Robert Rauschenberg’s 1968 Autobiography is presented as a three-panel offset lithograph on paper. The print is meant to be hung vertically, but due to the unusually large scale of the three panels, some galleries have shown it horizontally. The overall height of sixteen feet was achievable because the lithograph was printed using a commercial billboard printing unit. The three panels involve complementary themes. From the top of this offset lithograph to the bottom, the panels tell the story of Rauschenberg’s life. Autobiography begins with the artist on a purely human and astronomical level, followed by his life as a child with a family history evolving into his artistic achievements, and finally ending with Rauschenberg’s career as an artist.
American contributions to printmaking after 1930 created a need for more commercial methods to be introduced into the fine arts (1). Robert Rauschenberg had become known for his unconventional use of materials in the 1950s with his combine sculptures. These works of art were created on a large scale with objects and debris that he collected outside of his Lower Manhattan studio. In 1962, Tatyana Grosman convinced him to try printmaking at her Long Island print shop, Universal Limited Art Editions. Rauschenberg took an interest because of the shop’s need for collaborative work in this art form (2). His first lithograph was titled Abby’s Bird, which was dedicated to his friend Abby Friedman. The artist began to thrive in the enjoyment of making lithographs. Rauschenberg was revolutionary in his approach to lithography because he used printers’ mats as a medium.
In addition to working with lithography at Grosman’s shop, Rauschenberg started transferring photographs to lithograph stones. He began the process by making collages of photo negatives to be arranged on the stone. While the negatives were secured by a sheet of glass, an ultraviolet lamp was used to expose them. After the images developed, they were then printed using a lithographic press. This new approach made it possible for Rauschenberg to create prints that were similar to his prior works with painting and silk screening. He used this approach in Autobiography.
Rauschenberg was introduced to silkscreen in 1962 by friend and Pop artist Andy Warhol. It was through his introduction to serigraphy, another term for silkscreen printing, that Rauschenberg began to work in different printmaking methods apart from lithography (3). This process, though effectively used for over a hundred years, continued to limit the artist because of the rarity of the stones that were used to print on the surface of the paper.
With the support of Marion Javits, wife of New York Senator Jacob Javits, Rauschenberg cofounded Broadside Art, Inc., which made commercial billboard presses available to artists (4). The ability to work on a large scale allowed Rauschenberg to create the sixteen-foot high Autobiography. Broadside Art, Inc. printed Autobiography in an edition of 2,000, which fulfilled Rauschenberg’s conceptual idea of facilitating a medium for “visual journalism” (5). With the utilization of the commercial billboard press, Rauschenberg created a work that was both large in scale and mass produced, making the three-paneled lithograph itself very public while addressing personal issues within the piece thematically.
In the review “Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde,” Alex Potts described how working in this way affected Rauschenberg’s works. “One tactic, evidently at play in Rauschenberg’s more image-saturated combine and silk-screened paintings, was to open up the pictorial field to material taken directly from the world of popular media and advertising, as a way of both recognizing a by then pervasive reality of the modern world and of warding off any too easily aestheticized consumption of the work of art as a high-art commodity.” (6)When Autobiography is exhibited as Rauschenberg intended, the size of the stacked panels completely envelops the viewer’s field of perception. The viewer becomes truly immersed within the three panels, transitioning Rauschenberg’s individual history into his or her own personal scope. It is Rauschenberg’s way of relating himself to his audience on a large, but intensely personal, scale.
The images and forms in the three panels of Autobiography are all related because they address themes integral to Rauschenberg’s identity. When working, he relied on his intuition to choose imagery through association. As Rauschenberg experimented with commercial media to execute his artistic visions, he was also very concerned with ideological connections in life. The juxtapositions of different elements including the metaphysical, spiritual, and astronomical relate on various levels.
