A “Combine” is neither a sculpture nor a painting but rather a hybrid of the two. Robert Rauschenberg developed the term to describe a series of works he began in 1954 that eluded traditional art media categories. Collection (1954/1955) is the artist’s first “Combine painting,” an early type of Combine that hangs on the wall like a traditional painting but reaches into three dimensions with various elements attached to the work’s surface—such as the silk veil over the mirror attached just off-center and the found wood scraps along the top edge. This work also marks a new approach to color. In a decisive move away from the experimental monochromatic series of white, black, and red paintings he created between 1951 and 1953, Rauschenberg began Collection by covering three panels with red, yellow, and blue fabric and layering them with innumerable collaged, drawn, painted, and sculpted elements. The same year that Rauschenberg began Collection he started to experiment with extending the three-dimensionality of the Combines, incorporating both wall and floor components and even creating fully freestanding works, such as Untitled, in the Panza Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Collection is distinctive for the range and variety of materials it incorporates. In contrast to the approach seen in his Red Paintings (1953–54) and his Black paintings (1951–53), where the collage papers and fabrics typically play second fiddle to the painted passages, here Rauschenberg gives everyday objects the same prominence as conventional art materials. Comic strips, squirts of oil paint, art magazine illustrations, and a host of textiles jostle for attention, and gestural paint strokes drawn directly from the vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism carry the same compositional weight as newspaper clippings of car thefts and department store advertisements. Rauschenberg creates a sense of equality across this diverse visual field in part through the work’s structure. The three vertical panels, in addition to referencing the traditional triptych format, appear to be horizontally subdivided into three regions: a relatively quiet area along the top, bordered by a long squeeze of red paint that crosses the surface from left to right; a densely layered strip across the center, where the majority of the collaged elements are concentrated; and a band of brightly colored stripes that fills the bottom. The resulting three-by-three grid both consolidates and unifies the work’s otherwise chaotic surface.
During preparations for Rauschenberg’s 1976 retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in Washington, D.C., organizing curator Walter Hopps approached the artist about naming several Combines that until that point had remained untitled. Rauschenberg’s choice of Collection as the title of this work can be read in a number of ways. Hopps suggested that the artist was paying homage to the National Collection of Fine Arts, the first venue on the retrospective tour. Interpreted more literally, the title could reference the collection of wayward scraps scattered across the composition, from the tiny fabric reproductions of masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) to the print of Nicolas and Guillaume Coustou’s bas-relief Le Passage du Rhin (ca. 1733) and the Re Umberto Brand food packaging in the upper left corner. Through such acts of gathering and combining, Collection bridges cultural references high and low. It also links Rauschenberg’s early artistic explorations with a new phase of experimentation. The Combines brought Rauschenberg international success, and their innovative approach to blending materials and categories remains one of the most significant developments in the history of twentieth-century art.