The Chow Bag series, 1977
Maria Pia Carracino
By the beginning of the 1970s, Robert Rauschenberg had worked out of a handful of design studios, including his own, sometimes simultaneously. He produced “firsts” during studio stays at both Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) and Gemini Studios. He made his first silkscreened prints at ULAE in 1962; and his first print to combine lithography and screen printing, Booster, was made at Gemini in 1967. Booster was also his first attempt at creating the largest hand-printed lithograph ever made. To foster continued collaboration within his work, in 1969 Rauschenberg created his own short-lived Untitled Press, the printing studio out of which he worked at his home in Captiva Island, Florida. In the year 1970, Rauschenberg began to work for extended periods out of Styria Studio in New York, and in 1972 he began to work out of Graphicstudio. The latter was a place of many further innovations. In 1973 he first used the direct solvent-transfer method in his Crops series and subsequently used cloth as a printing substrate. The following year, out of Graphicstudio, he used the relief and intaglio processes on various fabrics in the A Airport series of 1974.
Rauschenberg moved permanently to Captiva Island in 1970. It was there that he opened a new studio. Two things probably drew him to adopt unconventional materials for his art: the philosophy of non-possession he had assimilated from the teachings of John Cage, and the fact of having lost all his work in two fires in 1951. The artist, who grew up during the Great Depression, began to experiment with paper bags, twine, cardboard boxes and other discarded objects.
Rauschenberg, who is considered by Ruth E. Fine as one of the greatest printmakers of our time, created many series in cardboard as well as in print form, which enabled him to vary a particular subject in a number of ways by exploring various technical possibilities. Even though each work in a print series is a complete work in and of itself, each discrete work acquires a more clear meaning when it is seen as part of the whole.
Collaboration, an integral issue in the works of Rauschenberg, created interesting challenges to printers and others who worked on his projects in the 1970s. Rauschenberg's working process was the reverse from what was the usual sequence of events; for example, starting with a hazy idea but knowing ultimately what one would like to produce as a finished product. His proofs, although well thought-out and clear, were not an absolutely clear indication of how individual prints would evolve as far as a “change here” or “change there” were concerned. It was not that simple. Inconsistent editions with slight variations in content were the theme of such series as Horsefeathers Thirteen (1972), Tam (1972), and the Hoarfrost Editions (1974). The fifty-seven-print Tam edition alone has as many similarities as differences. In these prints, subtle changes in placement of images, textures, and typefaces create the conclusion that although they may appear the same, on closer inspection, each print is unique.
Photo-silkscreen and Collage, 35 3/4 x 47 5/8 in.
While at Universal Limited Art Editions during the 1970s, Rauschenberg enlisted world collaboration in the form of newspaper text and imagery to make his statement in his huge print Currents. Using headlines and layers of photos, Rauschenberg communicated his political and social concerns regarding racism and the Vietnam War. His technical fascination with producing large, one-sheet prints is evident in the sixty-foot long Currents, which is actually a printing of thirty-six individual studies featuring newspapers.
Currents was shown at various venues, where it massively enveloped the audience by its sheer size, pushing the extraordinary news headlines that may have been too quickly relegated to the back of the viewer’s mind to his or her immediate notice. Grabbing the attention of the viewer, they invite him or her to participate. Just as newspapers have wide circulations, Rauschenberg pushed for Currents to be exhibited and viewed in as many places as possible.
While Rauschenberg's relationship with the printed images of newspapers, magazines, and the like was a pivotal characteristic of his work during the 1970s, at various times his use of copyrighted material got him into trouble. Fortunately, Rauschenberg was also a photographer and as time went on, he included many photographs by his own hand, as seen in his Glacial Decoys series of 1979. This shift from the use of outside sources to the incorporation of his own gave the prints an autobiographical aspect. This enabled the viewer to experience images from Rauschenberg’s life in two ways: with artist as author and with artist as subject.
In the Hoarfrost series of 1974, one of his best works, Rauschenberg used the technique of direct solvent-transfer, where a liquid solvent is used to directly imprint an image onto a fabric. This method allowed him to transfer printed images to light fabrics such as silk, satin, and chiffon, obtaining wonderful effects through layering such as transparency and veiling. In this series, composed of nine individual works, Rauschenberg used fabric as well as paper, cardboard, twine and printed images.
Of particular interest in the Hoarfrost series is Groundings, a print that anticipates the Chow Bag series of 1977. This print is interesting in that it differs from the rest of the Hoarfrost series in subject matter, composition and technique. But like the rest of the prints in the Chow Bag series, it has an animal subject, a dog, and uses the famous Purina logo.
