How Rauschenberg's photos structured his art
A new Manhattan show looks at how photography fitted into the late American artist's practice
The late American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who would have turned 88 years old today incidentally, is best known for his Combines; avant-garde combinations of paintings and sculpture. Yet he took photographs throughout his career. As Catherine Craft writes in our Phaidon Focus book on the artist, "although he learned dark room procedure, he was uninterested in fine print quality, and he used the same camera, a twin-lens reflex Rolleicord, for both fine art and his documentary photography. Appropriately, the distinctions between these two categories were not always clear."
Rauschenberg shot fellow artists, including Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns; he took simple, geometric pictures at Black Mountain College, under the tutelage of the former Bauhaus tutor Josef Albers. He went on to splice and manipulate his photographs, producing self-styled series including Bleachers (bleached, large-format Polaroid prints mounted to aluminum), Nightshades (photographs silk-screened onto aluminum), and Photems (shaped collages of photographs).
A New York exhibition, Robert Rauschenberg and Photography, at the Pace/MacGill Gallery on 57th Street until 2 November, brings together this diverse work into a single exhibition. It looks like a rewarding show; Pace/MacGill is a photography gallery, yet the works look as if they have more in common with Christopher Wool or Andy Warhol than they share with Irving Penn or Robert Frank.
Further on in our Phaidon Focus book, Craft writes that "it might be said that photography came to function for Rauschenberg as much as drawing did for other artists: a way of recording impressions but also as a means for structuring reality that would provide a foundation for his audacious conception of art."