There is some disagreement among Robert Rauschenberg aficionados as to when exactly the great Combine episode began. Was it with the “Red Paintings” exhibited at the Egan Gallery in New York in December 1954? Or with the strictly contemporary construction Minutiae, not included in the Egan show for the simple reason that it was in use at the time as a stage prop by Merce Cunningham’s dance company? The remarkable exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and its catalogue offer divergent answers: The first major work in the book is Untitled, 1954, a “Red Painting” that is absent at the Met, where instead it is Minutiae that greets visitors. Both answers are fitting, as we shall see, yet the choice of the latter work for the entrance is more in keeping with what has become the standard acceptation of “Combine” as something between painting and sculpture. More important for our purposes, Minutiae acts as a conduit of two essential strategies that are common to most Combines (at least until the end of the ’50s), both of which concern readability-or rather, its opposite.


I shall call the first strategy, for lack of a better formulation, a suspension of viewpoint, meaning that the beholder is never assigned a proper distance from which to look at a Combine. In his catalogue essay on Minutiae, Charles Stuckey recalls his exhilaration on examining the work up close during the 1976 National Collection of Fine Arts in Rauschenberg retrospective at the Washington, DC, in order to identify the most minute of its affixed components.


He was elated to find among them “an episode of O. Soglow’s The Little King from some newspaper’s funny pages showing his majesty attending an exhibition of modern sculpture.” “Bingo!” writes Stuckey, who proceeds to read the inclusion of this comic as a self-referential allusion to the work itself. There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation, provided one remembers that the newspaper detail would have been available neither to the spectators of Cunningham’s performance (unless they climbed onto the stage at some point) nor to the performers themselves (try to decipher the text of a cartoon while doing somersaults!).


So, already in Minutiae’s first public appearance, the Combines’ signature suspended viewpoint” was emphasized by the physical distance between the work and the audience (a distance evoked somewhat at the Met by the low security barriers preventing visitors from following in Stuckey’s tracks). Indeed, in almost all of the Combines through the late ‘50s, including even the smallest examples, massive discrepancies of internal scale prevent the beholder from resting assured in a given viewpoint and thus preclude any synthetic reading of the individual works, except of the most generalized nature. Not only is this approach constant, but Rauschenberg pokes fun at those of us naive-or confident-enough to think we’ll defeat the system by “reading” his works up close: About a third of the way down the central panel of Wager, 1967-59, a barely decipherable inscription in a childish hand reads IMPOSSIBILITY/CONTROL, and below that, To RECALL/THE/ IMAGE/PRECISE. You bet.


The second strategy dramatized in Minutiae might be called the “hide-and-seek booby trap.” Rauschenberg is not the first to master this game; in fact, he learned from its most brilliant and lethal twentieth-century practitioner, Marcel Duchamp, whose work has plunged generations of art historians into paranoiac deliriums of overinterpretation. This tactic functions on two levels, the first of which could be dubbed “thematic,” as in The Little King’s allusion to sculpture in Minutiae. The second, more literal level might be called “material,” as in the case of Cunningham’s dancers disappearing into the work by passing behind the screen or by virtue of their being camouflaged in costumes matching Minutiae’s palette. To this example we might add the piece of translucent fabric suspended over what looks like a circular hole in the middle panel of Collection, 1954, which lefts like a skirt at the slightest breeze. In both these works (as well as in Pink Door, 1954, Interview, 1955, and abort Circuit, 1955, which all open like cupboards, or even In Untitled, ca. 1954 [nicknamed “Plymouth Rock”], in which a hidden surface is revealed by a mirror), the material peek-a-boo goes hand in hand with the thematic one. But In all the subsequent Combines until 1959, the two levels are usually at odds. More often than not, the collagen surface of the work suggests a complex geology; it tells us that there is something behind but denies our access to it. Frustrated at not being able to dig for the “woman underneath” (to borrow Balzac’s famous ending of The Unknown Masterpiece), many of Rauschenberg’s commentators can’t resist biting at the referential bait he has generously distributed across his surfaces in, I presume, these semantic traps as tongue in cheek a manner as did Duchamp. Setting might be considered cruel of him, but it could also be deemed charitable, keeping art historians busy for generations to come. As Leo Steinberg wrote in his recent revisitation of his groundbreaking 1972 essay (based on a 1968 lecture): “We shall have dissertations galore, including perusals of the fine print In the newspaper scraps that abound in Rauschenberg’s picturesque.


