January 24, 2014  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Diving into Rauschenberg’s Canyon

Cover of Raushenberg: Canyon by Leah Dickerman, published by The Museum of Modern Art

Cover of Raushenberg: Canyon by Leah Dickerman, published by The Museum of Modern Art

As recounted in curator Leah Dickerman’s new book, Rauschenberg: Canyon , in 1959 Robert Rauschenberg received a call from a friend, the artist Sari Dienes, who wanted to offer him a taxidermied bald eagle she had fished out from the junk heap of a recently deceased neighbor, one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Rauschenberg had recently become famous for incorporating all types of found materials into his art, so this kind of offer from friends was not unusual. He didn’t hesitate to turn down objects that weren’t quite right, but in this case, he said yes at once.

Rauschenberg affixed the bald eagle onto a canvas that would eventually become Canyon (1959), one in a series of radically experimental works he called Combines, which mixed paint and other art materials with things found in daily life. In Canyon, a seemingly incongruous variety of objects surround the eagle, including a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son, Christopher; a postcard of the Statue of Liberty; a man’s white shirt, cut and opened up; a crumpled tube of paint; fragments of printed words; and an industrial metal drum.

Rauschenberg: Canyon, the latest volume in the MoMA One on One series, sheds light on the genesis of this startling and enigmatic work by tracing the artist’s education, influences, and travels through Italy, Morocco, and Spain. Rauschenberg first started using found materials while attending Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where every student was required to pitch in with community labor. Rauschenberg volunteered for garbage collection, and ended up incorporating the objects he found in his classmates’ trash into his art. The hybrid creations he began producing in the mid-1950 with recognizable, everyday items offered a defiant counterpoint to the quintessential American style of Abstract Expressionism that prevailed at the time. As he wrote in his earliest statement on the Combines, in 1956: “I consider the text of a news­paper, the detail of a photograph, the stitch in a baseball, and the filament in a light bulb as fundamental to the painting as brush stroke or enamel drip of paint. In the end, what one sees as my work is what I choose to make with no guaran­tee of enlightenment, humor, beauty or art.”

Canyon, currently on view at MoMA in Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New, had been in gallerist Ileana Sonnabend’s personal collection since she purchased it from the artist the year it was made. Sonnabend was one of Rauschenberg’s lifelong champions, and her support played a significant role in his becoming the first American artist to be awarded the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, in 1964. Following her death in 2007, her heirs entered a curious debate with the IRS regarding the work. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 made it illegal to buy, sell, barter, or possess a bald eagle in the U.S. Canyon was allowed to remain in Sonnabend’s collection because Rauschenberg had provided a notarized statement saying the bird had been stuffed by one of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders before the laws’ passage, but because it could not be sold, the family’s appraisers had valued it at zero. The IRS disagreed, ruling that it was worth far more, and assessed an estate tax and penalties on the heirs. The resolution they reached allowed the family to donate the work to a U.S. institution in exchange for dropping the tax claim. Thus, in 2012, Canyon was generously donated to The Museum of Modern Art, where it joins five other Combines, to provide an in-depth representation of this key aspect of Rauschenberg’s career.

To learn more, download a free preview of Rauschenberg: Canyon by Leah Dickerman.