Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends

*Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno*

Robert Rauschenberg. Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. 1958-1960

Robert Rauschenberg. Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, 1958–60. Thirty-four solvent transfer drawings of printed images rubbed onto paper with a ballpoint pen barrel; with watercolor, gouache, pencil, colored pencil, chalk, crayon, and cut-and-pasted paper on paper. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 1963

Leah Dickerman: In the middle of 1958, Rauschenberg took on a project that would occupy him across the course of the next two and a half years. He wanted 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.

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. So I really welcomed, insisted, on it—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. In this way, he was mixing images that were snipped from the flow of the contemporary media world with traditional fine art media. And he called them "Combine" drawings.

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