The referential frenzy elicited by Rauschenberg’s tease can be purely iconographic, and then It is pathetic. (Schimmel’s catalogue text is nothing but a long litany of decoded “references,” that word or one of its variants appearing in nearly every paragraph.) But the decoding can also become more properly iconological, to Invoke Erwin Panofsky’s distinction between the lithographer who is content to Identify the referent and the iconologist who attempts to Interpret it. To the latter camp, we might assign Stuckey’s famous 1976 decryption of Rebus, 1955, and Thomas Crow’s beautiful allegorical Interpretation of the Combines in the present catalogue. I behave, however, that even in its elegant (iconological) form, this search for the “hidden meaning” is misguided—not because it is wrong (there can be no “wrong” interpretation of Rauschenberg, as John Cage noted), but because It is too limited. Or rather too limiting: Profoundly antithetical to Rauschenberg’s Cagean leveling of hierarchies, this approach edits out the noise and selects, among many possible elements, those that can be synthesized into a narrative through a chain of association.


That the primary response to the Combines’ lack of center, to Rauschenberg’s paratactic collection of detritus, should aim to recompose a synthesis is not but it that whatever surprising. It is an anxious response, certainly, signals Impetus lies behind the artist’s avowed motto of bridging the gap between art and life still has some sabotaging power. What is curious, however, is that although the iconological mining of Rauschenberg’s work vastly dominates the literature, some participants in this canonizing enterprise believe themselves to be In the minority. (I say “canonizing” because this iconological method surreptitiously transforms Rauschenberg’s Combines into old-master pictures.)


Crow, for example, criticizes Cage and Steinberg for refusing to singularity specific iconographic elements in their pioneering analyses of the Combines--a refusal indispensable both to Cage’s conception of the Combine as an assembly of Indifferent differences and to Steinberg’s famous concept of the “flatbed picture plane”--and he laments that Rauschenberg’s choice of Individual elements is “ruled out of serious consideration in most quarters,” a somewhat disingenuous   claim given the decoding frenzy I’ve already mentioned. One thing is true, however: Despite the many texts of the iconographic/iconological bent exploring a gay subvert In Rauschenberg’s work (by Jonathan D. Katz, Kenneth Silver, and many others), the exhibition and catalogue are nearly mum on the topic, save for a few passing references in Schimmel’s essay and a wall text summarizing Kenneth Bendiner’s reading of Canyon, 1959, as an elaboration on the myth of Zeus’s abduction of the beautiful boy Ganymede. My favorite example of this sheepishness concerns “Plymouth Rock” which is dissected ad nauseam by two of the catalogue’s authors. We learn about many of its affixed elements, right down to a newspaper clipping about a beauty pageant won by Rauschenberg’s sister that is visible reversed in a mirror only after considerable gymnastics on the part of the viewer. But there’s nary a peep about the faded photo of a youthful Jasper Johns staring the viewer In the face at eye level. There, the sexuality- inclined iconologists have a point: Playing the hide-and-seek game might still have some social function today-at least with regard to a topic like homosexuality in the America of Brokeback Mountain.


Yet the question to ask is this: What does the identification of a face-even one that alludes, for those in the know, to the private life of two extremely secretive artists-fundamentally add to our understanding of the work? Given the dozens of conglomerated atoms in Plymouth Rock,” including photos of various scales (among them several family snapshots), reproductions of works of art, a Cy Twombly scrabble, a stuffed hen, a mirror, and a pair of shoes, what could the pinpointing of individual elements achieve, especially as they might branch into different stories in the minds of the iconographer-sleuths? Would we finally have found Waldo?


Crow criticizes Cage for having written that “there is no more subject in a combine than there is in a page from a newspaper. Each thing that is there is a subject . . . any one of them could be removed and another come into its place through circumstances analogous to birth and death, travel, housecleaning, or cluttering.” Cage may have been a bit coy but I believe he was right: The logical correlate of combination, at least in the structuralist formation, is permutation—that is, in order to find out if a combination works, you permute one of its terms. Roland Barthes was fascinated by the Argo, “each piece of which,” according to him (though he apparently got the story wrong), “the Argonauts gradually replaced, so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form.” Rauschenberg, I think, is akin to one of Barthes’s Argonauts. As Branden W. Joseph elaborates in the catalogue, the artist even made the strategy of permanent permutation lateral in Black Market, 1961, perhaps the most successful late Combine. Not only is transience underlined by the reflective surfaces of the four metallic clipboards attached to the canvas, but the objects contained in the wooden suitcase that lies at its base are meant to be replaced at will by viewers, on the condition that they draw the new items on the writing pads below the metallic flaps.


One of the results of permanent permutation is an entropic equalization of all things, which was precisely Cage’s point. And the reason Rauschenberg’s Combines provoked such scorn at first, while Abstract Expressionism stall reigned supreme, was that he applied this leveling strategy to the act of painting itself. He probably would have had an easier time if he had Just stated in his art that painting was “dead”—a ritual in twentieth-century art that had already been enacted by Duchamp in 1913, Malevich in 1918, Rodchenko in 1921, etc., etc. No, what he declared instead, as early as the “Red Painting” I mentioned at the outset (which is why it could have made just as good an introduction to the show as Minutiae), is that there is no fundamental difference between a collage element and a painted one. In his work, any atom—whether industrially, mechanically, or manually produced—is, as it were, in quotation marks.