The top panel of Autobiography is the most recognizable of the three because it features an almost life-sized X ray of Rauschenberg that he used previously for Booster (1967) after taking x-ray images of his entire skeleton from head to toe in one-foot intervals (7). The skeleton prompts a contradictory response. This is due both its intensely personal and anonymous aspects, because to the uninformed viewer it could be anyone’s skeleton. It faces away from the viewer, closing it off compositionally. Rauschenberg’s skeleton is surrounded by a circular astrological chart. This serves as a marriage of hard science and metaphysical elements, both representative of identity. The visual result recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man. As an admirer of Leonardo, Rauschenberg concerned himself with various levels of identity, including the body as a machine. Dual aspects of his personality and state of being are represented in the relationship between the human form and the astrological chart. Rauschenberg was a spiritual individual, at one time considering going into the church’s service as a minister. He has admitted to consulting astrologers on numerous occasions when making important life decisions and superstitiously carried good-luck amulets in his pockets (8). The correlation between fate and mystery had a huge bearing on his creativity.
Very little research has been done on Rauschenberg’s singular prints such as Autobiography. In an article relating to the content and meaning of this particular work, Robert Saltonstall Mattison was the first to attempt to decipher the chart’s meaning. Specific features of the chart serve to convey various aspects of Rauschenberg’s personality that he wished to relate to his audience. Mattison writes:
In the division of the Sun, which is the most significant sign in the chart for Rauschenberg, a strong sense of purpose and enduring feelings are accented. Mercury also reveals a high priority to reach goals. The Moon emphasizes optimism, frankness with friends, and open-mindedness. The quadrant of Venus accents the artist’s love of freedom and generosity with ideas. On the whole, the astrological chart stresses themes—creative energy, openness to experimentation, and collaboration—that are repeated throughout Autobiography. The chart provides another example of how carefully Rauschenberg has interwoven the subject matter of this work. (9)
The astrological chart and the skeleton dominate most of the top panel of Autobiography. Below them sit a motorcycle wheel, oriented upside down and to the right, and an umbrella. Rauschenberg worked with imagery that included wheels throughout his career, not only in his prints. The tread of the tire around the goat’s midsection in his combine sculpture Monogram (1955-59) suggests a connection with his earlier work Automobile Tire Print (1953). Rauschenberg collaborated with musician and artist John Cage in this creation, which consisted of house paint over twenty sheets of paper (10). Rauschenberg admired Cage’s approach in discontinuity.
The umbrella in the bottom-right corner of the top panel is of the type that is used in photography to create light effects with flash. It relates to the X ray because both reference Rauschenberg’s continuous use of photography in his work, be it collaged family photographs in his Combines or in the photolithograph used here. Both are also mechanical, like the motorcycle wheel, creating another correlation. His arrangements were always deliberate. The umbrella also references Marcel Duchamp’s famous ready-made hat rack (1917), which Rauschenberg saw at an exhibition. The ready-made was hung from the ceiling in a manner that made it resemble a photography umbrella. The motorcycle wheel and umbrella have the same orientation within the panel that Duchamp’s other very famous ready-made bicycle wheel had with the hat rack when they were exhibited together. Rauschenberg always found inspiration from the conceptual aspect of Duchamp’s ready-mades in the respect that they were selected, rather than made by the artist (11).
From far away, the middle panel looks like an abstracted fingerprint because of the oval shape of the words that encircle the family picture at its center. Here, the type of autobiographical information that Rauschenberg provides makes a shift from metaphorical to concrete and factual subject. The circular movement that exists within the other two panels is repeated here as the story of the artist’s life spirals around the panel. The statements collage experiences of his life, varying from selections from catalogues, descriptions of his exhibitions, and facts about his works. They are all standard biographical statements that summarize his career as an artist.
Approximately three-quarters of the text on the middle panel involves Rauschenberg’s collaborations. He worked with other contemporary artists, dancers, composers, engineers, curators, and other important people in the art world. He often chose to work collaboratively, speaking of ‘responsibilities’ and ‘trust,’ and preferring to share ideas (12). One illustration of how innovative Rauschenberg was in the arts is his co-founding of and collaborations to E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). It is one of the examples of Rauschenberg’s accomplishments mentioned in the spiraling text of the middle panel.
