Robert Rauschenberg and the Agility of Images


On the occasion of the major retrospective Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules at SFMOMA, the museum hosted a colloquium on Saturday, February 10, 2018, which gathered scholars, curators, and artists to consider Rauschenberg’s engagement with photography throughout the course of his career. Photographic images saturate Rauschenberg’s work. Using an array of techniques including collage, solvent transfers, and silkscreening, Rauschenberg recontextualized pictures from a vast image bank that he collected across his lifetime. He remixed, layered, flipped, enlarged, and dissolved images, developing an extraordinarily elastic understanding of how they operate, both within an artwork and in the larger world. By combining art-making processes and media, he reimagined what a photographic image was and could be.

Select programs presented in conjunction with Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules are made possible with support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

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10 a.m.
The Agility of Images: Rauschenberg and Photography

Sarah Roberts, Introduction
Meredith George Van Dyke, Robert Rauschenberg and the Optical Device
Beth Bird, The Cinematic in the Work of Robert Rauschenberg: Indexicality, Contingency, Temporality, and the Archive

11 a.m.
Contemporary Artists Respond to Robert Rauschenberg

Tomoko Kanamitsu, Introduction
Maria Elena González, Captiva-ted
Tim Hyde, Red Sun (2017–18)
Maria Elena González and Tim Hyde in conversation with Robin Clark

12 p.m.
Late Transfer Works by Robert Rauschenberg

Tomoko Kanamitsu, Introduction
Kaeleigh Thorp, The Object behind the Work: Notes on Rauschenberg’s Photographic Process
John Zarobell, Beyond Photographic Ontology: Response to ‘The Object behind the Work’
Emily Liebert, Rauschenberg’s Active Images

2:30–3:30 p.m.
Gallery Talks

Indira Allegra on Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting [three panel] (1951) and Pelican (1963)
Gregory G. Geiger on Robert Rauschenberg’s Scanning (1963)
Amanda Hunter Johnson on Robert Rauschenberg’s Hiccups (1978)
Peggy Phelan on Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy (1979)



What aspect of Robert Rauschenberg’s use of photographic images is most relevant for you, or for artists working today?

Beth Bird

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.

Maria Elena González

During my residency with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, I lived for a month with Yellow Ranch (Rancho Amarillo)/ROCI CUBA (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange), which is shown in SFMOMA’s Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules. Perhaps because it depicts Cuba with recognizable images, the artwork felt familiar to me. It isn’t a specific image per se, but the approach that Rauschenberg took toward expression and exploration in his artwork, whether through objects, performances, or images, including his own photography.

The voracity and sheer fearlessness with which Rauschenberg made work has always been a charge for me. He gave himself permission to do it all: photography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, screenprinting, performance, and so on. However, I think the camera, of all the tools he used, became his sketchbook as well as an archiving mechanism. The camera allowed him to document at the speed at which we experience the world. I also think that the ability of the photographic image to convey the specificity of certain moments, people, places, and objects was part of the reason Rauschenberg took it on so fully. He copied and pasted images before computers were ubiquitous. He was appropriating and sourcing images before the Internet. Furthermore, the artist used methods of transferring that were not common practice in fine arts at that time, such as soaking magazine pages in Acetone. His audacity and irreverence for pretty much anything, including other artists’ works, as seen with Erased de Kooning Drawing, gives his work an energy and freshness that I find compelling to this day.

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency gave me the chance to work with photography in a way I had not been able to before. I was provided with a list of available equipment to choose from, including both an 8×10 and a 4×5 camera, among other types, as well as digital and analog printing facilities. Nature features prominently in my work via imagery, format, and content, so it is no surprise that what I chose to photograph in Captiva were the trees, birds, and light. It was such a gift to stay on Rauschenberg’s compound and use his equipment and supplies. After one month and countless photographs, I left with ten photo editions, many tests, unique pictures, and a couple of sculptures. The opportunity to work on these while meeting and interacting with other artists at the residency was one of my most cherished and fruitful experiences.

A recent artwork of mine, Bobbin (2012) is a homage to Rauschenberg’s The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr) (1981). Similar in ethos to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Last Breath, with its homage to Pauline Oliveras, I made Bobbin with Rauschenberg’s last utilized mobility aids. Of note in the piece is the bottom left walker, where I appended a beaker with a rose. The walker itself was retrofitted for the artist to attach a camera to it. Until the end, Bob, just kept shootin’.

