Past Pop: Acknowledgements
I would like to thank above all the Art History majors: Marcelle de Franca, Melissa D’Amico, Heather Ferry, Danielle Fallon and Melissa Merritt, who served as co-curators in the selection of the exhibition Past Pop: Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist Graphics, being staged at CAS Gallery, March 31, 2009, through May 7, 2009.
Other past students including Kim Alvarado, Maria Pia Carracino, Gwen Howard, Susan McGurk, and Aaron Shum have also contributed research and catalogue entries which we are delighted to publish below, both for the interested spectator of the show, and to permanently document the research and writing abilities of these Kean students.
There are many to thank for making this publication, and the exhibition itself, possible. The coordinator of the Art History program, Prof. Thomas Shaw, has lent invaluable advice and support from the outset, as has past Dean Carole Shaffer-Koros and current Acting Dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts, Holly Logue.
In introducing students to area museums and print collections, we were grateful to call on the assistance and counsel of David G. Christie, Print Collection, New York Public Library; Calvin Brown, Prints and Drawings department, Princeton University Art Museum; and Marilyn Symmes, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University.
Likewise, our lenders have contributed in many ways to make this exhibition possible, not limited to access to works in their collections: Erica Boyd, Danielle Labbate, Patterson Sims, and Gail Stavitsky of the Montclair Art Museum; Cindy Buckner, Christa Clarke and Beth Venn of The Newark Museum; Jessica, Lauren, Jonathan O’Hara and Ruth O’Hara of O’Hara Gallery, NY; Carol Skuratofsky of Prudential Financial Corporation; Thomas Buehler, Gina C. Guy, Matt Magee and David White of Rauschenberg studio; James Rosenquist and Beverly of Rosenquist studio; Bill Goldston of Universal Limited Art Editions; and Donna DeSalvo, David Kiehl and Dana Miller of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Of course one of the pleasures of an ambitious project like this is the interaction with and encouragement of both colleagues and Kean University alumni among the above.
Many in the campus community are not aware of the huge amount of tasks involved in carrying out a multiple-lender exhibition, from photography of works, loan forms, phone calls, budgeting, designing websites and invitation cards, arranging shipping and installation, to managing ambitious guest curators. Director of University Galleries Neil Tetkowski and his assistants, Christopher Clark, Mariel Collerd, Stephanie Natiello and Joya Thompson are to be commended for tackling these necessary nuts and bolts with energy and good cheer.
Thanks to adjunct professor Katherine Rangoon Doyle for speedily and expertly editing the entries. Thanks to Rauschenberg authorities Robert Mattison and Charles Stuckey, the latter also for commenting on my essay. Thanks to current students and departmental colleagues from Chair Jen Crupi on for their support and indulgence.
Associate Professor of Art History
Past Pop: Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist Graphics of the 1970s
Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist are indisputable masters in the canon of post-World War II American art, yet their printmaking has received far less attention than their paintings and sculptures. Their earliest efforts in printmaking date from the 1960s, a heavily scrutinized decade, so a study of their graphics of the 1970s provides fresher terrain, as well as a chance to contextualize the prints from 1977 in the Kean University collection. Decades are artificial markers, to be sure, but since both artists were widely acclaimed by 1970, the years that followed became a “what next?” for their art. However, by that time both artists had the reputation and the resources to do for the most part whatever they wished, even as the attention of the art world was diverted to newer trends, from Conceptualism to Earthworks to Post-Minimalism. Thus it is on their quieter trajectory past the glittering Pop era that this exhibition of graphic work is focused.
Robert Rauschenberg’s initial reluctance to make prints eventually gave way to extensive experimentation in both materials and subjects. He tried various techniques, including cliché verre and chine collé, on surfaces that ranged from plastic or Mylar to fabric. In the late 1960s, Rauschenberg challenged scale in printmaking with Booster (1967), the world’s largest lithographic print to date, but it was soon dwarfed by the billboard-scaled Autobiography (1968, cat. no. 1), paradoxically the most public of formats for the most personal of subjects. Booster’s skeletal self-portrait, a life-sized X-ray, is repeated in Autobiography with an overlay of astrological symbols apparently related to the (cosmic) artist. The central panel is a textual, chronological “self-portrait” of landmarks in the artist’s development, a spiral resumé. The right or lower panel is dominated by a self-portrait of the artist in action on roller skates performing in his dance piece entitled Pelican, which had debuted in 1963.
