Core Poster, 1965
Marcelle de Franca
Robert Rauschenberg’s work reflects a methodology between the approaches of structuralism and post-structuralism that takes on the social and historical currents of his time. His prints are peopled with iconic figures and typical images of the American experience that he placed seemingly randomly, taking away any political or social inclinations. This is the case with his commemorative CORE poster (Congress of Racial Equality), which celebrates the first congress in civil rights, which took place in 1965. The subject matter of this poster includes John F. Kennedy, a Native American, his own photographs of modern landscapes, a statue of a Civil War soldier, Lady Liberty, racecars in the desert, industrial smokestacks, and street signs that are a part of the American commercial landscape.
Color Screenprint, 36 x 23 7/8 in.
Rauschenberg’s work is image saturated. The technique of silkscreen allowed him to achieve picture-rich scenarios where he juxtaposed many types of imagery. As an artist proficient in technique, he also played up the mechanics of printmaking to create graphic effects. His saturated images seem hard to read when looked at from a distance but take on logic when looked at up-close. He also combined the mechanics of silkscreening and printmaking with traditional techniques and media. Along with these techniques, Rauschenberg used brushstrokes and stains to add to the raw look of his pieces. “Mr. Rauschenberg transforms what had been an elegant, sly, miniaturist mode of art making, namely collage, into something big and spectacular.” (1)
In CORE poster, the artist uses verbal and visual codes to communicate to the viewer. He presents the photos in duotones that vary in size and placement. For example, images of newly constructed highways mirror each other and dominate the picture. These images represent the technological achievements of American ingenuity that came to light because of the Cold War. He also includes a printed impression of a post with several traffic signs in a red duotone. The picture of Lady Liberty is also presented in a subtle red duotone but is smaller in scale.
The radical CORE organization attacked segregation in the south through direct action, such as demonstrations outside restaurants, sit-ins and voter registration marches. CORE was a milestone organization in the struggle for equal rights in the sixties. Their actions forced a dramatic political breakthrough where African Americans became active in American politics. These events dominated the news of the time, and undoubtedly Rauschenberg witnessed many of the protests or heard about them while he was living in New York City.
Among the most powerful images is the green portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which is juxtaposed against another black-and-white picture of the president. However, this second picture shows JFK pointing a finger, giving the juxtaposition a whole meaning and creating a kind verbal communication with a code. It is as if the picture is demanding action from the viewer. These compilations of images manifest not only an interest in the visual repertoire of popular culture but also in the process by which images communicate, specifically through layer over layer of fragmented imagery.
The photographs seem to be held in place by pieces of tape that are themselves attached to the surface of the paper. For instance, the picture of Lady Liberty is surrounded by dark masking tape, and the pictures that look very much like postcards of Native Americans are affixed this way as well. By using this technique, Rauschenberg was able to step away from formalized treatments of images that are set in the viewer’s mind to achieve a fictional pictorial state. (2) Moreover, this positioning technique gives the poster a non-stable effect, a trait that Rauschenberg tries to achieve at every opportunity in his works.
In printmaking, Rauschenberg indulged his inclination for mechanical process and its relationship with art. He expressed his favoritism for printmaking by exalting the filtering possibilities of the process. He said, “The material and the meaning of a painting would be, not an illustration of my will but an unbiased documentation of what I observed.”(3) However, as in documentary filmmaking, there is a process of editing captured reality. Rauschenberg was the pioneer of a widespread tendency to block the viewer from looking through or beyond the literal surface of the painting and oblige her or him to attend to its material substance. (4)
Besides media and technique, Rauschenberg used a collection of mostly American icons of the time. These images serve as an allegory of the political events of the time, the fight for liberty and equal rights. At the same time, Rauschenberg’s treatment of the images can also serve as a denouncement and attack, showing lack of progress toward those universal rights. One of the most powerful images to communicate that idea is the profile of the Native American, which is in full color and not in duotones. This image, which is unreflective of change, shows a dichotomy to the progress taking place in the lands that once belonged to them.
Robert Rauschenberg’s political and social views radically changed in response to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. JFK became an American popular icon, and the artist repeated the image of the president frequently in his silkscreen paintings of first half of the sixties. In other works, the artist used the American eagle to embody his feelings and attachment to the United States.
Rauschenberg’s use of street signs seems to have an irrelevant relationship to the rest of the imagery, but it is still influenced by the political climate and urban iconography of his time. As Pop art emerged, Rauschenberg used some of the visual language of contemporaries such as Andy Warhol. Most importantly, among the words contained on the street signs Rauschenberg used is the word STOP, which is verbal code to communicate with the viewer in the same way that his images utilize a visual code.
