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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giving Birth to Pop

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008
We tend to think that Abstract Expressionism suddenly gave way to Pop art sometime about 1960, give or take a couple years, as if the Pop artist like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, or Roy Lichtenstein suddenly slammed the door on gestural painting in favor of their tightly controlled efforts at merging "pop" culture with so-called "high" culture. Well, it may not have been quite that neat and simple but such perceptions do have some element of truth in that the year 1960 is something of a convenient milestone for both styles. However there is one artist that stands nearly alone as a transitional figure between the two styles. That man is Robert Rauschenberg.

Black Mountain College in North Carolina might seem a rather unlikely womb for the birth of a new era in American art, but it was here in the late 1940s that Rauschenberg attended classes taught by Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning, and here he fell under the influence of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Just as Cage used "found sounds" in his music, Rauschenberg, in the 1950s, applied "found images"--scraps of paper, actual objects, signs, newspaper clippings, attached to the canvas of his paintings, and then integrated into a single composition with the liberal application of paint ala de Kooning and Albers. He once did a painting called "Bed" made up of an actual pillow and quilt, attached to his canvas and splashed with huge quantities of runny paint--a hotel maid's worst nightmare.

Estate, 1963, Robert Rauschenberg
While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg not only learned action painting, but studied photography as well. Rauschenberg came late to Abstract Expressionism but not to the use of photographic silk-screened images in paintings.  His sources for these images were common, everyday magazines and newspapers, which made him among the first (along with Warhol) to experiment with painted pop culture.  His 1963 painting, Estate, combined the use of oil paints and printers ink to create a montage made up of interior and exterior architectural photos silk-screened amongst freely applied abstract,  gestural strokes of paint. Rauschenberg, it could be said,  was a sort of artistic "midwife" giving birth to an evolutionary "missing link" between de Kooning and Warhol.

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