Project 2.5: Still life and the Combine – Robert Rauschenberg and more

Stefan513593 -Ex. 2.4 - Combine Two - feat2

Robert Rauschenberg

Looking at Robert Rauschenberg (1925 – 2008) seem to be a expansive endeavour. Thus, I looked first how others did see him and noted down some quotes from statements of various artists ( Tate shots video on Rauschenberg:

“He is one of the first people to explode the surface of the painting into the world of the viewer”, “our tendency is to seek a narrative, he presents possibilities of that, and then undercuts it”, “everything is part of our visual world, thus everything can be drawn into a piece of an art” – Sir Alan Parker

“do require a bit of work from the viewer, comfort zone disruptive quite visceral” – Cornelia Parker

The following two quotes from the same video resonates very truthfully how I envision, experience my surrounding world, me and the way I want to make sense as an artist:

“ability to making images, is in us – the complexity of how we assemble a picture of the world” – Philippe Parreno

and last not least Rauschenberg’s own words

“Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” – Robert Rauschenberg, 1959

With relation to my object-box made out of all kind of nonsense, dysfunctional objects, not really of use in daily life as such, another thought crosses my mind of how we do make sense and build relationship with objects, objects we know, possibly experience more unconsciously, and how possibly my work can address that mental and emotional process of connectivity and relationship. What draws our attention, our empathy? What makes it that we keep that attention over time and space? And what makes it fail, that we get rid of it? Unattended, lost, without even mourning ? In this context, Rauschenberg’s series ‘Cardboards’ (1971-72) seem to be a possible perspective for my unfolding box, all those works from his series are wall pieces (installations?) of unfolded found card boxes with traces of their origin and usage.  Based on these found objects, he made some ceramic casts, e.g. Tampa Clay Piece 3, 1972-73,  added tape and silkscreened details, confusion and challenging the viewer of their verisimilitude (Katz, 2017). I encountered the idea of casting first in House, 1993 of Rachel Whiteread and later Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space Under my Chair, 1965-66 – both revealing the surface of an object otherwise concealed, or unnoticed. Whereas, Rauschenberg’s work addresses the question of object as ready-made versus artwork representing a ‘real’ object.

Stefan513593 - Project 2.5 - Sketchbook unfolded Cardboard

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – Project 2.5 – Sketchbook unfolded Cardboard

I would love to see a major retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work, at least to see some of his objectified objects in reality. So far, I have to be satisfied with printed and online reproductions.

Rauschenberg was facing misinterpretations and was criticised for an appropriation of past strategies to critique contemporary art practices e.g, the gestural affirmation by Abstract Expressionists. Together with his close friend Jasper Johns (b. 1930), he is often classified by critique as Neo-Dada, because of their collage and multi-pictorial works relating to some works by Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) and e.g. his Merz Pictures as a collage of found imagery (the name Merz derives from the rather oldish German word Kommerz=commerce, or perhaps better to say: mass consumption). However, according to Craft (2013) the Neo-Dada notion would have been better been associated with the public outcry against his Combines or his earlier works Elemental Sculptures, e.g. Music Box, 1955, reminiscent to Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise, 1916. Rauschenberg’s earlier works ‘Scatole Personali (Personal Boxes)‘ , 1952/53 and ‘Feticci Personali (Personal Fetishes), 1953 that he made during his stay in Italy, resonate very much with my current ‘obsession’ with my peronal object-box though the objects I placed inside are not really personal (perhaps they just became it). But perhaps, each object in itself is of less importance?

Found object, ‘objets trouves’, collecting them and in incorporating them into new artefacts were one area of Surrealist artist, e.g. Man Ray (Cadeau, 1921/1970), Alberto Giacometti (Table, 1933/1969), Joan Miro (Peinture-objet, 1931 – see at: or or Max Ernst (The Sea (Marine), 1928). Miro and Ernst more in the tradition of painting. These Surrealists used found objects as artefacts in a juxtaposition for dysfunctional and rather symbolic assemblages. The called the relief or sculptural works ‘objects’ in order to distinguish the from the aesthetic connotation of sculptures. At times those object-assemblages became a mystic, surreal or fetishist dimension. Quite different from Duchamp’s ready-made that defer our perception of objects onto a meta-level of reflection (Zentrum Paul Klee, 2016:306-325).

