Baltimore Museum of Art

Baltimore, MD



Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture


Quintessential American artist Robert Rauschenberg is the subject of the first focus exhibition in the BMA's West Wing for Contemporary Art since the galleries opened in 1994. At 74, Rauschenberg today is recognized as one of the world's most important and prolific living artists and has recently been described by the New York Times as 'an American institution." Robert Rauschenberg's work during the last half of the 20th century influenced the development of major artistic movements, such as Pop Art and the continued use of everyday objects in contemporary art. This dynamic exhibition features a rare opportunity to focus on Rauschenberg's most innovative contribution to contemporary art, his Combines. On display through May 20, 2001, Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture is organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art.

The exhibition focuses on a four-decade period of great creativity in Rauschenberg's career -- when he began experimenting with assemblages that broke down barriers between painting and sculpture by incorporating everyday objects such as Coca-Cola bottles, clothing, newspaper clippings, taxidermied animals, and photographs into his work. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg invented the term *Combine" to describe this new art form. (left: Rose Condor (Scale), I977, mylar, silk, silkscreen, four electric light bulbs, wood, pillow, Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff)

Surveying the artist's work with the medium from the 1950s through 1980s, Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture features eight masterworks, including Canyon, 1959, and Rose Condor, 1977. With these works, Rauschenberg explores one of the most important issues in contemporary art even today -- the idea of blurring the boundary between the rarefied realm of art and the more prosaic realm of the everyday.

Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture is curated by Helen Molesworth, the BMA's Curator of Contemporary Art According to Molesworth, "Rauschenberg's Combines are lush meditations on the complexity of images and objects in everyday life."


Artist Background

Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, Robert Rauschenberg began his artistic career in the late 1940s. Following a series of trips to Europe and attendance at several art schools, Rauschenberg moved to New York and set up a studio in the same building as Jasper Johns with whom he formed a profound friendship. During this time, Rauschenberg began to produce his influential Combines, a term he invented to describe this new art form that broke down barriers between painting and sculpture. After his first exhibition, in 1958 at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Rauschenberg met Marcel Duchamp, whose "ready-mades" and work with found objects had a significant influence on the young artist

In 1964, Rauschenberg won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale, firmly establishing his reputation worldwide. Since then, his work has been shown at major venues throughout the United States -- including a monumental retrospective at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum in 1998 -- and in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Munich, Moscow, and London. His most recent work, called Synapsis Shuffle, consists of a series of 52 silk-screened paintings on metal. Like a deck of cards, the screens -- depicting urban and rural scenes and passages of color and light - -must be "shuffled" and reinstalled each time the work goes on view. Rauschenberg asked well-known public figures -- such as artist Chuck Close, style-setter Martha Stewart, and journalist Mike Wallace -- to participate in the installation of the work that has been described as exploring the boundary between fine and performance art. Synapsis Shuffle debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art earlier in 2000. (left: Canyon, 1959, Combine painting: oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood on canvas, plus buttons, mirror, stuffed eagle, cardboard box, pillow, paint tube, Collection Ileana and Michael Sonnabend, New York, on extended loan to The Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA R.10519)

A socially and civically-conscious artist, Rauschenberg set up the foundation Change Inc., which provides housing and studio space for destitute artists in Florida. He was also involved in the appeal against taxation regulations for nonprofit art institutions. Rauschenberg now lives in New York and Captiva Island, Florida.


Essay by Helen Molesworth, the BMA's Curator of Contemporary Art

Robert Rauschenberg's most frequently cited quote is "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)" What does Rauschenberg mean that neither art nor life can be made? Is he suggesting that both are readymade and always precede us? And what is or, more precisely, where is, the gap between art and life? This deceptively simple statement is a launching pad from which to start thinking about Rauschenberg's most innovative and important art historical contribution, the Combines.

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to break down the rigidly held barriers between the mediums of painting and sculpture by combining both mediums into one work of art. He started by collaging photographs, newsprint, and other forms of photographic reproductions into his paintings. Soon after he was incorporating all kinds of materials from the realm of everyday life into his canvases: clothing, urban detritus, cast-off commodities, even taxidermied animals. He coined the term "Combine" to differentiate these works of art from traditional painting; they were neither painting nor sculpture, but rather an indelible mixture of the two. While the term Combine technically refers to works made between 1954 and 1962, Rauschenberg continued throughout his career to produce series of Combine-style works that deployed this strategy of radical collage and combination. This breakdown of traditional genres permitted another important aspect of Rauschenberg's work to flourish -- the slippage between the arenas of high and low culture -- for the works marry the painterly gestures of fine art to everyday objects.

The Combines possess an alternating exuberance and poetic sensibility. When they were first seen in the 1960s, art critics viewed them as lush formal exercises in the elaborate composition and arrangement of shapes, colors, and textures. More recently, however, critics and historians have discussed them as if they were a mysterious code, implying that the viewer should decipher the message or solve the riddle. These games of interpretation are notoriously difficult because the images and objects are not presented to the viewer in an ordered fashion. It is, therefore, hard to discern what object or image is more important than any other. It is not coincidental that Rauschenberg's Combines came of age in the burgeoning era of television and the mass media; some art historians have suggested that the random, non-hierarchical quality of the Combines is analogous to the image-saturated culture we inhabit.

In addition to evoking popular culture, Rauschenberg's strategy of accumulation has also provoked critics to consider his works as analogous to both fine arts and natural history museums. Historically, the role of the museum has been to collect and preserve the legacy of the past for the edification of present and future generations. Rauschenberg's Combines mimic the arbitrary accumulations of objects to be found in museum collections. Situated between the culture of the mass media and the museum, the Combines point towards the deluge of information that shapes our experience of everyday life.

Rauschenberg's work repeatedly pulls the realms of art and the everyday into close proximity, yet we must recall that he attempts "to act in the gap between the two." In many ways the viewer is placed in that gap, a space in between the cast-off commodities of yesterday and the high art to be preserved for posterity. It is in this nebulous region that the viewer is offered a moment of reflection about how we organize and order the extraordinary volume of objects and information in our lives, and how we may come to see randomness in order, and aesthetic beauty in the everyday.

Helen Molesworth, Curator of Contemporary Art


Helen Molesworth

A distinguished scholar, writer, and curator, Helen Molesworth joined The Baltimore Museum of Art as Curator of Contemporary Art in January of 2000. During her tenure at the BMA, she has expanded the Museum's impressive collection of contemporary art, overseeing major acquisitions, including Untitled (Ligne Ostende-Douvres) by Joseph Cornell, (c.1956), and Boite-en-valise by Marcel DuChamp, (1958).

Director and Curator of the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery and Assistant Professor of Art at the State University of New York at Old Westbury from 1997 to 2000, Molesworth had curated several exhibitions there, including: Measurement: Vito Acconci, Mel Bochner, On Kawara, Mimi Smith, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles; Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith; Faith Wilding: Embryoworlds; and Picturing the Civil Rights Movement.

From 1990 to 1997, Molesworth worked in the Education Department at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where she lectured, trained the museum docents, planned educational programs, and wrote interpretive materials for Whitney exhibitions.

As the founding editor of Documents, a magazine of contemporary visual culture, Molesworth has written and lectured widely about critical and interpretive issues in contemporary art today. Her articles on contemporary art have appeared in both critical and art historical journals including October and Art Journal, as well as in numerous exhibition catalogues.

Molesworth received her Ph.D. in art history from Cornell University in 1997. In 1995-1996, Molesworth received the American Council of Learned Societies/Henry Luce Dissertation Fellowship in American Art. She was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1989-1990.


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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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