CORE poster also contains pictures of highways located in Texas that are more significant in size, composition and color than other pictures in the field. They are placed very close together, in a way that creates the continuation of an imaginary highway system that lives inside the print. The curves of the elevated roads seem to reverberate throughout the picture. His design sense is highlighted by a very unusual element in the picture. Almost placed in the center, the color wheel helps as a point of reference for the composition of the rectangular elements. Rauschenberg was fond of mechanical techniques in his art making. On the other hand, he was discouraged by the extremely systematic way of making four-color silk screens and soon began to appreciate the imperfection of his mistakes. (5)
Rauschenberg especially admired the randomness of the colors produced by using benzene, and scraping the surface of fresh prints. Color and ways of reproducing color were very important in his art. As a student of Joseph Albers, author of the Interaction of Color, Rauschenberg often experimented with color and its effect on painting. Boldly, he placed the color wheel in of the center of the print, echoing the rhythm created by the curves of the highway pictures.
The composition of the poster seems as random as many of his other combination pieces. John F. Kennedy’s picture is a dominant element. The positioning is active, with diagonals to the other pictures that are placed in a complex yet systematic grid. This image is composed of two identical but differently cropped portraits that are overlapping at a strongly inclined angle. In addition, there is a strong triangle formation between the green duotone of JFK and the two highway pictures above and in the corners.
Another element that Rauschenberg used frequently was a dark image that broke the color rhythm of the composition. This image often appeared in other works in the form of a glass of water. In the case of CORE poster, the image corresponds to a darkened picture of a building roof, with water towers that are slanted. Besides his Civil Rights involvement, the artist was very interested in the Vietnam Was and nuclear armament due to the Cold War. The dark images serve as a warning of imminent danger.
Even though Rauschenberg is known for his printmaking, installations, and performances, he started his artistic career as a photographer. The still image is a prominent element in his pieces. However, he gives it different meanings through the use of technique and symbol. While photography can be stylized through different techniques, the picture still conserves its ability to capture time and image. In the case of Rauschenberg’s poster for CORE, the overall picture frame can serve as in the same unifying way as photography because it captures the scenes of that particular period in Rauschenberg life. The difference is in the manipulation of images, using fine art techniques. In this case, printmaking is what makes that reality more flexible, allowing Rauschenberg to create fictional relationships. One of these is the scenes of New York City, which is the city in which he was living but which contrasted strongly against the pictures of highways or JFK.
By using photography, Rauschenberg made the transition from structuralism to post-structuralism. The picture is placed in a systematic way, but the concept behind the picture reflects more. Here we can see the relationship of the ideas of the artist to Barthes’ post- structuralist “rhetoric image”: concepts about reality being the effect of the system of signification. (6)
Rauschenberg’s way of making art reflects his post-structuralist approach since his ideas were open to influence and did not follow any system. CORE also uses a language that relies on the semiotics and structure of language. In this work, the artist is describing a trip that he took in real life in which scenes of modern highways, racecars, and mountains pass by as one looks out of a window on a moving train. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that language is a closed system designed for the exposure of ideas. He also suggested a way of associating relationships with the structure of language, giving rise to spontaneous combinations of ideas. This relates to the work of Rauschenberg in the sense that his work can be looked at as a form of a verbal collage. Regardless of what political scenario the pictures of the highway evoke, Rauschenberg is very clear to state that his art does not contain any message that relates to any social aspect. He said that it is “extremely important that art be unjustifiable.”
Rauschenberg presented his images and messages in the form of layers of information. He realized that the visual languages of mass media were ubiquitous, and that television and magazines of the time were making people more sensitized to this type of message. Even though Rauschenberg’s composition of images seems random and unexpected at first, viewers can start relating to and identifying with the different layers of messages.
The work of Rauschenberg is a quintessential point of reference in American art. Unlike the artists of post-WWII movements in Europe, Rauschenberg stresses that his inspiration and line of thinking have no social or political undertones. However, is very difficult not to attribute political significance to a piece of art that uses portraits of prominent political figures or commemorative monuments. By applying semiotics, Rauschenberg’s creative and artistic processes can be understood in the way that he intended. The structuralist and post-structuralist approaches that Rauschenberg used make his work neutral to a series of compositional and graphic choices. The random feeling of his work is achieved through the factoring of these types of techniques. Rauschenberg’s extensive work and experimentation in many fields of the arts mark an incredible advance in how the artistic process is understood.
(1) Alex Potts, “Random Order: Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde,” Art Bulletin 87, no. 1 (Mar. 2005).
(2) Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990).
(5) Roni Feinstein, et al., Robert Rauschenberg: The Silk Screen Paintings 1962-64 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990).
(6) Laurie Schneider Adams, The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996).