Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”


Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Bauhaus: The Fate of the Bauhaus

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

The Fate of the Bauhaus Buildings

The decline of the school probably began in 1928 when the founding Director, Walter Gropius departed but the last two directors were under pressures that Gropius escaped. Mies was able to do little more to save the Bauhaus than to turn it into a vocational school, training people for trades. Clearly he was trying to be as circumspect as possible in an increasingly hostile political climate. The Nazis won a political majority in Dessau and immediately took aim at the Bauhaus and its “cosmopolitan rubbish” and withdrew all public funding. Architect Paul Schultze-Naumberg took over at the school to restore pure German art and architecture and purge the Kisten or the boxes of Bauhaus furniture. The Nazis were unique among the fascists in their hatred of modern architecture, for, in Italy, the government appropriated modernism for its own purposes. However, the Nazis reverted to imperial architecture inspired by Rome and it is fortunate that Schultze-Naumberg limited his destruction to the curriculum of the school.

Perhaps the most malicious act of vandalism befell the Master’s Houses, built for Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, Schlemmer, Feininger, Miuche and Moholy-Nagy. Gropius had designed a group of modernist semi-detached and single-family homes, the famous houses for the Bauhaus faculty. Built according the to the designs of Gropius, these houses included a revolutionary modern concept for the kitchen, replacing traditional kitchen furniture with hanging cabinets and counters. The homes were furnished with Bauhaus furniture, lamps, fabrics, weavings, and other accessories. Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, were photographed sitting in a pair of “Wassily” chairs, designed by Marcel Breuer.

When the Bauhaus moved to Berlin, the city of Dessau, which owned the property, sold the houses to the Junker factory and ordered that the “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” The houses were greatly altered with the wide window walls closed in for conventional openings and chimneys sprouted from the flat roofs. During an air raid, the houses for Gropius and for Moholy-Nagy were destroyed. The other homes are still standing and have been lovingly restored to their original condition. The mark of the influence of De Stijl architecture is strongly felt with the crisp white exteriors, trimmed in black with an occasional jolt of a red line. The interiors were colorful in the Bauhaus fashion of using color to demarcate space. Starting in 2000, these houses were restored by the city of Dessau and today they on the list of UNESCO’s historic buildings. The question of whether or not to rebuilt the remaining two houses is still under discussion.

The Bauhaus building itself was damaged by bombing in 1945 and was partially restored in 1976. The building was located in East Germany and the reconstruction was not precise or historically accurate, perhaps due to lack of funds. For example, the curtain wall of the workshop wing was destroyed and the original steel window frames were replaced with aluminum. It was thought that the frames were lost but they were relocated as part of a greenhouse and placed back where they belonged. Extensive restoration of the original restoration began in the early years of the twenty-first century. Few documents exist about the original building and the restorers took every effort to preserve the original elements of the building, from the innovative plastic floors to the brightly colored walls, painted in accordance to the plan of the wall-painting department, headed by Hinnerk Scheper. In 1996, the building was registered as a World Heritage site and today it receives two hundred visitors a day.

When Adolf Hitler became dictator in Germany, any intellectuals and artists who remained left the nation…if they could. It has been said, “Hitler shook the tree and America got the apples.” The diaspora of the Bauhaus architects were but a fraction of Germany’s creative capital that was drained out of the country’s system. Albert Speer replaced Walter Gropius as Germany’s most celebrated architect. Gropius, Breuer, Mies, Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers all came to America with enormous impact upon art and architecture in New York and Chicago.

In a free and prosperous society, they were able to build significant modernist buildings and the Bauhaus lived on in buildings and in countless copies of Bauhaus objects for modern life. Sadly, Walter Gropius did not live to see the restoration of his Gesamtkunstwerk and he died in 1969. His American home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, built in 1938, was very similar to his home within walking distance of the Bauhaus.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Bauhaus: Modern Design

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Bauhaus and the Modern World

In the beginning, the Bauhaus was founded upon the precedents of arts and crafts, deeply rooted in a Romantic and Germanic notion of a return to a medieval way of life. The founding image of the Bauhaus was the Cubist-like cathedral designed by Lyonel Feininger for the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto. Indeed it was the intention of the newly appointed director, Walter Gropius to end the academic distinction between the fine arts and crafts by reestablishing the culture of the workshop. There would be a master of craft, the Handwerkmeister, and the master of form, the Formmeister, who, between them, would join handwork and aesthetics. Indeed the idea of making things, of getting back to the direct experience with materials which were manipulated with the hands was the basic idea of the early Bauhaus. The ideal sought by Gropius was the mythic and spiritual collective memory of the Bauhüten or the masons’ lodges. The idea of the cathedral and the Bauhaus was the Einheitskunstwerk or the total work of art translated into the collective needs of a modern society. But this idea of collectivity was easier stated than achieved.