The Combines: a collage response to a visual world

Rauschenberg’s Combines, created mainly between 1955 and 1961, do show a progression. His earlier works forming a critique of Abstract Expressionism as gestural emotional self expression by using a mix of personal and non-personal items, multi media, multi pictorial and sculptural, e.g. Untitled, 1954 – at times called by him as ‘Plymouth Rock’ as a ‘point of arrival in an unknown land’ (Craft, 2015:48). His later Combines could be seen more as reflection and journalistic strolling along a urban life and its environment, e.g. Rebus, 1955 or First Landing Jump, 1961.  And as the pulsing, ads, multiple pictures flooding towards the eyes, the attention to details is lost, blurred. Often one can’t remember at the end of the day what the eye received in visual information. Images pass by, and this might be the case with ‘Combines’ as well, so many visual information  in different places, seen from a distant, one tends to move along. But in a space like a gallery, one tends to look deeper, seeking meaning, trying to make sense out of it. As if the surrounding space supports as a protective space against further intrusion. It takes time to look at, through, outside and inside, and to digest or to make sense, if possible at all. Curiosity as a main driver. I feel as if this flood of visual information through objects and pictures is getting more and more a dominant presence in art spaces, e.g. Mark Dion’s exhibition at Whitechapel. Time to stroll or contemplate is over, though a deeper interrogation with one object or an assemblage might still be seen as ‘contemplative’ . Return of Modern Art in at a meta-level? Are we dumb and un-receptive for all kinds of visual information outside and more receptive in art spaces?

Steinberg (1972) stated in his essay that ‘the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but a operational process’. With this he describes a paradigm shift from a vertical posture towards a working on a horizontal surface like the flatbed printing press or studio floor or tabletops. A verticality that prevailed since the Renaissance one point view of perspective. Main force is gravity, as John Cage also argued (2003,) the vertical representing sight, the horizontal tactility and placement of objects as a ‘receptor surface on which objects are scattered’ (as those would obviously fall down on a vertical surface). Bottomline, how we relate to the world around (vision, operation) us dictates how we perceive a work, a painting, a map, an installation. What brings me once again to my previous reflection on perspective and imagery in a contemporary context related to today’s practice of top down views related to Google and satellite derived maps. A distancing view as an observer, even as an voyeur, looking down, to overview, for possible arrangements – quite like I experienced the previous exercise work with cut outs collage, a map.

Another aspect I find quite relevant in the perception of ‘Combines’, and later sculptural painting works, is the sense of assemblage, the sense that the whole is not any longer just the combine of all parts, but that the whole need to be seen rather independent of its parts. Looking at each part separately will only give some information, looking at the whole as an assemblage will provide a different insight. A notion that Sophia Starling described as the ‘integral whole’ (See below).

Rauschenberg’s famous ‘Combine’ is Monogram, 1955-59. He worked for four years on it till he found apparently the right assembly of the goat, the tyre and the support. There exist many different interpretations, related to critique of Abstract Expressionism to sexual statement. Possibly, this variety of interpretations, of sense-making, is one key aspect of ‘Combines’: the viewer as integral part of the work and the artist having merely a mediator role, a choreographer, as the viewer need to walk around or at times crouch down (as with the work Untitled, 1954). I find one aspect interesting in Monogram considering my object-box project : the hinge, normally intended to close or to fold, now a dysfunctional object, an artefact, a memory. 

Dance and Performance: Interaction with Objects

Since he joined together with Susan Weil the Black Mountain School, Rauschenberg got connected with dancer and choreographers, e.g. Merce Cunningham (1938 – 2009) and Trisha Brown (1936 – 2017). One of the first ‘Combines’, Minutiae, 1955 was specifically created as a stage prop and scenery for one of Cunningham’s dance performances. An object where the dancers could interact with (stands, hanging cloth) or pause at (and read comic strips glued to the support). The sculptural painting not an object to look at, but to engage with, to respond to, to establish a relationship with.

After seeing some other performative and collaborative works of Rauschenberg and team, e.g ‘Open Score, 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, 1966‘, I got reminded of system theory and cybernetic in context of Gregory Bateson, and his writing on mapping a difference related to how and what we see through our eyes, the difference between the territory and the map

“A difference which makes a difference” – Gregory Bateson

Ascott (2015) explored difference further and articulated a shift from the artist as a creator of objects towards a more process based affirmation of the artist as part of a wider collaboration creating ‘behavorial triggers’ as a dialogue. The viewer with all the senses is exposed to a blurring of boundaries, to move, to respond, and to make sense. Cybernetic as it moves endlessly in a feedback and response loop.