It has frequently been noted that James Rosenquist began his career as a billboard painter, but it was actually Rauschenberg who with Autobiography created something resembling an actual billboard, a triptych more than sixteen and a half feet high when shown vertically. Because the print far exceeded the limitations of art presses, it was printed on a billboard press. Another unusual feature was the huge edition of two thousand copies and the low cost of $150, clearly an attempt at wide public distribution. A considerable amount of leeway was given to the owner of one of these huge images, who could hang it “either horizontally or vertically. It can be papered directly on to the wall or made into a screen.” (1) Once he started, Rauschenberg wanted to push printmaking beyond its traditional limits and challenge the graphics specialists who worked with him.
Although the imagery in many of Rauschenberg’s works is multivalent, certain themes recur across time, suggesting their significance in the artist’s worldview. One of these, the American eagle, enjoyed a long life in his work, first as a stuffed specimen in Canyon (1959) and then as a frequent image in the silkscreen paintings of the early 1960s. In Earth Day (1970, cat. no. 4), the endangered species appears as a troubled U.S. “madonna” surrounded by a predella of environmental problems, “deforested land, strip mining, junkyards, an endangered gorilla, and air and water pollution.”(2) Rauschenberg used an unusual technique of applying the eagle in chine collé to achieve a collage-like effect. This print was also issued as a poster in a large, unsigned edition of ten thousand lithographs celebrating the very first Earth Day, for the benefit of the American Environment Foundation. It marks the beginning of Rauschenberg’s concern for the environment, which continued throughout his career. For Rauschenberg, the decade of the 1970s began with newspaper collages ripped from the headlines and transferred directly into silkscreens in the Currents series, a title that suggests both current events and streams of media news and information.
Rauschenberg again crossed collage with printmaking in Horsefeathers Thirteen (1972–76), a series of prints that required several assistants to paste many copies of printed matter in the same position on each of eighty-three prints. The “collage” of techniques includes color lithograph, screenprint, pochoir, collage, and embossing. The title is a whimsical non sequitur—like “hen’s teeth”—although actual feathers are present in Horsefeathers Thirteen 13—XIV (cat. no. 5) with ostriches rotated at the center of the image. We can only speculate if there is any connection to the 1932 Marx Brothers comedy bearing a similar name.
From the opacity of collage, Rauschenberg introduced its opposite, diaphanous veils of prints on fabrics, in the Hoarfrost series of 1974. Almost more wearable than frameable, these prints waft in the breeze and invite the spectator’s gentle touch. Their imagery is only partly perceptible through the gauzes and folds and often requires the spectator to move in order to decipher it. In this exhibition, the print Back Out (1979, cat. no. 12) is related to the Hoarfrosts, with its printing of transparent blue like a fabric veil. In the later Hoarfrost–related Samarkand Stitches (1988, cat. no. 14), Rauschenberg uses locally produced, brightly colored fabrics as multiples, returning via another culture, to the fabrics prominent among the materials of the early combine paintings of the late 1950s.
Like Rauschenberg, Rosenquist was persuaded by the legendary Tatyana Grosman to start making prints at Universal Limited Art Editions in the mid-1960s,(3) although his prints of the 1970s are more circumscribed in scope than Rauschenberg’s. Indeed, Rosenquist’s focus from 1974 to 1978 on tripartite imagery arrayed horizontally could be considered as a series, a mode of working that many artists had used since the 1960s. He takes this compositional format through its paces by combining and reshuffling certain images. In the early 1970s, he began with a trio of images arranged vertically, as in Music School (1971, cat. no. 15) and 1-2-3 Outside (1972, cat. no. 16). The former print bears a subtitle dedicating the piece to Peter Schjeldahl, a well-known art critic. Rosenquist had befriended Schjeldahl as a poet before he became known as an art critic. The two men planned to create a portfolio of prints and poetry, a collaboration that was tragically interrupted by Rosenquist’s automobile accident in 1971, and only Music School remained (4). This lithograph is made up of two joined sheets, with stylized rain on a car roof above and the wings of a bird stretched beyond a square on white below. The blood-red color inside the car suggests an association to the crash. The tripartite vertical format reminds me of the opening titles for a television program of that period called “What’s My Line?,” in which images of a head, body, and legs are shuffled, deriving from the Surrealist concept called “exquisite corpse.” This was a method in which several artists collaborated on an overall image by adding to previous unseen parts folded over. Likewise, in 1-2-3 Outside Rosenquist continues the lines established by the blue car hood in the center. These lines extend down in the red vertical and up in the silver vertical of the more ambiguous fragments at top and bottom, which match more in terms of their placement than in the continuation of the image.