Centered within the spiral of autobiographical text is a childhood photograph of Rauschenberg with his family in the autumn of 1927. Rauschenberg was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas. This particular photograph was taken while boating on a bayou river near his childhood home. It describes a scene of family unity, set in nature. His father’s interest in the outdoors inspired Rauschenberg in his love for nature. It is possible that nature was the only connection he had with his father, since it is known that their relationship was strained.
Rauschenberg overlaid a transparent box on the writing and picture. The image is made in perspective to represent a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional plane, a common tool used by perceptual psychologists known as a Necker Cube (13). The box itself is silk-screened onto the paper, whereas the rest of the imagery is a lithograph and a photo-lithograph. Below the box, an arrow points downwards towards the third and final panel of Autobiography.
The bottom panel, similar to the top panel containing the Booster image, revisits a work from Rauschenberg’s past. Photo-lithograph is used to add documentation of Rauschenberg’s 1963 performance piece Pelican. The focus of this panel is to demonstrate the formation of creative identity through art. Here Rauschenberg marries his visual and performance art endeavors. Pelican was choreographed by the artist himself and “resulted from [his] creative manipulation of accidental events.” (14)
The genesis of Pelican took place when Rauschenberg became involved with a series of productions for the “Pop Festival” in Washington D.C. The artist was mistakenly listed in the event program as a choreographer rather than as the stage manager. When Rauschenberg went to the venue where the dances were to be performed, a roller skating rink named “America on Wheels,” he decided to have the starring dancers wear roller skates. The skates both restricted the routine and allowed Rauschenberg to focus on the theme of motion. The choreographed performance also inspired Rauschenberg’s own creative endeavors. He and artist Per Olof Ultvelt entered the ring awkwardly, later rising off their knees and onto roller skates and releasing parachutes that were anchored to a wood armature built into their backpacks (15, 16). Merce Cunningham Company’s premiere dancer, Carolyn Brown, elegantly and gracefully danced on toe through the two men (17). The piece also involved collage, though this time auditory, that Rauschenberg mixed from music, television, and radio.
A photograph of Rauschenberg performing Pelican shows him propelling forward on his skates with the parachute in full span. The open parachute resembles the umbrella at the bottom right of the first panel, which forms a visual and conceptual relationship between the two. The Necker Cube from the middle panel is also repeated in the bottom panel, but here it is oriented in the opposite direction. The shape of the cube is squarer and less rectangular in the bottom panel containing Pelican, and it is closer to the bottom-right corner than to the one in the middle panel, which is almost centered. The bottom cube is a bright green, whereas the middle-panel cube is red.
Since the content of the third panel depicts aspects of his artistic career, Rauschenberg also shows collaged photolithographed images of the New York City skyline and the water towers along the rooftops outside of his Lower Manhattan studio. The orientation of Pelican above the other pictures lends the suggestion of Rauschenberg skating over the rooftops of Lower Manhattan. A nautical chart of the area of the Gulf Coast near Rauschenberg’s native Port Arthur, Texas, is placed in the lower-right corner of the panel. By juxtaposing these two very different times and places—past and present, natural and urban—Rauschenberg deliberately kept them together rather than separating them. The addition of the water towers serves to relate the two locations further (18). The man-made structures characterize the industrialized area of Lower Manhattan near Fulton Street where Rauschenberg had his first studio. However, they also serve to contain water, a natural element that connects with Rauschenberg’s native Gulf Coast. He is relating these two places because they share a personal importance in influencing his career and creative mind. The artist was not showing a preference for either place, but rather their evolving and continued effect on him (19). The markings for depth on the nautical chart resemble stars, which connects the panel to the astrological chart at the top. The three panels support the idea of Rauschenberg’s interconnecting themes, which are clearly shown by the duplication of images.
