Press Office News

SFMOMA And Robert Rauschenberg

Released: May 13, 2008 · Download (3 KB PDF)

The work of Robert Rauschenberg, who passed away on May 12, 2008, is among the most important achievements of any artist of the 20th century and has been singularly influential in the development of American art in the postwar period. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, Rauschenberg created art in perhaps a greater range of materials and methods than any other contemporary artist. Early on in his career, Rauschenberg’s enthusiastic embrace of popular culture and rejection of Abstract Expressionism led him to search for a new way of painting. The technique he developed—and returned to throughout his career—of incorporating found objects and representational imagery into his painted compositions helped instigate a shift away from the reigning mode of abstract expressionist painting and set a precedent for Pop art. Rauschenberg continued to produce art well into his 80s, even after the right side of his body was paralyzed by a stroke in 2002. His prolific career yielded more than six thousand individual works (not including prints and multiples).

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) cultivated a great friendship with Rauschenberg over the years, and currently has 92 works by the artist in its holdings: 15 major paintings, sculptures, and works on paper; 15 photographs; and 62 prints. SFMOMA was one of the first major art institutions to recognize the significance of Rauschenberg’s artistic contributions, and the museum has continuously supported his work, even when the greater art world had reservations. “The death of Robert Rauschenberg marks the loss of one of the most singularly important and influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries,” commented Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture. “SFMOMA developed a very close relationship with Rauschenberg over the years. We are truly honored to be the caretakers of an immeasurably significant collection of his work—one that reveals the artist’s wit and irreverence, endless inventiveness, conceptual rigor, and tremendously generous spirit.”

SFMOMA acquired its first Rauschenberg work, Collection (1953–55), in 1972 through a gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson. One of the first “combines”—as the artist dubbed his freestanding and wall-hung painting-sculpture amalgams created between 1954 and 1964—Collection is a large composition incorporating brash red paint strokes, fabric, wood fragments, newspaper clippings, and reproductions of canonical artworks (including Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can, 1876).

A significant moment for SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg holdings came in 1998 with the acquisition of 14 seminal works, primarily from the artist’s collection. At the time, the acquisition marked one of the most extensive commitments made to a living American artist by any American museum. It brought together some of the best-known and most influential pieces from the artist’s oeuvre, assembling a body of work reflective of the full span of Rauschenberg’s career. The acquisition was made possible through major support from the late Phyllis Wattis, a lifetime SFMOMA trustee and leading San Francisco philanthropist.

The acquisition included objects dating from the earliest period of Rauschenberg’s career, the years 1949 to 1954, when he studied at Black Mountain College and began to work in New York. During this time, he developed the principal themes and motifs that he would go on to explore throughout his career. A highlight from this period is Erased de Kooning Drawing from 1953. Perhaps the most conceptually radical—and wittiest—work Rauschenberg ever made, Erased de Kooning Drawing, involved the simultaneous unmaking of one work in the creation of another. To realize this piece, Rauschenberg approached Willem de Kooning with a request for one of de Kooning’s recent drawings, which Rauschenberg then literally erased. (Many years later, while visiting SFMOMA, Rauschenberg revealed that it was only after a fair amount of liquor that the reluctant de Kooning obliged the request, and surrendered a much-worked crayon, pencil, and ink piece.) Though not known to have been publicly shown in the 1950s, Erased de Kooning Drawing quickly became infamous as the antithesis of abstract expressionist art practice.

Also from the summer of 1953 is Automobile Tire Print. For this process-oriented piece, Rauschenberg placed 20 sheets of drawing paper that he had glued together on the pavement and directed his friend John Cage to slowly drive his Model A Ford over the paper as he continually re-inked one of the tires with black paint. The result is a 22-foot-long tire print, which is shown unrolled like a Japanese scroll. Essentially using the car as a printing press, Rauschenberg created an image of modern mobility.

In addition to these conceptual pieces, other early works acquired by SFMOMA in 1998 include Mother of God from 1950, which was presented in Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951. The painting clearly demonstrates the influence of Abstract Expressionism on the artist and also contains collage elements of printed maps and newspapers that would later become so fundamental to his work. The white palette of Mother of God is echoed in another major work from the acquisition, White Painting [three panels], 1951, part of a series of modular paintings on which the paint was applied with a roller. The white paintings have been heralded as early presages of minimalist art, and they reveal the influence of Rauschenberg’s most important teacher, Josef Albers, from Black Mountain College.

Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) from 1953 is one of two sculptures included in the acquisition. Although more simple than Rauschenberg’s later and more elaborate sculptural constructions, Elemental Sculpture is the embodiment of Rauschenberg’s exploration of the fundamental properties of sculpture. of the ball-and-chain structure made of stone, iron, and steel somehow seems to defy gravity. Trophy IV (For John Cage) was part of Rauschenberg’s Trophies series from the early 1960s, comprising works made in homage to friends.