In 1974 Rosenquist rotated the three-part image 45 degrees to the horizontal in many works, thus eliminating the figural vestige of the upright format. On one level these tripartite horizontals return to the flag-like bands of color in prints of the late 1960s, such as the French tricouleur in Horse Blinders (1968).
The monumental print Off the Continental Divide (1974, cat. no. 17) was a technical tour de force created from twenty-nine plates. At 42 by 78 inches, it is unusually large for a print at this time; indeed, it was the largest then made by the ULAE print shop, on a scale to rival painting. The print introduced a number of new images for the artist: the rising stair (a wooden type often found in basements), crumpled paper, the nails in a five-bar gate (“an ugly time reminder”), and an open book facing down. Rosenquist himself has identified the book as “reason being thrown on the floor.” (5)The book’s binding connects across the vertical divide to link with the metallic car frame, reminiscent of the linear linkages in 1-2-3 Outside. In the dark shadow below the stair, a circle, a triangle, and a square are outlined. These are “symbols of clarity and Zen balance” (6) and often recur in his prints of the mid-1970s, such as Strawberry Sunglasses (1974, cat. no. 18). These three geometries are the subject of a well-known sumi-e ink painting known as Universe by Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect, a branch of Zen Buddhism. Gibon uses the circle “to represent infinity as the formless basis of all beings; the triangle is the beginning of all forms and the square is the triangle doubled in a doubling process whose infinite unfolding gives us the multiplicity of the forms that comprise the universe.” (7)
The diagonal connections between the crumpled paper and the nails are accomplished with a full spectrum of hues, suggesting the artist’s palette. The theme of the color spectrum occurs throughout this period in a variety of Rosenquist’s images. Likewise, the shadow under the stair and the open book connect in black and white, the colors of drawing. By 1974, the tripartite bands of color disappear in favor of horizontal triple images. The aviator glasses in Strawberry Sunglasses, a necessity for the artist in his new residence in Florida, reveal within the shaded lens the faint inscription of a dinner triangle. Together with the square at the left and the circle at the right, the triangle completes the geometric trio of Gibon’s Zen symbol. The title of the print has an alliterative reference to The Strawberry Statement, a non-fiction bestseller in which nineteen-year-old James Simon Kunen chronicled his experiences at Columbia University from 1966 to 1968; a fictionalized version of the book was made into a film in 1970.
In Strawberry Sunglasses, a full palette of colors is stacked in ten tire-tread swaths at the left, and a comparable array of the color spectrum is rendered in taut lines vectoring from the square to the edge of Yellow Landing (1974, cat. no. 19); both are examples of indexical color (color that represents itself) (8). Yellow Landing’s tire hangs from a rope, which takes it out of the realm of the skid marks that appear in Strawberry Sunglasses, recalling Rosenquist’s crash in 1971. The tire in Yellow Landing may be hanging from a tree in the backyard, where it can serve as a swing or as a target for football practice.
At the right in Yellow Landing, the triangles are green and multicolor wedges that cover a Kennedy half-dollar. The hole surrounded by blood-like spatters of red chillingly evokes the Kennedy assassination. In Miles (America's Third Century) of 1975 (cat. no. 21), these slices are pieces of the half-dollar itself, which was first minted in 1964 and quickly became very popular. The image of JFK had appeared in Rosenquist’s painting President Elect of 1960–61 and also in several of Rauschenberg’s paintings, as well as his Core Poster of 1965 (cat. no. 1). In Miles, the coin is combined with the tire; having consolidated the horizontal compositional trio of triangle, circle, and square, Rosenquist collapses it here into three overlapping circles.
