Continuing its pioneering use of technology, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has published its first online collection catalogue, the Rauschenberg Research Project, which features nearly 90 works by artist Robert Rauschenberg that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. Accessed through SFMOMA’s website, the online catalogue presents a seamless blend of rigorous scholarship and multimedia resources drawn from new, existing, and related materials, taking full advantage of the breadth and accessibility of its online format. The Rauschenberg Research Project comprises the largest research effort the museum has ever devoted to a single artist with more than 500 images, videos, and research materials assembled for the project; the publication’s print equivalent would have totaled over 600 pages.
In keeping with SFMOMA’s emphasis on artists’ voices, the project combines first-person perspectives and primary materials with the expertise of museum staff and outside scholars. Catalogue users can delve into a rich range of resources, including 19 newly commissioned essays by Rauschenberg experts in addition to 33 comprehensive artwork overviews that feature highly specialized images; videos of artist interviews or works in motion; detailed conservation reports; and other archival documents. Made possible by a grant from the Getty Foundation, the Rauschenberg Research Project is part of the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) and produced with the support of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
“The Rauschenberg Research Project presents fresh perspectives and original, in-depth research, gathered over more than four years, on some of Rauschenberg’s best-known works, offering readers a true insider’s view into the artist’s thinking and process,” says Sarah Roberts, SFMOMA Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture. “We extend our gratitude to the Getty Foundation for their extraordinary generosity and inviting us to participate in the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, and we give warm thanks to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for fully supporting our vision for this publication.”
While printed versions of scholarly collection catalogues have long been a critical part of museum publishing programs and a key resource for researchers, their high production costs and small print runs have hindered accessibility and made revised editions extremely difficult to realize. The Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative—an effort dedicated to bringing collection catalogues into the digital age—is transforming how museums disseminate scholarly information about their collections, exploring the potential for catalogues to be more current, interactive, and widely available in an online environment.
“Online technologies are the key in enabling museums to disseminate information about their collections more broadly and inventively,” said Deborah Marrow, director of The Getty Foundation. ”The nine museums working together as part of OSCI are tackling the big issues and sharing lessons learned for the benefit of the entire museum field. The Getty Foundation is delighted by the results to date, and we congratulate SFMOMA on the publication of the extraordinary Rauschenberg Research Project.”
Highlighting SFMOMA’s exceptional Rauschenberg holdings, the publication encompasses 87 of the artist’s sculptures, paintings, works on paper, photographs, and “Combines” (hybrid works of painting and sculpture). The Rauschenberg Research Project pulls together existing materials drawn from the archives of SFMOMA and other institutions, as well as new content specially commissioned for the project. The catalogue also brings forth research discoveries made during the publication process. In addition to presenting deeper and richer content, the Rauschenberg Research Project is fully integrated into the collections area of SFMOMA’s website to provide a dynamic, sustainable, and straightforward interface to fully explore the available resources. The catalogue content for each artwork is organized into three sections: Overview, Essay, and Research Materials.
Comprehensive Artwork Overviews
For all catalogued works, the Rauschenberg Research Project offers significantly enhanced and amplified artwork overview pages with new brief summary texts; complete ownership, exhibition, and publication histories; notes on marks and inscriptions; and recently created high-resolution, zoomable images. In addition, the Overview page highlights select detail views and historical photographs that illustrate little-known aspects of each artwork and recent research discoveries. For instance, the catalogue entry on the early Combine Collection (1954/1955), contains a previously unpublished image of the artwork in its first exhibition in 1954–55 and a highlighted image showing significant changes to the piece made by the artist after the exhibition closed.
Newly Commissioned Essays
The publication includes 19 essays dedicated to individual artworks or series written by leading Rauschenberg scholars, including:
- Susan Davidson, senior curator for collections and exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who was a curatorial advisor to the artist from 2001 until his death in 2008. Davidson is currently a board member of the Rauschenberg Foundation and has produced numerous exhibitions and publications on the artist, including the first monograph devoted to the artist’s photograph oeuvre from 1949–62, which was recently published. For the Rauschenberg Research Project, she has written on Mother of God (ca. 1950), one the artist’s earliest surviving paintings.
- Branden W. Joseph, the Frank Gallipoli Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and a founding editor of the journal Grey Room. For the project, Joseph has contributed an essay on Postcard Self-Portrait, Black Mountain (II) (1952).
- Sarah Roberts, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and project director of the Rauschenberg Research Project. Roberts has spent four years engaged in intensive archival research, conducting interviews with studio assistants, friends, and colleagues of the artist; and collaborating with SFMOMA's conservation staff. She contributed six essays, including assessments of White Painting [three panel] (1951), Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), and Collection.
- Jeffrey Saletnik, assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, and an art historian with research interests in the history and theory of pedagogy and the relationships between visual arts and music. Saletnik has published extensively on John Cage; for the present publication he has authored the essay on Trophy IV (for John Cage) (1961).
Extensive Multimedia Research Materials
The Research Materials pages for each artwork introduce numerous photographs—archival views, details, inscriptions, or the back of a work—as well as images produced with highly specialized technology (e.g., infrared or custom digital processing). Among the latter is a digitally enhanced infrared image of Erased de Kooning Drawing, which reveals for the first time traces of the original drawing by Willem de Kooning that Rauschenberg effaced. The wide range of images captures the complex construction and exceptionally nuanced imagery of the artist’s works. Also in Research Materials, readers will find video segments from an extended interview conducted with Rauschenberg in 1999 in which the artist looks back on his own work, previous museum publications, and select essential primary documents, such as early exhibition reviews, rare articles, and artist statements. Curatorial research and conservation reports drawn from the museum’s files round out this section of the catalogue. With this rich array of resources, the Rauschenberg Research Project has established a new model for collection publishing that SFMOMA will continue to utilize in disseminating scholarly material in the most innovative and accessible ways.
Technology at SFMOMA
The development of the Rauschenberg Research Project furthers SFMOMA’s commitment to expanding digital engagement with the goal of making the art of our time a vital and meaningful part of public life. Reflecting the Bay Area’s renown for pioneering new technologies and innovative ways of thinking, SFMOMA is widely acknowledged as a leader among museums worldwide for using technology to engage visitors, both onsite and online, through such projects as its award-winning website, original podcasts, multimedia mobile tours, a robust social media presence, and its community-centered blog Open Space. SFMOMA has consistently forged new models of museum education by developing in-house expertise in rich-media tools that enhance public understanding of modern and contemporary art.