In 1959, Robert Rauschenberg included the following, now-infamous statement in the catalogue for the landmark exhibition Sixteen Americans, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” The importance of this statement cannot be underestimated in terms of the intellectual floodgates that it would open in the art world of the 1950s, altering the discourse surrounding the age-old question of what art is.
In 1973, critic Brian O’Doherty coined the term ”vernacular glance” to describe Rauschenberg’s insatiable appetite for collecting and reproducing visual phenomena in the form of mass-produced images and his ability to translate sensory overload into nuanced juxtapositions within his works. He was writing about Rauschenberg’s “combines”—which the artist began producing in 1954—a body of work that straddled the lines long established between painting and sculpture. Considered neither one by the artist, but embodying the characteristics of both, the combines would mark a defining moment in the history of twentieth-century art. They recalled Picasso’s use of newspaper and bits of wood as collage elements in his papier collé works as well as the Surrealists’ fascination with disjunctive images born in the subconscious. He also reconsidered the Abstract Expressionists’ impassioned mark-making and preempted the Pop artists’ appropriation of mass-media imagery. By attaching fabric, newspaper clippings, photographs, magazine reproductions, articles of clothing, street signs, taxidermied animals, mirrors, and other found objects to his canvases, Rauschenberg shifted the attention of the art world from the ivory tower to the street and the gutter. The objects he selected were not pristine items purchased off store shelves, but the necessities and ephemera of life that boasted the patina of everyday use. Impastoed and dripping gestural brushstrokes as well as patches of bare canvas further articulated the dissonant surfaces of the combines.
Around 1960, Rauschenberg was beginning to feel constricted by this process—his choices and responses had become too rote and predictable. For an artist who had once said, “I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing,” fluency was the death knell to his creativity. He soon transitioned from excess visual incident to relative spareness by leaving larger expanses of canvas empty and increasing the frequency of painterly gesture. Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp) (1960), one of Rauschenberg’s most important combines from this period, is one such work. He created a total of five trophy paintings from 1959 to 1962, paying homage to artist friends who had had an impact on his artistic and personal life: Merce Cunningham, Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, John Cage, and Jasper Johns. Although not personally acquainted with Duchamp prior to 1959, when poet and critic Nicolas Calas brought Duchamp to visit him and Johns at their Front Street studios, Rauschenberg felt an affinity for his “readymades” and deep respect for his lifelong tendency to go against the grain.
Rauschenberg’s nonhierarchical openness to all media is a hallmark of his practice. He has searched tirelessly for new formal means through which to bring the world into his art, including the production of transfer drawings, a self-taught technique he began exploring in earnest in 1958. One of his most celebrated bodies of work, the illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (1958–1960), was created by soaking magazine images with a chemical solvent such as lighter fluid, placing them face down on a sheet of paper, and rubbing them with an empty ballpoint pen cartridge. In 1962, when he finally acquiesced to Tatyana Grosman’s repeated invitations to make prints at her workshop, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), in West Islip, Long Island, the result was several innovative (and award-winning) editions. Later that year, after a visit to Andy Warhol’s studio, where he saw several very early examples of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings, Rauschenberg adapted this process to his own practice, thus enabling him to transfer a single image ad infinitum on a much larger scale. Like his use of collaged elements in his combines, all of these print techniques granted the artist the flexibility to work in two dimensions as successfully as he did in three.
Booster (1967), a monumentally scaled lithograph and screenprint in the Walker Art Center’s collection, was the first major project the artist produced at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, and the largest print that the pioneering lithography workshop had produced up until that point. Conceived as an autobiography, the central skeletal image derives from multiple X-rays of the artist’s body. Named for the first-stage rockets that launch capsules into space, the print also includes numerous ancillary images forming modular units that overlap and butt up against one another, creating windows of perspectival depth. A small image of the launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the upper right as well as a 1967 astronomy chart showing the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter screenprinted in red all point to the artist’s lifelong obsession with space exploration.