Violent Turn (1977, cat. no. 23) has more linear images; the wavy tire treads in a U shape, four blurry dinner triangles on strings, and one tally mark of five nails. Linking them is a horizontal rainbow of the color spectrum. The tire track is rendered in violet, perhaps a play on the word “violence” in the title. Tires “turn,” of course, as the curved track implies here, and violently so when there is sudden danger.
Elbow Lake (1977, cat. no. 24), one of the finest of these trios, shows an array of four items, a circle of tire tracks; an irregular, aqueous area; a schematic pail with a polka-dot bottom; and an American flag folded into a triangle, as is the custom at the end of the day or at military funerals. There is a play on the tricolor of the flag, whose stripes are overlaid with rows of stock market quotations, suggesting that “the business of America is business.” Here it is worth recalling that the Vietnam War’s last casualties were in the spring of 1975.
Coin Noir (1977, cat. no. 25), with its dark ground, evokes the starry sky of the universe. Translated into French, the term “black corner” is one of the first suggestions in Rosenquist’s work of the astral universe that will break out in the large painting Star Thief (1980) and be developed during the 1980s. This may be a reference to the concept of black holes in the universe, a fairly new term coined in the mid-1960s.
Finally, in Derrière l’Etoile (1977, cat. no. 26), Rosenquist looks back to the rising stair of Off the Continental Divide, except that here the stair seems to be descending to the right, appropriately for the winding down of the motif. The stair separates the largely grisaille left side from the color spectrum of crumpled paper on the right. Another French title, which translates as “behind the star,” Derrière l’Etoile is the poetic name of the small New York print shop where Rosenquist made it. The concept is also cosmic and thus connects to Coin Noir.
The repeated compositional arrangement of this group is itself metaphorical, a secular trinity of daily items. The composition taps our tendency to read across, from left to right, as if we were reading a text. It also mimics the format of the three images on a slot machine. The artist has become the gambler who pulls the lever of the one-armed bandit to spin and bring up three images, which sometimes recur in different positions, as we have seen in the variants of this type.
Although Dog Descending a Staircase (cat. no. 29) dates to 1982, it is based on a painting Rosenquist made in 1979 and thus rounds out the decade of the 1970s. It marks a subtle denouement of the geometric trio, which persists in the circle of the metal roller, the triangles formed by the stairs, and the square green canvas at the right. However, it breaks dramatically with the abstraction of the series in favor of greater Photorealism. The title is a witty allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s notorious canvas that was a cause célèbre at the Armory Show of 1913. Still, the change from a nude descending a staircase to a Dalmatian neatly spans the distance from early twentieth-century Parisian atelier to postwar American suburban home. Highly gendered scenes flank the family pet, the male blue-collar factory rollers versus the female doll.
Robert Rauschenberg got to know and admire Marcel Duchamp in New York in the late 1950s. Their work appeared together in a New York group exhibition Art and the Object in January 1959 (9), and Rauschenberg was able to purchase Duchamp’s Bottle Rack for its hardware (as opposed to its artwork) price of a few dollars. Dialogue with Duchamp continued from that point.
Rauschenberg’s Kill Devil Hill (cat. no. 7) is a suggestive use of the horizontal compositional trio in 1975, the time when, as we have seen, Rosenquist was using it in his own work. A blue square at the center of Rauschenberg’s print is flanked by a shopping bag and a bicycle, an arrangement that relates to a vertical array of the same images in black and white on shopping bag paper in his earlier lithograph Kitty Hawk (1974, Collection Zimmerli Museum, Rutgers University). Both titles refer to those famous bicycle engineers, the Wright Brothers. Indeed, the red bicycle of Kill Devil Hill seems to be taking flight.
The bicycle, like the wheel, has a long history in Rauschenberg’s art, and the bicycle wheel was, of course, the famous subject of one of Duchamp’s first readymades. Thus Rauschenberg’s use carries that lingering association, especially the rear wheel, which is turned upright, as it is on Duchamp’s readymade. Rauschenberg was, of course, aware of the fact that Duchamp was a contemporary of the Wright Brothers, who competed in aviation meets in France during the first decade of the twentieth century.
The Glacial Decoy Series: Lithograph I (1979, cat. no. 11) is also based on the basic tripartite composition of circles and squares. Words are introduced in the form of a handwritten menu of seafood and “gizzards.” The first word fragment, “boxe,” is enigmatic but clearly identifies the rectangle at the right.