When discussing the work of Robert Rauschenberg, it is more useful to compare and contrast recurring themes, rather than to discuss individual pieces. The artist himself preferred to avoid concrete definitions due to his belief that they take the life out of things (20). Because he has worked in so many different media—such as painting, sculpture, performance art, and printmaking, including lithography, photo lithography, and serigraphy—categorizing his work can be difficult. Critic Robert Hughes perhaps described Rauschenberg’s prolific career best when he explained,
To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumption that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material (from a stuffed goat to a live human body), anywhere (on stage, in front of a TV camera, underwater, on the surface of the moon, or in a sealed envelope), for any purpose (turn-on, contemplation, amusement, invocation, threat) and any destination it chooses, from the museum to the trashcan. (21)
By relating recurrent themes in Rauschenberg’s work, a clear and concise observation can be made. Autobiographical content is integral to his oeuvre, and this is the reason that it has perhaps been the most widely discussed element in Rauschenberg’s works. Autobiography addresses that concern straightforwardly and with no argument (22). Autobiography is important in many ways. It uses the commercial billboard press to achieve its great scale, it relates the various imagery of different parts and times of Rauschenberg’s life, and it provides a benchmark to be compared against other works. And it implies Rauschenberg is the Renaissance man of contemporary art.
(1) Ralph Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 5 ed., rev. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 603-09.
(2) Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, 2 ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), pp. 184-87.
(3) Rauschenberg began working with Gemini G.E.I. in Los Angeles in 1967, which is where he created Booster (1968). It was the limitations he faced with the lithographic processes there that would eventually lead him to work unconventionally.
(4) Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg’s Autobiography: Context and Meaning, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 59 (1998): 297-305.
(5) Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990).
(6) Alex Potts, “Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde,” Art Bulletin 87, no. 1 (March 2005): 167-70.
(7) At 5’10,” Rauschenberg’s X-ray skeleton was too big for a single lithographic stone, so Booster had to be printed in two sections. Because Autobiography was printed on a commercial billboard unit, the height of the skeleton was not an issue.
(8) Mattison, pp. 297-305.
(10) Paul Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in Robert Rauschenberg Combines, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), pp. 210-29.
(11) Mattison, Pp. 297-305.
(13)Rauschenberg was dyslexic, a little-known aspect of his life that had a profound effect on his work. The Necker Cube is a spatial shape that those with dyslexia find particularly difficult to resolve.
(14) Mattison, pp. 297-305.
(15) Rauschenberg has widely discussed his admiration for the Wright Brothers. He dedicated Pelican to the brothers as he and Ultvelt reenacted their own version of the first flight. The parachutes served as the gliders that the brothers experimented with at the beginning of their endeavors.
(16) Parachutes greatly interested Rauschenberg because they relied heavily on chance. They could only be controlled in part by the user. He found the experience of parachuting a proper metaphor for his work because it was chance happenings that led to his creative decisions.
(17) Rauschenberg collaborated on several occasions with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, including his commission for Minutiae (1954), a piece used by dancers as an interactive set. A Combine, Minutiae allowed dancers to move in and out of it, and it was collaged with many elements, including a comic strip that the dancers read during their routine.
(18) Although here the water towers were intended to link Manhattan with the Gulf Coast, Rauschenberg used them in earlier serigraphs to create scenes of urban destruction. In Die Hard (1963), Rauschenberg printed over the towers with orange and red to create a chaotic scene of burning towers with firefighters rushing in to extinguish the flames.
(19) Rauschenberg continuously traveled to the Gulf Coast of Florida around the time that Autobiography was printed. In 1970, he would move his primary studio from Manhattan to this area.
(20) Karl Ruhrberg et al., Art of the 20th Century, vol. 2. (New York: Taschen, 2005), p. 510.
(21) Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1991), p. 334.
(22) Autobiography is in the permanent collection of many prestigious institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Stedlijk Museum (Amsterdam); as well as in the collection of Leo Castelli.Back to essays