Rauschenberg was acting as the choreographer, a role that rather by chance he already inherited 1963 for the dance performance ‘Pelican‘. He avoided to be seen as an art-genius in a Modernist way by enforcing collaborative team work, with each member contributing equally.

During the previous part, I experienced performance or rather performative painting as an embodied expression and exploration of my surrounding space. My audience was absent, or only remotely present when looking dislocated at my online videos, leaving the camera as the observer representative. How to interact with a non-present audience? The idea of choreography didn’t surfaced in my work, yet. I felt I am more of an improvisation and direct responsive person, less of pre-planning steps after steps. And what else if choreography then an instruction of how to act, setting a sequence, and it might still be less instructive or planned? Reminds me of some Bruce Nauman’s films. e.g ‘Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk)’, 1968, a 60 min film inspired by some passages of Samuel Beckett and a apparently meaningless of repetitive actions (film shown 90 degree tilted, a confrontation of conventional perception and perspectives). Nauman is the performer. Similar as Rauschenberg himself often performed in his film.

The question for me is choreography of instructed sequences of steps, repetition as a method to challenge perception (and the perseverance of an audience as well) versus a more meaningful exploration of space.

Fabric: an enveloping material in dialogue with the canvas

Rauschenberg was eager to overcome the flatness of a painting, to avoid the painting as an objects hanging on a wall. The flat canvas, a symbol or metaphor for Modernist painting, was challenged, eg.  Minutiae, 1954 or Bed, 1955  – and was much later re-addressed, e.g. Glacier (Hoarfrost), 1974 or Pilot (Jammer), 1976.  An interest that was possibly considered as a bit weird (for a male) at his time. The question of canvas as fabric faced me also during my visit to Sam Gilliam in Basel.

There is something fascinating in the use of fabric besides being a support material of flat stretched canvas. Not only that fabric was so many times associated with folds (my interest) but also the aspect of enveloping as a rather fluid material. How this relates nowadays to the notion of non-male material, is unclear for me.

There are two other contemporary artists who do explore fabric material in context of ground/figure relationship and as kind of response to the constraints of a stretched canvas: Richard Tuttle and Sophia Starling.

Richard Tuttle  (b. 1941) e.g. I don’t know – The Weave of Textile Language, 2014 or his earlier work Bow Shaped Light Blue Canvas, 1967 (I’ve seen in at the Kunstmuseum, Basel – the light blue today faded away).

Sophia Starling and her wide range of fabric based sculptures. Her works seem to be rearrangement and a disolving of the difference between ground (canvas) and figure (shapes, objects), an interplay, a putting into relationship, a poetry of color and shape. For her ‘the painting .. operates as an integral whole’. And she describes furthe in her artist statement on Saatchi Gallery, how the ‘productive tension in my work derives from its engagement with the constraints, history and associative meanings of that medium’. For me an interesting aspect in her work is her use of simple shapes, and rather muted colors, only at times some rather pure primary colors (yellow, red, blue) appearing, activating stronger the composition. It seems, as if the use of brighter colors would raise a awareness of ground and figure difference, something Starling wants to avoid. Like to ‘unframe attention’ (Cage, 2003)

Text & Language

The perhaps most obvious use of text is the title of a work. A title that identifies an object as a work of art. Arthur Danto described it as the difference between mere objects untitled of a having a title, e.g. a chair, and art objects, e.g. a chair, that even with the title ‘Untiled’ distinguishes it from a mere object. Thus, the chair becomes art because of a human affirmation (Danto, 2006).

The title can illustrate or defer meaning. Rauschenberg used some of his titles to direct the viewer’s attention to a possible meaning, and then, as and as Parker stated above, ‘to undercut’ that idea of interpretation.

I was fortunate to visit Tate Modern in April and being confronted with Richard Tuttle’s System VI, White Traffic, 2011, one piece out of a range of twelve. An assemblage of all kind of materials, partly painted, with a sense of uselessness. Dysfunctional, though keeping my attention and curiosity. Tuttle made for each of the twelve systems a poem, an expansion of possible readings. Example is the following poem, related to  System VI, White Traffic, 2011 (one out of a series of twelve).

