It may seem counterintuitive to call the art of Robert Rauschenberg cinematic. Best known for his prints, collages, and combines, most of the artist’s work consists of autonomous physical objects designed to be exhibited in a gallery. Even his time-based pieces, including performances and choreography, rarely incorporate film or video. While many of his contemporaries—artists who are often linked art-historically with Rauschenberg, such as Andy Warhol or Bruce Conner—are pioneers of avant-garde cinema, Rauschenberg was never a filmmaker. Yet much of Rauschenberg’s artistic output contains characteristics that underlie the formal features of film-based moving images, including contingency, indexicality, movement, or the repetition of still images to create the appearance of movement, and the archiving and recirculation of photo-based images. Several of Rauschenberg’s works, examined here through the lens of film theory, are, at their core, cinematic.
In The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, film theorist Mary Ann Doane argues that cinema is seen, paradoxically, to embody the contingent, while at the same time archiving the present to be re-experienced in the future, which attenuates ephemerality. The large, white, rectangular surfaces of the White Painting are visually suggestive of a movie screen onto which the shadows of viewers or the reflections of colors from nearby objects are cast, bringing into play the indexical mark, movement, and chance. Like cinema, the White Paintings form a structure for visual contingency, allowing viewers to more consciously experience fleeting optical phenomena in their environment. Yet unlike film, they do so without archiving it, thus retaining their ephemerality.
Industrialization led to changes in the ways time was experienced at the turn of the last century, and the medium of cinema, for Doane, is imbricated in these changes. Within this context there is a drive to make time and duration visualizable, and moving pictures are seen as “the imprint of time itself.” 1 The visual representation of the passage of time is a recurring theme in Rauschenberg’s work, and he makes his own attempts to “print” time and movement, such as Automobile Tire Print (1953), which uses an indexical mark to archive the duration of an ephemeral occurrence. The artwork is the tire print of a Ford Model A driven over twenty sheets of paper. The fact that the line is machine-made links it to the movie camera, another mechanical means of recording events. By registering multiple revolutions of the car’s wheel onto a continuous strip comprised of the repeated rectangular frames of the pieces of paper, the work evokes the serial imagery of a filmstrip.
Hiccups (1978), consisting of sheets of collaged handmade paper attached by metal zippers, is also analogous to a filmstrip, with separate “frames” that may be rearranged, as one would cut and splice film. Like cinema, which creates the illusion of motion from serial still photography, Hiccups’s images, while static, feel kinetic. They evoke Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies—images in which he both froze motion and reanimated still photography using pre-cinematic techniques, like his famous study of a running horse, which appears in Hiccups.
The Revolver series (1967) consists of silkscreened images on Plexiglas discs mounted one behind the other turned by an electric motor, reminiscent of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope. Like much of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, each of these artworks uses the photographic archive to reframe and recontextualize images. In terms of its relationship to the cinematic, however, the Revolver series stands out for its kinetic use of indexical images to create ephemeral configurations. Like cinema, the images in Revolver shift more in time than in space, with the rotating disks creating a spatial container for viewing durational image compositions.
These examples demonstrate that Rauschenberg was engaging with cinema by incorporating filmic strategies in several of his important works.
1. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, The Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 22.