Tim Hyde

My work Red Sun is directly inspired and informed by several bodies of Robert Rauschenberg’s prints and collages from the late 1960s to the 2000s. I began to study Rauchenberg’s work from a photographic perspective after moving to California in 2014 and conducting research for my own photographic collage work exploring the epic scale of the ongoing construction and destruction of the American West. A specific point of reference is Rauschenberg’s series of lithographs Stoned Moon (1969–70). Rauschenberg traveled to Cape Canaveral to witness and photograph the Apollo 11 launch to the moon. The final lithographs present an expanded physical, sensory, and metaphysical experience of viewing the launch, which would mark the first time a human being stepped off planet Earth and onto another celestial body.

The primary photographic documentary subject of Rauschenberg’s trip to Florida—the rocket—was just one visual element in his collages, which also include photographs he shot of the immense launch structures looming over the swampy landscape, close-up nature photos of birds nesting in the nearby marshes, and found commercial photos of orange groves as state symbols and product advertisements. Rauschenberg collapses the hierarchy of all this content, both found and made, connecting the global event to the immediate physicality of our bodies and the quick synaptic shifts of our attention. The results elicit a deeply human and empathic awareness to an event too large to conceive as a single representational moment.

A series of location and studio-based photographic works and films, Red Sun explores the catastrophic and transformational properties of fire. The work-in-progress is a response to the 2017 wildfires in California, the most destructive recorded in the history of the state. A dominant feature of contemporary digital culture is seeing, watching, and reading about significant global events—such as fires, floods, and hurricanes—in real time, from anywhere in the world. Since Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published in 1977, there has been an ongoing debate surrounding the conditions in which photographic images bring us closer to the pain or joy of others and the conditions in which they push us away. Red Sun is a struggle with the language of photography in the orbit of a disaster.

Kaeleigh Thorp

As a biologist I find Robert Rauschenberg’s use of photographic images scientifically multifaceted. Inquisitively minded, he gathered an array of materials and conducted open-ended experiments to explore the limitations and combinations of chemicals and compounds to discover the capabilities of different materials. This artistic philosophy of allowing elements to reveal and represent themselves is critical for artists working today. As technology continues to advance, it becomes increasingly easier to manipulate mediums, disregarding their natural qualities and organic potential. Rauschenberg’s pictures remind us that, as with any artistic medium, photography can take infinite forms—including ways we have yet to realize or understand—if we simply allow it to do so.

The Blueprints series (1949–51) highlights the beauty behind experimenting with different levels of development and exposure when working with traditional photogram paper. With the Dante drawings (1958–60) captivating works of art are born out of the playfulness of transferring images from magazine clippings onto paper with lighter fluid and a ballpoint pen. In the series Borealis (1988–92) and Night Shade (1991) representations of subjects ranging from the natural world to fine art are discovered by allowing different metals, acids, and solvents to interact without manipulation. If artists working today see photographs merely as the result of the quality and type of camera from which they were taken, only a minuscule fraction of their images’ artistic possibilities will be revealed. It is imperative—whether one is a scientist, an artist, or both—that we continue to explore the photographic process as multilayered and comprised of much more than simply capturing an image in high resolution and swiping it through preprogrammed filters. Through countless works Rauschenberg highlights the methodology behind and journey to the final piece, rather than the results alone, which is something from which present day photography could benefit. One of the many reasons Rauschenberg’s photography is so accessible is that it uses the world and its readily available materials to bridge the gap between art and life; organic processes of the outside world stand on their own. Rauschenberg’s work can be appreciated not only by the artist and the curator, but also by the scientist, the technician, and any individual who is able to see their everyday world unfold through Rauschenberg’s lens. As long as photography remains a primary means of sharing specific objects or moments, adopting Rauschenberg’s impartial curiosity and appreciation for the role of materials in the artistic process will enable more relatable and intimate interpretations of the world around us.

Meredith George Van Dyke

“My favorite place is here, and my favorite time is now!” Rauschenberg wrote this mantra late in his career as he reflected on the immediacy of photography. This evocation of “now” is conveyed throughout his artworks—even when photographs are not physically present—and his chosen pictures or objects often match the intensity and saturation of images in today’s digital landscape. Photography offered an opportunity for the artist to record the world as it appeared to him; it was a technique employed to make the everyday visible, for instance through the inclusion of socks, chair legs, or newspapers in his Combines. In addition, Rauschenberg’s deep understanding of how to make a photograph reveals the artist’s interest in perspective and the mechanics of picture-making, both of which furthered his facility with image manipulation.