This is particularly striking in what could be called the Rose Period of Rauschenberg’s Combines. In works from this time, the painted marks always look as if they were stereotypical emblems of the activity of painting, Darks whose arbitrariness (not to say fraudulence) is nowhere more highlighted than in the random choice of their color. (The dominance of pink stems from its ubiquity in the unlabeled industrial paint cans for which the young artist was able to wrangle a special price: Had the color been a favorite in 1954 home decoration rather than being overproduced and then discounted by retailers, Rauschenberg’s early Combines might have had another dominant hue.) As he said to Schimmel in a statement that could have been cosigned by his teacher, Josef Albers, though with an entirely different meaning-there is no such thing as a bad color. Very often, this quotation marks” quality-something Gerhard Richter would master much later with his squeegee-is not produced by a brushstroke (too delicate? too skillful? too much associated with the traditional craft of the old masters, even, save Jackson Pollock, the modernist ones?). Instead, these passages are often produced with a can of spray paint and drip down abundantly or are spurted straight out of the tube in excremental rainbow configurations.


There is another reason why I think the 1954 Untitled “Red Painting” would have been a good beginning for the show, something touched on by Rosalind E. Krauss in her extraordinary 1974 essay, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image.” Building on Steinberg’s earlier text, Krauss noticed that the surface of Rauschenberg’s “flatbed” is not necessarily very flat but has a thickness in which objects are embedded. This thickness, she asserted, came directly from the corpus of Duchamp’s paintings displayed off the wall, such as To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass), 1918, or The Large Glass, 1915-23, in which depicted images are sandwiched between two transparent panes and thus appear as corporeal things. Krauss’s most telling example of Rauschenberg’s use of the support as a material in which corporeal images are embedded is perhaps Red Interior, 1954, which contains a portion of velvet on which letters are embossed (the fabric having been ironed over metallic signs). But she dates this embedded mode to the earlier “Black Paintings” and to the series of “Red Paintings” (one of the last of which is our 1954 Untitled), in which “a collage surface of various types of paper, including strips of newspaper, was impregnated with pigment.” In such works, she argues, “the tonal and chromatic differences in the color across these surfaces became then a function of the material to which it was applied, or by which it was absorbed. So that the impression of color within what was a conventional picture field was seen to be a function of the color of things. This attitude toward color prepared for the subsequent attitude toward the image.” However, she concludes, <<It was, itself, something that Rauschenberg did not pursue further.”


With this last statement I beg to differ. If Rauschenberg did not further explore this embeddedness at the level of color, it nonetheless governs his attitude, until 1959, toward the “support of inscription” (for lack of a better term). What I have in mind is the way in which the support is part of the image, which is to say that it is no longer a support. Or it is to say that the support, made up of a conglomeration of superimposed or juxtaposed shards, is just as fragmented as the “picture”   it bears. And this, of course, means that the support does not really bear the picture any longer, because its disaggregation—its lack of coherence as an entity-makes it impossible to really bear anything at all. 


Consider Levee, 1955 for example. The caption in the catalogue says that it is made of “oil, paper, printed paper, printed reproductions, fabric, and necktie on canvas.” Simple enough, but which is the canvas “on” which every- thing is grammatically affixed? Between a reproduction of a Cranach portrait and an Image of a lake behind tree thanks, there is a dirty blank rectangle that seems to be carved into the work as if sometime had been peeled away to reveal at its periphery a whole mattress of superimposed fabrics. It is hard enough trying to figure out what lies on what when looking at the crest of this stack of fabric, but this gap within the overall tissue prompts one to ask: Where does it stop? Is it, as Dr. Seuss would say, turtles all the way down?1


Or look at Untitled, ca. 1955, with its flattened toy parachute and pendulous catenary strings. There seems at first to be a homogenous support on which very few objects or images are glued (the parachute, a dirty sock, a photo of a pair of birds, several small rectangles of monochrome fabric, and, at the top, a postcard of grazing cows): Peace at last! But repose is evasive. Several embroidered gaps within the fabric of the “support” (a long horizontal line along the top and a smaller vertical one at left), as well as thin margins on the left border, an empty rectangle at the bottom left corner, and a small square “hole” just above it, reveal the “real” ground to be a black canvas almost entirely covered by the collage elements.2 This foray into the recesses of the material support is also matched in the reverse direction: We soon realize that another portion of the fabric with the embroidered gaps (identified as a tablecloth by the accompanying wall label) is pasted next to the dirty sock, and, furthermore, the staccato pattern of the gaps has been mimicked in a line of light blue paint traversing the picture from edge to edge. The piling up stops there, but It could go on. For a good whale, all of Rauschenberg’s “supports” were patchworks—or rather palimpsests—of excruciating complexity and varying assembly (sawing being almost as common as pasting), a practice that extended to his habit of partially obscuring his collagen photographs behind veils of translucent fabric or wash. Again and again, the peekaboo trap is laid, leaving us always to wonder what lies beneath.