Word and image appear in a sustained dialogue in Traces suspectes en surface (1978, cat. no. 10), a collaborative portfolio of thirty six lithographs accompanying texts by the French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet. After the first meeting of artist and writer, texts and images were sent back and forth over a period of years (10). Witnesses have observed that this was not the most felicitous of collaborations, but its protracted nature makes it a document of Rauschenberg’s work through the mid-1970s. The texts resist straightforward narrative much like the “random order” of Rauschenberg’s images, yet there are points where their imagery coincides. Robbe-Grillet’s text describes and then redescribes the same scene, and a manuscript appears as a text within the text. In a sense, Robbe-Grillet’s repetitions also resonate with Rosenquist’s method of working in series by using a limited number of images.
The Rauschenberg / Rosenquist Interface
Although this pairing of Rauschenberg and Rosenquist began, fortuitously, with their joint acquisition by Kean University, it has proven to have a certain resonance. Rosenquist spoke movingly of their friendship at the recent Rauschenberg memorial, and it is clear that after Jasper Johns, Rosenquist may well have been the most significant artist friend of Rauschenberg during the latter part of his career.
There are quite a few parallels between them during the 1970s, including certain shared imagery, such as JFK, wheels and tires, and newspapers. In 1971 Rosenquist preceded Rauschenberg in working at Graphicstudio in Tampa; in fact, both artists relocated to Florida early in the decade and became closer friends. They both aspired to create unusually large-scale prints, the works of both artists had a socially conscious dimension, and each lobbied for artists’ rights. As part of that effort, they appeared together before a Senate subcommittee on artists’ rights in 1974, and two years later they lobbied Congress for tax deductions for artist-donated artworks.
Robert Rauschenberg, in particular, spent considerable time in his later years, in one interview after another, drawing the distinction between his art and Pop. This is an especially valid argument in his case, since his first recognition as an artist came in the 1950s, well before the emergence of Pop Art. Rosenquist, too, came to renounce the Pop Art label, although he was definitely part of that generation. Thus it is their trajectory past the Pop era that this exhibition of graphic work addresses.
Later, in the 1980s, both artists moved into wider terrain. Rosenquist elaborated on space travel and the cosmos in huge canvases. Rauschenberg took his show on the road, with the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) project, which brought collaboration to a global level, engaging numerous artists and artisans from Japan to Samarkand. After the project was announced in 1984, Rauschenberg traveled to and worked in eleven countries before ROCI ended in 1991.
The Book Disappears for the Fast Student, a Rosenquist print of 1978 (cat. no. 28), is an irresistible title within a university context. It seems to predict that the Internet will supersede the printed volume for the collegiate generation as the spectrum-hued page whirls into the black hole at the left. Rauschenberg, on the other hand, remains the ultimate chronicler of the age of printed media.
(1) Broadside press, Autobiography prospectus.
(2) Robert S. Mattison, Last Turn—Your Turn: Robert Rauschenberg and the Environmental Crisis (New York: Jacobson Howard Gallery, 2008), p. 10.
(3) Ruth E. Fine, “Off the Continental Divide and Other Risky Journeys,” in Walter Hopps and Sarah Bancroft, James Rosenquist: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2003), p. 49. See also the sources cited in notes 1 and 2.
(4) James Rosenquist, e-mail to the author, Feb. 12, 2009.
(5) Constance W. Glenn, Time Dust, James Rosenquist Complete Graphics, 1962–1992 (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), p. 56.
(6) Judith Goldman, James Rosenquist (New York: Viking, 1985), pp. 55–56.
(7) Ruth Fine, Graphicstudio: Contemporary Art from the Collaborative Workshop at the University of South Florida (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery, 1991), p. 16. See also the entry to Elbow Lake, online: http://www.kean.edu/~gallery/future.html.
(8) The term is Benjamin Buchloh’s. This color stack reminds me of that at the left of Rauschenberg’s drawing Trap (1968), which is composed of colored towels. See Jonathan O’Hara Gallery, Robert Rauschenberg Transfer Drawings from the 1960s (New York: O’Hara Gallery, 2007), pl. 20.
(9) Chronology in Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), p. 557. (10) Tony Towle, “Rauschenberg: Two Collaborations—Robbe-Grillet & Voznesensky,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter 10 (May–June 1979), p. 38.
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