6      Space

Lubbuck Decision
   He wants to prepare
I had to go see him
   Yes bud
   get crazy
Duck prices
I forgot the stairs

Other examples of text:

  • Richard Tuttle Color as Language, 2014 – a ‘mixed media book’, edition of 100, handmade, teared edges, folded, exploration of drawings and text. No color inside, besides the manila paper, the color is in the language? and thus in us , in our mind? And ‘8 Poems‘, a handcrafted book with woodblock and handmade paper
  • Richard LongTextworks‘ => a verbal expression in few words of felt sensation on site, with typo that resonate somehow with the impression. During my personal project for Drawing 1 I was fascinated with Long’s site impressions. I took some further reference to the collaborative work of Deborah Harty and Phil Sawdon ‘The Taste of Tree?‘, a phenomenological approach and drawing out, texting out (brainstorming out) of felt sensations on site as well, trying to capture visually the ‘taste of tree’
  • Ilana Halperin: In same context of my projects I looked at site experience and how Halperin interrogate with geological processes, e.g. volcano. During my visit to the Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland (2016) I was lucky to listen to her ‘life audio performance’, as she read from her own writing related to her personal experience related to volcanos. For me, the first time to consider reading as performance, and text as an expansion of visual interrogation with a subject.

Some other contemporary artists

RIchard Tuttle’s works are compositions of putting things into relationship, kind of mix between Modernist inner relationships and Minimalist outer relationship alongside an expansion into the surrounding space of the room. Compared to Rauschenberg, Tuttle doesn’t use newspaper cut outs or visual imagery from the outside. The materials used could be found anywhere, a DIY store, or in the garage, or a studio. Some of his sculptural works, e.g The Place in the Window, II, 2013  do remind me of Frank Stella‘s later works , e.g. Bow Ties with Ribbons, 2016, through an exploration of edges and color in space. And some early references to Joan Mirò and his painting-objects.

Vincent Hawkins (b. 1959):  and a view on his studio wall. a range of smaller scale pantings and drawings, place into relationship with each other. Hawkins is working mainly wiht abstract compositions as a kind of intuitive response to restrictions and material matters.

From the interview with ‘Abstract Critical’ (2012) I captured the following key words that I feel resonate with how this course is currently evolving, as a constant interrogation of me, my work, what appears, and what is happening in the relationship with each other:  ‘be considered as non-precious – releasing from the constraints of the edge – relationship out of the canvas – assembled collage – investigative drawing – to play, trial and error -the ‘energy of the oval’  – the question of scale and misevaluation when seen online – position of doubt and uncertainty. He mentioned that he is making a lot of work, smaller scale, in sketchbook, drawings, not thinking, just doing. What once more reminds of an importance  to work and to play, to discover and to response to what is  happening that very moment in front of me.

John Armleder (b. 1948) an artist I discovered first in the sculptural painting exhibition Die Zelle in Bern, Switzerland. His works, especially his ‘Furniture Sculpture‘ seem to have escaped fully the flat canvas. It is not any longer an expansion into sculpture, but rather an extension of painting across the space. The wall paper behind at the wall more a decorative elements supporting the visual appearance of the installation. At times a rather painterly, and also fabric related, installation, e.g. Goldfish, 2016-17 where the pattern is the promise of continuity. And contrasting to this, rather conventional painted canvas flat on the wall, e.g. Sioux City, 2016 -a confusion or an appropriation? At times, an idea as if something else was or is in the space around that made its marks on the canvas, kind of traces of something absent. Overall, I have the feeling that Armleder’s work makes only sense in the combined relationship of several works in space. By that, the single painting on the wall, the sculpture on the floor turn themselves into ‘Combines’ in space. Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’ restricted to one support structure (even if that support consisted out of multiple panels) now expanded into an open space, with the viewer in between, versus walking around as in Rauschenberg’s works.