Rauschenberg’s layering of the material “support” is ubiquitous until 1959. (There are a few exceptions, of course, notably Factum I and Factum II, both of 1957, but there the doubled of the canvases and the elements within them displaces the problem of the ground.) I say “ubiquitous,” but I might also have said essential, for, above all, the physical superimpositions are the key to the Combines’ success—they are what lend the works their dynamism and mystery. Why? Because in performing materially for us the children’s game of topping hands, which fascinated Barthes, this layering forces our reading to participate in the play.


Speaking about the act of reading a text, Barthes envisioned two systems. The first “goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, It considers the extent of the text, ignores the play of language” (this type of reading, for him, is prompted by Jules Verne). Barthes continued:


The other reading skips nothing; it weighs, It sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point In the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages-and not the anecdote: It is not (logical) extension that captivates it, the winnowing out of truths, but the layering of significance; as in the children’s game of topping hands, the excitement comes not from a progressive haste but from a kind of vertical din (the verticality of language and of its destruction); it is at the moment when each (different) hand skips over the next (and not after the other) that the hole, the gap, is created and carries off the subject of the game—the subject of the text.1


This mode of reading, concludes Barthes, “is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text,” that is, the non-narrative text. The myopic grazing that Rauschenberg’s Combines invite is of the same order.


I cannot date precisely when Rauschenberg’s Combines abandoned the game of topping hands, but my guess is that the act of painting onstage in October 1959, during the performance of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, constituted a major turn away from the slow process of accumulation that had presided over his art during the preceding years. And in First Time Painting, also executed onstage in 1961, I find a confirmation that speed was of the essence in the new mode. Two major features characterize this approach: The support is now unified, a perfectly smooth blank canvas (even if, as in the “Summer Rental” series of 1960, a horizontal black line alludes, trompe l’oeil style, to a seam), and the paint, applied in broad brush-strokes of often garish colors--a la third-generation AbEx-is no longer in quotation marks. The two features are not only coeval but intricately linked. Once the support is nothing more than a neutral surface of projection and the moving brush nothing more than the prolongation of one’s arm, no heterogeneous, imported element can have enough weight to materially destabilize the unity of the picture plane. This is why I find all the objects grafted on the late Combines, no matter how protruding, strangely inactive, and perhaps all the more so if they themselves are destined to move like the electric fans of Pantomime, 1961, or the clocks of the “Time Paintings” from that year. By returning to its traditional role of neutral receptacle, by redeeming the homogeneity that had been so effectively undermined, the ground sutures all gaps and, to my mind at least, depletes the late Combines of any energy, despite the fact that their painterly gestures are done with ever more bravado. Once again, there are exceptions among the post-1959 Combines: I’ve already mentioned Black Market, and I should point to First Landing Jump, also of 1961, in which the black cloth that occupies the upper portion of the work is sewed to the dirty tan fabric below. (It is perhaps not by chance that in these two examples the brushstrokes are far less conspicuous and in subdued colors.) But in general, the embeddedness of the ground is lost from 1959, a direction that the exhibition underlines by ending with Gold Standard, 1964, a freestanding folding screen whose mechanically articulated surface is as impenetrable a citadel as the Federal Reserve to which its smooth and shiny gold leaf (and title) seems to allude.


This was a dead end and Rauschenberg knew it. In fad, two years before, he had already made his next move in the first of the “Silkscreen Paintings,” a series that was coincident with the late, AbEx-like Combines and the origins of which can be found in the series of transfer drawings after Dante, dating from 1959 to 1960. For although the ground in the silk-screen works of the early ’60s would never relinquish the coherent identity it had regained after years of sabotage, neither wool it function conspicuously as a mere receptacle. Rather, the transparency of the images and their superimposition would make the canvas into something more like photographic paper—the white of the support seeping into the highlights in the imagery—or, better, something like the two plates of transparent glass between which Duchamp sandwiched his rebuses. Back to square one, in a sense. But that is another story. 






1 Turtles!

1 I wonder if these must be mutually (or even very) exclusive methods of reading a text, film, artwork. Any time a mood (or memory) is created, it seems we have already left behind the mere cause-and-effect of linear narrative. And likewise, even the most linear of narrative can work to establish mood (and memory). So…

2 Love the “hole.”