Robert Rauschenberg, an American born in 1925, started producing painterly prints in the early 1960s that contained pictures he cut out of magazines and newspapers. Nearly ten years prior, he had created pieces he dubbed “Combines,” which are fusions of painting and sculpture that embrace the noise of daily life and contrast the solitary canvases of abstract expressionism. The ordinary was also introduced in Rauschenberg’s prints in a variety of ways, such as the water ring left by a drinking glass, the embossment from a coin, or the traced contour of a cane. By reintroducing representation into the avant-garde, the artist revived a vibrant visual language. “What he invented above all was…a graphic surface that let the world in again,” wrote art historian Leo Steinberg.
The unrestricted attitude of Robert Rauschenberg influenced fine art print studios to take new paths. He pushed the boundaries of techniques and materials while collaborating with skilled printers, rethinking standard procedures for lithography, screenprinting, and intaglio, using new techniques like digital imaging, and printing on unusual materials including cardboard, cloth, and plastic. Since imprinting—the very nature of printmaking—had long played a part in Rauschenberg’s work, in the form of fingerprint impressions in his paintings and magazine images transferred to drawings, his move into printmaking seemed to come naturally. The first person to ask Rauschenberg to manufacture prints was publisher Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) on Long Island, New York. In 1962, he agreed to the invitation, and he has maintained a connection with that atelier ever since.
The early ULAE print Accident highlights Rauschenberg’s appreciation of the unexpected and his skill at using chance to his advantage. He only managed a few impressions before the lithographic stone cracked while printing. Instead of starting over on a different stone, he accepted the rupture, which is represented by the large diagonal crack that bisects the impression of the final edition, and further enhanced the picture with discarded chunks of limestone that were inked and printed in the lower margin. Rauschenberg drew attention to the peculiar procedure of printing from a broken stone by giving the piece the title Accident. He was adopting tactics similar to those of his colleague, the composer John Cage, who used random tones and intervals in his musical pieces by giving status to a random act. Accident gained remarkable recognition for a US artist and atelier as it was published and won first place in a significant international print competition.
In his prints from the late 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg frequently investigated contemporary technology as a tool and a motif. Innovative self-portrait Booster from 1967 includes a life-size column of x-ray pictures that resemble Rauschenberg’s physique. The six-foot lithograph and screenprint was created at Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited), a Los Angeles print studio noted for utilising cutting-edge methods and supplies for artistic purposes. It was one of the biggest hand-pulled lithographs ever created at the time. Booster posed a challenge to painting’s hegemony with its grand grandeur and dominating presence.
After seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969, Rauschenberg developed the Stoned Moon Series, a collection of thirty-four prints at Gemini G.E.L. that combined a variety of brush and crayon strokes with NASA images, maps, and designs. The final poster in the series, Sky Garden, featured vivid colours on an even greater scale than Booster.
Rauschenberg returned to politics and international affairs in his 1970 series Currents, which examined the unrest of the day as it was depicted in the news at the time. Instead of using expressive mark-making, the artist took a more restrained technique than in his previous prints and instead based his composition on broken grids made up of headlines, news articles, and news pictures. The collaged images were first produced as screenprints in two series: Surface Series from Currents, where the text is dark and covered by interference patterns and reversals, and Features from Currents, where the text is generally clear.
Near the early 1970s, Rauschenberg relocated to a house on Florida’s Gulf Coast in Captiva, where he founded his own printing business, Untitled Press. Additionally, he started working with Tampa’s Graphicstudio U.S.F., a print company located 100 miles to the north (University of South Florida). In 1974, Graphicstudio produced the artist’s Airport Series, which was printed in Rauschenberg’s Captiva store. The incidental event—he conveniently signed the edition at a Tampa airport hotel—from which the series’ name is derived. Cat Paws from the series questions the contemporary printmaking norm that all prints in a given edition must be identical. Because each print’s fabric support has a unique fold and frayed threads, it causes variations from impression to impression. These variations were anticipated and encouraged by the artist. In order to better emphasise each print’s individuality, Rauschenberg added actual bottle caps to each one.
Rauschenberg expanded the idea of unpredictability with the Hoarfrost Editions series, which Gemini G.E.L. printed and released in 1974. The delicate quality of the prints is evoked by the series’ name, which alludes to the crystalline layer of ice known as hoarfrost. A Greek sculpture is shown in the preview photos, surrounded by two classic cars that represent several eras. Robert Rauschenberg chose photos for this print and the others in the series from periodicals and newspapers, which were then enlarged and printed on a variety of fabrics. The printed fabric was then placed on top of crumpled newspapers that had been soaked with solvent and put through a press at a high pressure to cause the newspaper ink to transfer erratically and distinctively to each print. The plain-weave textiles, including cheesecloth, muslin, silk chiffon, silk crêpe, and silk taffeta, are sewn in overlapping layers to act like multilayer pictures that may be interpreted differently depending on how the viewer moves or how the fabrics move in reaction to a breeze.
