor as a promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996

Exhibition History

Rauschenberg: Paintings and Sculpture; Cy Twombly, Paintings and Drawings, Stable Gallery, New York, September 15–October 3, 1953.

Rauschenberg: The White and Black Paintings 1949–1952, Larry Gagosian Gallery, New York, April 18–May 31, 1986.

Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 15–August 11, 1991. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, September 27, 1991–January 5, 1992; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 8–April 19, 1992; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 14–August 16, 1992; Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, October 24, 1992–January 24, 1993.

Robert Rauschenberg, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 7–September 7, 1999.

The Campaign for Art: Modern and Contemporary, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 14–September 18, 2016.

This listing has been updated since the launch of the Rauschenberg Research Project and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Publication History

Walter Hopps, ed., Robert Rauschenberg (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), 78 (ill.).

Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Penguin, 1976), 209.

Rauschenberg: The White and Black Paintings 1949–1952 (New York: Larry Gagosian Gallery, 1986), n.p. (ill.).

Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Menil Foundation and Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 100, 153, 176, 177 (ill.).

Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, L’informe: Mode d’emploi (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1996), 56 (ill.), 247.

Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 23, 44, 78 (ill.), 209.

Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 54, 55 (ill.).

Stephanie Rosenthal, Black Paintings (Munich: Haus der Kunst, 2006), 127 (ill.).

Germano Celant, Alberto Burri (New York: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 2007), 12 (ill.).

This listing has been reviewed and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Marks and Inscriptions

Recto: None

Verso: Not available for inspection

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Untitled [black painting with portal form]
Artist name

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.

Research Materials

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