Return to Articles


May 21 - September 4, 2006 at The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown


Views by Jody Zellen. . . .Mat Gleason

Art © Robert Rauschenberg/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

"Canyon," 1959, oil, pencil, paper,
fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed
paper, printed reproductions,
photograph, wood, paint tube, and
mirror on canvas with oil on bald eagle,
string, and pillow, 81 3/4 x 70 x 24".

"Odalisk," 1955/58, oil, watercolor, pencil,
crayon, paper, fabric, photographs,
printed reproductions, miniature
blueprint, newspaper, metal, glass,
dried grass, and steel wool with
pillow, wood post, electric lights, and
rooster on wood structure mounted
on four casters, 83 x 25 1/4  x 25 1/8".

"Monogram," 1955-59, oil, paper, fabric,
printed paper, printed reproductions,
metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and
tennis ball on canvas with oil on
Angora goat and rubber tire on
wood platform mounted on four
casters, 42 x 63 1/4 x 64 1/2".

"Untitled (White Shoes)," c.1954, oil,
pencil, crayon, paper, canvas, fabric,
newspaper, photographs, wood,
glass, mirror, tin, cork, and found
painting with pair of painted leather
shoes, dried glass, and Dominique
hen on wood structure mounted on
five casters, 86 1/2 x 37 x 26 1/4".

From 1954 to 1964 Robert Rauschenberg created hybrid works, now referred to as the Combines, that fused painted and sculptural elements.  These works were a radical departure from the Abstract Expressionism which was in vogue at that time, as Rauschenberg transformed the art for art’s sake aesthetic associated with Abstract Expressionism in favor of work that broached a personal, political, and social content.  Stylistically his works borrowed from Abstract Expressionism with their gestural brushstrokes and colorful application of paint; where they differed was in their insistence in occupying three-dimensional space, and incorporating the stuff of life--photographs, newspaper clippings, and thrift store objects.

To say Rauschenberg’s Combines immediately changed the way we looked at art is not exactly true.  That these works challenged the conventions of what was ‘acceptable’ is more to the point.  When they were first made and presented they were not met with overwhelming praise, it was only after time and in retrospect that the Combines’ influence and importance came to fruition.  Today it is easy to recognize Rauschenberg’s contributions, and difficult to imagine a negative response.  Seeing over 70 Combines installed here makes this exhibition the most extensive display of the Combines since the 1960s.  Gathered together, their impact and significance becomes startling.

Rauschenberg’s first Combines were paintings that incorporated newspaper clippings, fabric and found objects fused in a subtle, yet compositionally complex way so that form and content became one.  The works often needed to be read as well as looked at, as in “Will” (1954), in which a newspaper excerpt about Ted Williams is immersed in layers of oil and enamel paint; or in the small work, “Elaine’s Party” (1954) where the newspaper headline “DeKooning Draws Light” (Elaine was the wife of premier Abstract Expressionist Willem DeKooning, and herself an artist) has been brushed over by white paint and juxtaposed with the remnants of a deflated balloon.  Rauschenberg, who was infamous for erasing a DeKooning drawing, was purposeful in the art and real world references he incorporated into his works--this work illustrates an obvious, if intentionally ambivalent nod to Willem DeKooning.

Among the best known Combines are “Bed” (1955--but not in the MOCA version of the show), in which a pillow, quilt, and sheets are covered in scribbles of pencil and drips of red, white and blue paint (a reference to Jasper Johns’ “Flag” paintings) are displayed on a wood frame the size and shape of a twin bed, and “Odalisk” (1955/58), a four-sided collaged box standing one-legged on a small white pillow.  Sitting atop this Combine is a rooster who presides atop the box, all of which is attached to a pedestal on casters.  Numerous art and personal reproductions depicting the female odalisk, or slave, adorn the wooden structure.

“Monogram” (1955-59) may be the best known of all Rauschenberg’s works.  In 1955 he purchased a stuffed Angora goat, and after numerous wall configurations he created the floor bound final version of Monogram.  The goat is placed on a hinged platform decorated with fragments from wooden signs, bits of newspaper text and expressive markings of brown, black and white paint.  The goat, whose painted face looks longingly out from the center of the work, is encircled by a rubber tire with tread that has been painted white.  “Monogram” can be seen from all four sides and its multiple meanings come from the synthesis of the references culled by examining all sides of the work.

Rauschenberg’s work is complex and deep. While on the surface it may appear to be messy and randomly put together, nothing is left to chance.  His Combines allowed painting to come off the wall an into the viewer’s space, and to turn found objects into art.  As the works evolved they began to occupy more three dimensional space and incorporated functional objects like fans, light bulbs and clocks.  In “Reservoir” (1961) two clocks and numerous circular things are adhered to a wooden support. The work references time as well as movement, yet as neither clock displays the correct time one is left to ponder the meaning of the double clocks.  One of Rauschenberg’s later Combines, “Gold Standard” (1964) can be thought of as a culmination.  The piece is a bright yellow folding screen packed with a light bulb, diagrams, gestural painting, bits of fabric, as well as personal ephemera and a ceramic dog.  The work is static and simultaneously dynamic. It can be looked at as well as read, and functions as both a painting and a sculpture.

With his Combines Rauschenberg proved that art is anything and everything.  Having opened up the door and expanded the parameters of what art could be, Rauschenberg proudly walked through the opening and beyond 1964 continued to make some of the most innovative and beautiful works of art created in the 20th Century.