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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.

Details

  • Title: Collection
  • Creator: Robert Rauschenberg
  • Date Created: 1954/1955
  • Physical Dimensions: 80 x 96 x 3 1/2 in. (203.2 x 243.84 x 8.89 cm)
  • Subject Keywords: combines; assemblages; abstract
  • Type: painting
  • Rights: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
  • External Link: SFMOMA, Robert Rauschenberg discusses Collection at SFMOMA, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
  • Medium: oil, paper, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas
  • Credit Line: Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
  • About the Artist: Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg served in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1945 before studying art, first at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1947–48, then briefly in Paris, at the Académie Julian, in the summer of 1948. That fall he enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in order to study with Josef Albers (1888–1976), the renowned Bauhaus teacher, designer, and painter. Rauschenberg moved to New York City in fall 1949 and enrolled at the Art Students League, where he took classes intermittently through 1952. During this period he took time to return to Black Mountain for several shorter terms of study. His experiences and the friendships he formed there deeply influenced the improvisational use of materials and collaborative strategies that would define his career. Two of Rauschenberg’s most significant collaborators were composer John Cage (1912–1992) and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), who taught at Black Mountain in the summer of 1952. Following their time together at the school, the three men engaged in a robust artistic and intellectual cross-fertilization that would fuel Rauschenberg’s work well into the following decade., In fall 1952, Rauschenberg spent six months traveling in Italy and North Africa with fellow artist Cy Twombly (1928–2011). Back in New York, immersed in the circle of artists known as the New York School and with Cage and Cunningham’s avant-garde influence as a foil, Rauschenberg explored many of the central ideas of Abstract Expressionism, both acknowledging and transgressing the movement’s emphasis on gesture, individualism, action, and direct expression through paint. A period of vigorous experimentation in 1953 culminated in two of his most controversial, now iconic works: Erased de Kooning Drawing and Automobile Tire Print (both 1953). His best known body of work, the Combines (1953–64), paired representational elements—such as magazine and newspaper clippings, fragments of clothing, and construction debris and other items gathered in the streets of New York—with compositional strategies explored by the Abstract Expressionists. Blurring the boundaries between painting, sculpture, and collage, these works earned Rauschenberg international acclaim by the mid-1960s., Rauschenberg’s impulse to merge media and spheres of artistic activity propelled him into the realm of experimental dance and theater. He designed costumes, lighting, and sets for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1954 to 1964, and in 1963 he began choreographing and performing in works of his own invention. His interest in collaborating with scientists and engineers led him to cofound Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization that fostered such partnerships, in 1967. The 1960s also saw Rauschenberg becoming increasingly active politically, with particular emphasis on global humanitarian and environmental issues. At the end of the decade, he moved permanently to Captiva Island, Florida, prompting a radical change in his work as he turned temporarily to simple materials such as paper, cardboard, and pencil, partly in response to the spare resources of his new island home., With his move to Captiva Island, Rauschenberg expanded his studio’s specialized capabilities and support system of assistants and technical collaborators, building an environment that fed his appetite for experimentation. Areas dedicated to lithography, metalworking, painting, silkscreening, and eventually, digital printing were built during the 1970s and 1980s, giving him free reign to pursue a vast range of media and processes. He continued to mix art materials and disciplines in provocative ways, with an increasingly global frame of reference. His intense engagement with cultural and social issues led him to organize the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange from 1984 to 1991, an unprecedented project that took him to countries such as Tibet, Cuba, and China and sought to create social connections and bridge political differences., The staggering breadth and diversity of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre make it difficult to summarize. His work has been described variously as a precursor to Pop art, Minimalism, process art, Conceptualism, and performance, testifying to the revolutionary effects that his cross-disciplinary and iconoclastic approach had on the field of American art in the postwar period.

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