As a young student, Rauschenberg thought he would become a photographer; this early pursuit underpins his whole artistic output. One example can be seen in Untitled [optical device], a spare and refined collage from an early body of work called Shirtboards, which features an image of a solar microscope. Historically, solar microscopes were designed to project images—making them well-suited for classrooms where multiple people could view and learn from the same source. However, artists such as William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) used them to make static pictures of details not visible to the naked eye, like the scales on an insect’s wing. Rauschenberg selected the image of the microscope from a nineteenth-century French physics textbook that he likely found during his travels through Europe and North Africa in 1952 and 1953. The illustration was meant to show how the mirror reflects sunlight through lenses to magnify whatever is placed in-between two glass plates and subsequently projected. Yet Rauschenberg upends its function through the addition of a cut-and-pasted figure. The woman in the mirror appears to look at us, the viewers, while the “projected” depiction is flipped and gazing away. The scene is further complicated by the placement of these figures on gridded paper, a common tool for artists to create linear perspective. This rather quiet early work reveals the artist’s complex play with the dynamics of seeing.

Rauschenberg freed pictures to be easily manipulated in an era that predated tools like Photoshop by cutting, transferring, flipping, and silhouetting photographs and printed reproductions. Such techniques demonstrate how finely attuned he was to how the eye perceives and how a camera functions. These strategies and histories make Rauschenberg’s artwork feel very timely and provide an endless array of possible connections pertinent to today’s constantly updating Instagram feeds, digital billboards, and cellphone cameras that inundate our daily lives.

John Zarobell

To me, Rauschenberg’s most important legacy in the domain of photography is the way that he transformed the photographic image into material, shifting its purpose from object to experience.

Since the beginning of photography, the images developed through this technical method have been associated with truth and thus we tend to view photographs as transcriptions of reality or, more poetically, windows on the world. In an age of photographic hypersaturation, it seems almost as if the representations of the world threaten to overwhelm the objects they purport to show. In other words, reality is not recorded in the photograph so much as produced by it. In this way, though the photographic image may indeed be a digital capture, it is no longer an object but a means of accessing the production of truth. The experience of taking a snapshot and then sharing it has become so popular it has given birth to multiple transnational corporations (Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) and an expansive online domain. This new world is manufactured through images and the experience of making and consuming them has supplanted the previous function of photography to confirm visually the truth of the world we inhabit.

So how did Rauschenberg get there first? Through collage, silkscreen, and transfer, he employed photographic images to generate art and aesthetic experiences. These photographs were, in many ways, just like the other found objects that transmit a certain character in his work and bring their own inherent meanings to his compositions. By mixing images and objects together, he achieved a new kind of artistic practice that shadowed Dada and surrealist collage but broke new ground in building support structures that led to the development of assemblage. These were literal structures —sculptural and spatial—but they were also figurative, meaning they became the container of projections not only by the artist but by the audience as well. Like the panels of White Painting (1951) that are animated by the viewers’ shadows and reflections, the combines and assemblages are defined by the meanings the viewers themselves cast on the works. The meaning of the photographic snippets Rauschenberg selected—whether a quotation from a historic work of art, a street scene in New York City, or a nature photograph of a bald eagle—did not confirm the existence of some world outside the image, but allowed viewers to compose realms based on their experiences encountering the artwork. The photographs Rauschenberg used in his assemblages and combines did not unmask a reality so much as invite the production of truth among their viewers. This not only anticipated our collective experience of the digital domain of images, but this kind of production and subjectivity has also become a global industry. Even Rauschenberg’s fertile imagination could not have dreamed this up.


  • Indira Allegra, Artist
  • Beth Bird, Documentary Filmmaker and PhD candidate, Department of
    Film and Media, University of California, Berkeley
  • Robin Clark, Director of the Artist Initiative, San Francisco Museum of Modern
  • Gregory G. Geiger, Artist
  • Maria Elena González, Artist and Associate Professor, Sculpture and New
    Genres, San Francisco Art Institute
  • Tim Hyde, Artist and Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History,
    University of California, Davis
  • Amanda Hunter Johnson, Conservator, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Tomoko Kanamitsu, Program Associate, Higher and Continuing Education,
    Education and Public Practice, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Emily Liebert, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Cleveland Museum of
  • Peggy Phelan, Ann O’Day Maples Chair in the Arts, Professor of Theater &
    Performance Studies and English, Stanford University
  • Sarah Roberts, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture,
    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Kaeleigh Thorp, Graduate Student, Museum Studies, University of San
  • Meredith George Van Dyke, Curatorial Assistant, Painting and Sculpture, San
    Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • John Zarobell, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Director of
    International Studies, University of San Francisco