Director, Glenn Lowry: Canyon is one of Robert Rauschenberg's best-known Combines—a term the artist used to describe works in which he attached found materials and cast-off objects to a traditional canvas support. It's also one of several that include taxidermied animals.
Curator, Ann Temkin: Canyon became very notorious because of that eagle projecting out from it, almost as if it were a trophy above a fireplace. Or, for that matter, some kind of great dead bird that would have been in an old master painting by somebody like Rubens or Rembrandt. Canyon is still shocking today in terms of the absolute collision of two dimensions and three dimensions, of object and paint, and of things that might seem to not have meanings that emerged from their conjunction.
Glenn Lowry: The seeming rawness of Rauschenberg's style was a radical departure from the lyrical beauty of Abstract-Expressionist paintings by artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, which dominated the New York art scene at the time.
Ann Temkin: Right at the top of the painting you see a squeezed out paint tube, squiggling a few last bits of paint onto the surface. In a way, what that tube is saying is, its over for the kind of painting that used beautiful oil in an expressive composition. It's time for the junk to have its day on the stage.
Canyon is one of Rauschenberg’s Combines, hybrid works incorporating painting, collage, and found objects that he began making in 1954. Rauschenberg often kept an eye out for curious items in the street while walking around downtown New York, later repurposing “whatever the day would lay out” for his artistic ends. The centerpiece of Canyon is a stuffed bald eagle that was found in a pile of discarded belongings in the hallway of the Carnegie Hall studio building and given to Rauschenberg by fellow artist Sari Dienes. It juts out from a canvas covered with pieces of a collared shirt, floral fabric, a photograph of Rauschenberg’s young son, a flattened metal drum, and a wrung–out tube of oil paint, among many other items. Canyon was perhaps Sonnabend’s favorite work of art: she once joked, “If they build a pyramid for me when I die, I would like it in there with me.” Rauschenberg’s esteem for Sonnabend was just as high—he claimed that he “never finished a painting without wondering what Ileana would think of it.”