2. Combine paintings and transfer drawings, 1954–61
Source: Oxford University Press
In 1953 Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning for a substantial drawing with the express intention of rubbing it out so that only faint traces of the original could be seen. While this act (Erased de Kooning Drawing; artist’s col., see 1976–8 exh. cat., p. 75) of simultaneous homage and sabotage towards one of the most esteemed artists of the time has generally been seen as a sign of Rauschenberg’s debt to Dada, his purpose was not to make an anti-art gesture but to open up the possibilities about what art could be.
Among the Dadaists Rauschenberg’s greatest affinity was with Kurt Schwitters, whose Merz collages had suggested the possibility of finding beauty through the retrieval of refuse and humble materials gathered together while wandering the streets. In 1954 Rauschenberg began to produce paintings such as Charlene (1954; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), which combined objets trouvés, postcards and other printed materials into a frantic and physically substantial surface as a way of alluding to what he referred to as the ‘gap’ between art and life.
Rauschenberg called these works ‘combines’ because of their mixture of techniques, but at their most sculptural it was clear that their debt was to traditions not only of collage but of Assemblage. Their reliance on discarded materials and frequently squalid appearance made them influential examples of Junk art, especially in the case of free-standing works such as Odalisque (1955–8; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). Certain works, such as Bed (1955; New York, MOMA), executed at the same time as the paintings of flags by Jasper Johns, who had a studio in the building also occupied by Rauschenberg from 1955 to 1958, influenced the emergence of Pop Art in their identification of the work of art with a real object.
Rauschenberg used great ingenuity in alluding to personal and shared experiences. There is often a sense that his works are to be regarded as collaborative ventures with the spectator, as in Black Market (1961; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), which consists not only of a painting but also of a suitcase containing objects meant to be used by the viewer in completing the work. Another ‘combine’, Pilgrim (1960; Berlin, R. Onnasch priv. col., see 1976–8 exh. cat., p. 110), consisting of a paint-smeared chair resting against a broadly painted canvas, relates to a black-and-white photograph he took in 1949, Quiet House—Black Mountain (see Robert Rauschenberg Photographs, pl. 1), in which a shaft of light falls across one of two chairs seen frontally against a bare wall.
During this period Rauschenberg also developed a transfer drawing technique, by which he dissolved printed images from newspapers and magazines with a solvent and then rubbed them on to paper using a sharp pencil. The process allowed him freely to combine images from a variety of sources on a single surface. He used it to particular effect in a series of 34 Drawings for ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1959–60; New York, MOMA). The methods of free association by which he built up these compositions, indebted in part to Surrealism, remained an essential ingredient of his later art.
From Grove Art Online