John Latham (1921 – 2006) who considered art works as ‘events‘ actitivated by various processes of intervention. E.g. Great Noit, 1962, a sense of encapsulation and gravity, that reminds me of my work done at London Study Day, a drawing that turned the object represented into a performative object, reflecting on process Latham incorporated all kind of objects, relief like, as if the objects purpose is to materialise the shape. Latham’s Untitled, 1958 reminds me with the cut out in the support of a window, towards nothing, a reversal of painting as a window. If it would be bigger than a viewer could sneak through from the backside? And his use of an advancing thread across the picture plane reminds me very much of my use of a white thread in my collage piece from Ex. 2.1

Sarah Barker (b. 1980), perhaps less a combine, she works with combined flat pictures installed in and on frames which resemble spatial drawings, metal structures holding a relationship of the pictures. This reminds me of my work for Ex 2.4 and how I installed my cut out surrogates with translucent and more with transparent plastic sheet. A sculptural installation as a work in itself. I haven’t seen Baker’s work in reality but I get a sense of distance, the metal structures keeping me rather always form the work. I would like to invite the viewer more into the work, not away, e.g. stars in skies black glass sink down and friendly cuts away, 2016. I find the use of a poem as a title enlightening, especially considering artist who title their works as ‘untitled’ and, worse case, give another title in brackets ‘untitled (xxx)’.


What makes a ‘Combine’ a combine and so interesting?

  • The eye is led through the work by multiplicity of images and difference
  • Depending on personal interest, experience or curiosity the attention is drawn to one or other element
  • Tension inside the work and in relation to surrounding space keeps attention and let the eye move around to seek further visual information for making sense out of it
  • I find those aspects more exciting where there is a kind of dialogue happening between objects, shapes, or colors, it is what is in between that seem to matter more

Some key thoughts related to my research relevant to how I would like to approach my work:

  • space as an extension of a flat surface to activate objects
  • painting as an exploration of space through relationship of color and objects
  • the viewer as the agent for interrogation and exploration of relationships, within the work itself and in relation with an outside context
  • Surfaces are activating areas as a reflecting back.
  • play and response – the path of not knowing
  • feedback and response as a system oriented approach versus an object oriented approach

Further development of my work- more questions – no answers:

  • Object-Box:
    – inspiration from Rauschenberg ‘Cardboxes’ and the idea of casting as surface representation
    – the process of unfolding, opening as a more fluid process, possibly suitable in fabric
  • Space: to enhance and activate space to involve the viewer as an agent for making sense. Why to think about all kind of meanings, and not leaving the viewer do the work?
  • Play: how to engage myself more in a sort of play? And how the viewer? A similar play? Or completely different? Does it matter?
  • Gesture: how can my gestures be reflected in a performative approach to an unfolding of the objects?
  • Object: to not consider a painting as an object, to consider painting as painting-out relationships of objects. ‘Object-assemblages’ as the Surrealists called them, ‘Combines’ for Rauschenberg. Going beyond a ready-made as a mere artist affirmation , and being more a path of questions, not-knowing
  • Posture: how do I relate to my work, my object-box (fetish, commodity, assemblage, collection, map, painting?) Is is more of a vertical ‘sight’ perspective or more of horizontal ‘operational’ perspective?
  • Language: how to use text? Beyond title to subvert or enhance, to defer interpretation, to address possibly different receptors of the viewer, interpreter?

Sketching out development of some of my works so far:



  • Abstract Critical (2012) Vincent Hawkins in his studio,[online], At: on 17 Aug 2018).Ascott, R. (2015) ‘The Cybernetic Stance: My Process and Purpose’, in: Shanken, E. A. (ed.) Systems: Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press,pp. 65 – 69.
  • Bateson, G. (1971) ‘Form, Substance and Difference’, in:Steps to an Ecology of Mind.pp. 448 – 466. At: (Accessed on 01 Sep 2017).
  • Baumgartner, M., Zimmer, N. (2016) Paul Klee und die Surrealisten, Berlin: Hatje-Cantz
  • Cage, J. (2003) ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist and his Work’, in: Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, AUS: Blackwell Publishing,  pp. 734 – 737. VIA.
  • Craft, C. and Rauschenberg, R. (2013) Robert Rauschenberg, Phaidon focus. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
  • Danto, Arthur Coleman. 2006. Works of Art and More Real Things. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,, pp. 1 – 32.
  • Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003) Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, new edition ed. Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, AUS: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Katz, V. (2017) ‘Let’s Do It Together’, in: Tate Etc. [online]. (38: Autumn 2016),At: on 12 Feb 2018).
  • Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (2018) Combine (1954–64), [online], At: 10 Aug 2018).
  • Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (2014) Open Score, 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, 1966,[online], At: on 12 Aug 2018).
  • Steinberg, L. (1972) ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, in: ArtForum. [online].pp. 61-98,At: on 20 July 2018).
  • Zentrum Paul Klee (2016) Paul Klee und die Surrealisten. Edited by Baumgartner, M. and Zimmer, N. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.
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