Travel has inspired Rauschenberg to explore a variety of unusual art mediums, some exotic and others so commonplace as to be frequently disregarded. He travelled to Morocco and Italy in 1952, using the cardboard packaging from men’s clean shirts as the foundation for collages made of printed and cut papers, ribbons, feathers, and other surplus or discarded items. These shoddy fusions of figurative and abstract elements foreshadowed his later Combines. Twenty-eight exact replicas of the 1952 collages were included in the Shirtboards portfolio when Rauschenberg revisited them in 1990, over forty years later. The Shirtboards, which were printed by Styria Studio in New York using lithography and screenprint, are 50% larger than the original pieces but generally authentic reproductions of those works, including glue spots and wrinkles.
Collaboration and cultural exchange with artists and craftspeople overseas have also been influenced by travel. As someone who is dedicated to world peace, Robert Rauschenberg thinks that “one-to-one interaction through art” might be a useful tool for bridging gaps. The massive project Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), which he started in 1984 and which resulted in the creation and exhibition of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and videos in eleven nations from Mexico to Malaysia, reached its zenith in a 1991 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The ROCI project included the series of prints titled Soviet/American Array, which combined images from the Soviet Union and the United States to represent the rapprochement of two long-opposed civilizations.
Robert Rauschenberg frequently combined images of famous historical works of art with photos of commonplace topics. Some of the most exquisite examples of this kind can be found in his Bellini series, which was printed and published by ULAE in 1987 and features allegorical representations of virtue and vice that have been expanded and modified from works by the Venetian Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430/1435 – 1516). Many of the landscape backgrounds of Rauschenberg’s paintings were removed, and their place was taken with his own photographs. In fact, about 1980 he started to utilise his own photographs almost exclusively in his art, in part because copyright difficulties were restricting his use of found images. In Bellini #2, Rauschenberg’s images of structures, landscapes, and architectural elements are juxtaposed with the figure of Fortune-Melancholy and her accompanying putti. Josef Albers, a famous colour theorist and artist, was one of his teachers at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, and his talent with colour is evident, demonstrating his impact.
Photogravure is a reliable technique for reproducing images in fine art prints, and Rauschenberg has been using it frequently since the 1980s in prints created at ULAE. A metal plate is etched with depressions of various depths during the intaglio process of photogravure. The ink that is applied to the print support is kept in these hollows. Although photogravures can produce images with incredibly fine detail, the techniques for drawing out a rich, distinct tone from the random-grain pattern on the photosensitized plate can be challenging to master, especially if numerous plates need to be inked and aligned. Numerous colour plates were utilised in the Bellini prints from 1987, and each plate was printed to create a unique image in large, overlapping monochromatic areas. Street Sounds, created five years later, was far more intricate. It involved several plates in various colours that were meticulously positioned and printed one after the other to produce a full tone spectrum. Prior to ULAE and Rauschenberg’s collaboration, colour photogravures of the size and complexity of Street Sounds were unheard of.
Late in the 1990s, Robert Rauschenberg walked the streets of Los Angeles with a camera in hand, looking for the remarkable in the well-known but frequently ignored urban environment. He captured a kaleidoscope of topics, including street signs, stores, billboard advertisements, and hand-painted murals. These vibrant vignettes, which served as the inspiration for the L.A. Uncovered series, were first captured on film, converted to digital files at Gemini G.E.L., then printed on paper with water-soluble inks (because of environmental concerns, Rauschenberg has moved away from oil-based inks that require hazardous solvents). After that, the artist placed his digital prints face down on watercolour paper. He burnished the printouts from the reverse, transferring the ink erratically onto the print support in a variation on his early solvent-transfer works. The resulting images ranged from clearly defined to fluid and hazy, depending on how much water had been absorbed. Later, these pictures were scanned and turned into screenprints.
Rauschenberg’s 1999 Ruminations series was inspired by his collection of vintage photos of his friends and family, many of which he took himself. The artist, his ex-wife Susan Weil, and their infant son Christopher are all depicted in the print titled “topher.” The photosensitized metal plates were used to transfer the images, which were then rebuilt by painting-like wide strokes of photographic developer onto the plates. In contrast to the early prints, which had gestural markings interspersed with photographic images, the new process allowed the mark and image to blend as one. Robert Rauschenberg’s early prints included forceful mark-making and a limited tonal palette. The Ruminations project exhibits Rauschenberg’s most contemplative side.
Rauschenberg has always embraced new techniques and materials quickly, and he enjoys the volatility of the medium. According to him, the technical and mechanical elements of printmaking provide him a healthy sense of separation from the process, allowing for impromptu interventions. He also understands the ability of printmaking to make many impressions on a large audience. We have unparalleled possibilities to enjoy the unusual and unexpected beauty of Rauschenberg’s work as he continues to reach out to and welcome the world.
View prints by Robert Rauschenberg here.