Narrator: The artist Robert Rauschenberg made Bed in 1955, using oil paint and pencil on a pillow, quilt, and sheet, backed by wood supports. This three-dimensional work is nearly 6 feet, 4 inches high and 2 feet, 8 inches wide. Because of the protruding pillow, the work is 8 inches deep. In metric units, that is about 191 centimeters high, 80 centimeters wide, and 20 centimeters deep.
The work is about the same size as a twin mattress. It looks like a half-made bed hanging vertically on the wall. To make it, Rauschenberg combined everyday objects including a quilt, sheet, and pillow, with more conventional art materials like paint and pencil. He called this type of work a “combine.”
We’ll explore this work in more detail, beginning with the bedding. A well-used patchwork quilt covers the lower two-thirds of the work. It has been folded in half so that its red and tan border is visible along the work’s bottom and right edges.
Like many quilts, this one features a repeated geometric design created from stitched squares arranged in a grid. Four rows of four squares are visible on the quilt, though more may be hidden beneath thick layers of paint. The quilt squares are made up of several rectangular pieces of fabric, cut and sewn together in an arrangement that evokes a log cabin quilt pattern. Each quilt block features a small red square in its center, boxed in by several bands of narrow rectangles of increasing length in red, blue, and tan patterned fabric.
In addition to the quilt, the work also has a pillow and sheet. The pillow juts out from where it is adhered at the very top of the work. The sheets are visible where the quilt has been folded down from its top edge. The pillow and top of the quilt sag down, in contrast to the mostly taut surface of the rest of the quilt.
Rauschenberg added his own marks to the “bed.” The pillow and sheet are covered in pencil marks. They trace long jagged lines and patches of dense grayish-black scribbles. The lower half of the pillow, the sheet, and the top third of the quilt are splashed with strokes and drips of red, green, black, yellow, orange, brown, white, blue, and burgundy paint.
Some of the color has been squeezed directly out of the tube, like toothpaste. Other marks look like they have been applied with a brush, and still others were dripped. The varied methods of application mean that some colors appear bright and solid, while others appear blended and muddied.
In the area between where the pillow ends and the quilt begins, so much paint has been applied that it’s hard to make out the color of the bed linens underneath. The soft surfaces, wrinkles, and folds of the fabric in this area have been made stiff with paint.
About halfway down from the top of the work, the tangle and density of paint begins to lessen. There are fewer marks and splashes, and then only a few drips make their way down the quilt surface, toward the foot of the bed.
Now let's learn more about this work from the artist and a curator.
Artist, Robert Rauschenberg: It was very simply put together, because I actually had nothing to paint on. Except it was summer time and it was hot, so I didn't need the quilt. So the quilt was, I thought, abstracted. But it wasn't abstracted enough, so that no matter what I did to it, it kept saying, "I'm a bed." So, finally I gave in and I gave it a pillow.
Curator, Ann Temkin: I think you can look at Bed as a work that literally wanted to mess up the idea of painting as something as pure and elegant, and instead, say that painting could be something that’s kind of bodily. I think he wanted the idea of a bed partly because you do think of a bed in association with all sorts of bodily functions, happy ones and unhappy ones. And there couldn’t be any more direct way of saying, art can be about our animal selves, not just our cerebral, intellectually, emotionally elevated selves.