The Bauhaus student body was definitely a mixed bag, unemployed men looking for something to do, old and difficult veterans, and students who were unprepared for the lofty goals of the Bauhaus. Gropius brought in a sterling faculty with pre-war credentials, starting with Lyonel Feininger and continuing with Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Johannes Itten from Vienna. Itten quickly remedied the problem of the lack of student readiness for an art school by creating a “foundation” course that would teach the basics to all students to create a foundation for the more advanced courses. Classes taught by Kandinsky and Klee complemented this “preliminary course”. Although Itten would be forced out along with the lingering sentiments for Expressionism in 1922, the idea of providing a year of basics in the arts still lingers in art schools a hundred years later. After Itten’s departure, László Moholy-Nagy took over the Preliminary Course, which would later be taught, most famously, by Josef Albers.

Despite their philosophical differences, Itten and Gropius established significant ideas that would leave their mark on twentieth century design and architecture. Itten, who was a hippie before his time, taught his students the fundamentals of the body through yogi or stretching exercises that would get them in touch with their own physicality. This emphasis on the senses was part of the need to give primacy to experience and an awareness of life through exercises in quick sketches in drawing class. Gropius did not consider that the Bauhaus was engaged in “making art” but in conducting “experiments” in a “laboratory.” At the Bauhaus, “abstraction” took on a different meaning as a search for fundamentalism. Abstraction did not stand in for “something else,” but was the process of distilling art making down to the essentials.

This basic core that the post-war artists were seeking initiated a search for artistic forms stripped of any cultural “baggage.” The idea of a tabula rasa was not just a quest for the visual arts; philosophers also turned their attention to the epistemology or the grounds of perceptual knowledge and linguistic understanding. Edmund Husserl wrote extensively of “bracketing” reality and attempting to discern the essentials of perception. Fernand de Saussure proposed a system where in the structure of language could be determined, breaking down linguistics into the “sign,” the “signifier,” and the “signified.” Certainly the thinking of De Stijl was crucial in the Bauhaus’ process of stripping down to a basic code of line and color. As Yves-Alain Bois pointed out in his 1985 book on De Stijl the “elementarization” which narrowed composition to the primary colors, white and gray, and the ruled line at right angle, and “integration,” which binds the resulting forms into a unified whole were the basis of De Stijl philosophy.

What had to be unlearned were outmoded and outdated aesthetic conventions and received ideas of beauty as taught by the academy. The artist of the twentieth century needed to have a mind cleansed of received wisdom and to return to a tabula rasa from which new and clarified forms would emerge. Gropius sought basic modules as elemental building units. Having achieved that level of creative clarity, the artist could be redefined as “a builder of systems.” The emphasis on experience over knowledge meant that communication between viewer and maker should be pre-linguistic and immediate due to the eloquence of “fundamental forms.” In his influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911, Vasily Kandinsky asserted that a form of “psychic shock” would result when the viewer encountered these strong forms. Key to the idea of gaining experience, which would replace conventions was the idea of “play.” The importance of play at the Bauhaus was inspired by the foundational work of Friedrich Froebel who invented the “kindergarten” or the “children’s garden” where children played and learned from their play.

By 1923, Gropius was ready to announce the new philosophy for the Bauhaus. This “reversal of values” moved the school away from the reform of arts and crafts to an engagement with the industrial world. Clearly, the Bauhaus had been profoundly impacted by the art and design done by the De Stijl movement in Holland and by the example of “laboratory work” done in the new Soviet Union. De Stijl founder, Theo van Doesburg, moved to Weimar and gave individual lessons to Bauhaus students but was never a professor there. In Berlin, German art audiences go their first look at the new art of the Soviets at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1922. The world had changed and the Bauhaus reacted with alacrity. Gropius, speaking at a 1923 exhibition of faculty and student work, announced that the Bauhaus had moved into the present and had a new slogan, “Art and Technology: A New Unity.”

Thus the philosophy of the Bauhaus passed beyond the Werkbund spirit that the artist should be a craftsperson first and any aesthetic must be based upon sound craft. The whole notion of “craft” and making had to get beyond the medieval mystique and into mass manufacture. 1923 was the year that Walter Gropius invited the Hungarian artist, László Moholy-Nagy to join the faculty. Moholy-Nagy embodied the new industrial spirit of the new Bauhaus. A photographer, painter and typographer, Molholy-Nagy pioneered in what his called “New Vision,” his version of “the grammar of modern design” sought by Gropius. Like many designers, Moholy-Nagy knew that the visual forms of the nineteenth century had to be updated for the new century. Most importantly, he understood that the modern mind perceived the world in a fundamentally different fashion.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]