Completed by Rauschenberg in 1977, the Chow Bag series is a set of six, 48 1/16 x 35 5/16 inch, silkscreen prints on paper with plastic twine. Made by the Styria studio in 1977, it portrays a variety of farm and domesticated animals: goats, rabbits, monkeys, pigs, and a mink. The prints, originally collages made of disassembled cardboard pieces bearing labels, all display the checkered trademark of the Purina Mills Company. Founded by William Danforth in 1884, the company produced Purina Chow, a line of food for animals that prospered for well over a century. The name of the product has an explanation. The word Purina (from pure) was coined to describe the purity of the grain made by the Danforth mills, and Chow is the name soldiers during WW I used to refer to food.
Purina Mills supported the United States’ war effort. It assisted farmers through various programs to produce better food for the troops; and during the Great Depression, the company increased the sale of its breakfast products by rewarding—with toys and trinkets—any youngster who returned box tops to the company. This exemplified the power of advertising in even a poor economy. The success and entrepreneurial spirit of the Purina Mills company stands as an example of capitalistic America at it best, and it may be that Rauschenberg was impressed by the history of Purina Mills. He prominently uses its trademark in the Chow Bag series.
A print is by nature reproducible, and just as a pamphlet, flyer, or petition letter can be handed out, posted, or mailed, so too could Rauschenberg's prints be disseminated to the public. Also, like his Currents exhibition, they could be given maximum exposure. "The Chow Bag Series addresses the relationship between people and domestic animals—first we feed 'em, then we eat 'em. A hog or calf may find its way to our tables as bacon or veal; a monkey or rabbit is likely to end up in a research lab."
At first glance, the Chow Bag series, seen all together, appears to be a virtual Who's Who of farm and "farmed" animals. Not knowing the artist's background (he was raised on a farm) or of his participation in political and social causes, the average viewer might be bewildered by his choice of subject matter. The connections become clearer, however, on closer inspection. Rauschenberg's collage compositions layer a supporting cast of images in a variety of media, such as graph paper, photographs, magazine clippings, and typography, to help define both the individual and overall themes of the series. Above all, motifs seen in the entire series tie the individual pieces together—animals, the Purina checkerboard logo (and the images within it), and the plastic twine. From left to right, prints featuring only one species of animal—Mink Chow Hog Chow, and Calf Chow—lead the procession. The last three—Monkey Chow, Goat Chow, and Rabbit Chow—feature multiple types of the same animal. Monkey Chow, in particular, differs from all the rest with its non-traditional green-on-white treatment of the typically red-on-white Purina logo. Rauschenberg may have differentiated this print since the monkey is the only wild creature that is not a typical farm animal in the American sense. Also exhibited are prints by Rauschenberg's contemporary and friend James Rosenquist, a fellow printmaker. Similarly, both use the enlarged image of a woman's pointing finger, Rauschenberg in Hog, and Rosenquist in President-Elect. In the former's print, the finger rests on the lip of a beaker. This image, along with a photo of a NASA satellite, underlines the theme of experimental research. By contrast, in the latter, the fingers appear in a more domestic setting, as they hold a piece of dark cake and are surrounded by other kitchen items such as salt and pepper shakers.
Photo-silkscreen and Collage, 35 3/4 x 47 5/8 in.
Analyzing the prints individually yields an array of discoveries involving detailed looking, twisting of the head (and sometimes the entire body), and mirror-imaging. A comprehensive look at Rabbit Chow, for example, reveals how the print's composition aids in relaying its possible message. Rabbit Chow features six types of rabbits that vary in color. Within the checkerboard logo are moving frames of multiple tire rim-like patterned circles, an enlarged tire below an engine-type mechanism, and a grainy image depicting stylized fish. Each rabbit is individually boxed in a grid. A dirty rag-type cloth is situated between the rabbit "boxes" and seems to hang over a clothesline. At the very top are two golden circles and a picture of the legs of a group of people. The term "MicroMixed" in banner style is "stamped" on the print as well. The overall theme—the farming or breeding of animals such as rabbits and fish—is supported by the juxtaposition of the fish in invisible vertical boxes, a practice common to fish farms or nurseries. The compartmentalized setup of the rabbits can be read as a parallel to the isolating cages in which test rabbits are often kept in scientific experiments.
"Because of this association with real experience, the images in Rauschenberg's work are specifically meaningful. But they do not constitute a systematic iconography. The cross-tracking
multiplicity of associations permits one to "read" the individual images in any number of ways at the same time; thus, the "decoding" by art historians attempting to rigidify the artist's associations into a systematically decipherable text have so far not yielded convincing results. Indeed, the artist's style and stated premises contradict the presence of a systematic iconography; "If you do work with known quantities—making puns or dealing symbolically with your material—you are shortening the life of the work."