Photography functioned as an essential element in Rauschenberg’s work, whether incorporated into his paintings or as the primary medium itself. His studies at Black Mountain College included work with Hazel Larsen Archer and Aaron Siskind, and for a time Rauschenberg considered devoting himself to photography. His early work in photography was largely autobiographical or documentation of his friends, such as in the iconic five-work series Cy Twombly + Roman Steps. Rauschenberg met fellow artist and lifelong friend Cy Twombly in 1951 in New York, and they were students together at Black Mountain College. These wonderfully humorous photographs—beginning with Twombly’s feet and gradually including more of his lower body until the final photograph of his torso and upper legs—were taken on the artists’ trip to Italy in 1952.

The 1998 acquisition also added another important combine work to SFMOMA’s collection: Untitled (ca. 1955), which is unusual in its more somber colors and its arresting use of a torn shirt and a metal funnel suspended from the top of the work and anchored at the bottom.

Two other works from the 1998 acquisition offer further evidence of Rauschenberg’s continual exploration of technique and media. Scanning (1963), incorporates collage elements transferred to a two-dimensional plane through silkscreen, a method that enabled him to work on a dramatically enlarged scale. This painting draws on classic images from the Rauschenberg lexicon, such as a rocket ship, an umbrella, and a ballet scene. The dance reference is essential, recalling Rauschenberg’s longtime collaboration with dancers, including Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.

After a decade of working primarily in technology-based work and performance collaborations, Rauschenberg had a renewed engagement with collage and assemblage in the early 1970s. Among his primary materials were paper and fabric, which are used to beautiful effect in the Pyramid Series from 1974. The veiling and translucency of the white, tattered fabrics in this series creates a sense of utter fragility.

In 1999 Rauschenberg honored Phyllis Wattis, whose generosity made possible the previous year’s major acquisition, by giving the work Hiccups (1978), to SFMOMA in her name. Another significant work from his personal collection, Hiccups consists of 97 linked transfer drawings on sheets of handmade paper which fasten together with common metal zippers in an infinite number of combinations. When fully assembled, the work, which bears images of the artist’s trademark bicycles, tires, and athletes, extends to nearly 63 feet in length. Rauschenberg had kept Hiccups in his own collection since its execution in 1978, but increased interest in the work propelled his decision to make the gift to the Museum in Wattis’s name.

Selected Rauschenberg Works SFMOMA’s Collection

Quiet House, Black Mountain, ca. 1949
Gelatin-silver print
20 x 16 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Mother of God, ca. 1950
Oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and copper and metallic paints on Masonite
48 x 32 1/8 in.
Purchased through gifts of Phyllis Wattis and an anonymous donor

Untitled [glossy black painting], ca. 1951
Oil on paper on canvas
71 1/2 x 52 3/4 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

White Painting [three panels], 1951
Oil on canvas
72 x 108 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Cy + Roman Steps (I, II, III, IV, V), 1952
Suite of five gelatin-silver prints
20 x 80 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Untitled [self-portrait, Black Mountain], ca. 1952
Gelatin-silver print
3 1/4 x 5 5/8 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Untitled [black painting with portal form], 1952/1953
Oil and newspaper on canvas
Anonymous promised gift

Automobile Tire Print, 1953
Ink on 20 sheets of paper, mounted on fabric
16 1/2 x 264 1/2 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953
Traces of ink and crayon on paper with mat and label hand-lettered in ink, in gold-leafed frame
25 1/4 x 21 3/4 x 1/2 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) [steel flange and stone], ca. 1953
Hinged steel flange, steel strap, iron bolt, and stone
13 5/8 x 18 1/4 x 9 1/8 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Collection [formerly Untitled], 1954
Oil, paper, fabric, and metal on wood
80 x 96 x 3 1/2 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Anderson

Untitled, ca. 1955
Combine painting: oil, paper, fabric, and newspaper on canvas with wood, string, nail, and metal funnel

31 1/2 x 25 1/8 x 9 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Trophy IV (For John Cage), 1961
Combine: metal, fabric, leather boot, wood, and tire tread on wood, with chain and flashlight

33 x 82 x 21 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Scanning, 1963
Oil and ink on canvas
55 3/4 x 73 in.
Anonymous fractional and promised gift

Pyramid Series, 1974
Embossed paper and fabric
80 1/2 x 177 1/16 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Hiccups, 1978
Solvent transfer and fabric, with metal zippers, on 97 sheets of hand-made paper
9 x 752 in.
Gift of the artist in honor of Phyllis Wattis

Catastrophe, 1996
Vegetable dye transfer on plaster (fresco)
111 x 75 in.
Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, fractional and promised gift to SFMOMA

Port of Entry, 1998
Vegetable dye transfer on polylaminate
123 3/4 x 180 in.
Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis

Jill Lynch 415.357.4172
Clara Hatcher Baruth 415.357.4177 chatcher@sfmoma.org
Press Office