Collection 1940s–1970s

Robert Rauschenberg. Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error from the series Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante's Inferno. 1958 439

Solvent transfer drawing, pencil, gouache, and colored pencil on paper, 14 1/2 × 11 1/2" (36.8 × 29.2 cm). Given anonymously. © 2022 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Curator, Leah Dickerman: In the middle of 1958, Rauschenberg took on a project to create illustrations for Dante's Inferno, a work that was written over 600 years before. And to work on these drawings, he set a series of rules for himself. He would only read one canto at a time, and then he’d make a drawing. He wouldn't read ahead and so he could respond to it with a kind of freshness.

Artist, Robert Rauschenberg: When I started the Dante illustrations, I had been working purely abstractly for so long, it was important for me to see whether I was working abstractly because I couldn't work any other way, or, or whether I was doing it out of choice. And so I really welcomed—insisted—on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject, which meant that I would have to be involved in symbolism. Well, I spent two and a half years deciding that yes, I could do that.

Leah Dickerman: He developed an innovative technique for the drawings. It was a solvent transfer technique, choosing photo-based images from popular illustrated magazines, like Sports Illustrated, or Life and Time. He would soak the images with lighter fluid, flip them over, and rub on their back with an empty ballpoint pen. And that would transfer the image to a sheet of drawing paper. Then, he added touches of wash, and gouache, and crayon, and pencil.

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