by Aaron Casey
“A light bulb in the dark cannot show itself without showing you something else too.”
Robert Rauschenberg, from “Random Order”
In an early photograph by Robert Rauschenberg, Ceiling + Light Bulb, 1950, the artist simply captured a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling with the texture of the pressed tin ceiling crawling out of the inky blackness. In a small way this photo has more than meets the eye, as the bulb itself is not on, yet the unknown light source illuminates the design in the ceiling. The photograph comments on the way images reveal themselves, an allegory of “shedding light” on a subject, a theme Rauschenberg would rework throughout his career. The photograph’s composition is also unmistakably Rauschenbergian. The cord to the light bulb forms a strong division across the composition, and a large area that seems blank is concerned with texture. A seemingly banal vision has more to unpack visually when examined.
Rauschenberg would continue to make photographs like Ceiling + Light Bulb, 1950 throughout his career. Like the photograph above, some were turned into screens and printed into his “combines,” yet some he left unaltered and allowed to stand on their own as works of art. These photographs are the basis for the proposed show “Blinding Facts.” In celebrating Rauschenberg’s unique aesthetic, his photographs play a critical role as they document unaltered scenes from Rauschenberg’s time that informed his aesthetic. A flag hung from a balcony near a “One Way” sign becomes a combine series incorporating street signs and draped fabrics, such as, Bed (1955). A shaft of light slicing across two chairs in an empty room influences Pilgrim (1960), the light becoming paint across a similar chair, incorporated into the piece.
A show investigating Rauschenberg's photographs should include photographers who influenced Rauschenberg's aesthetic, such as Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. These artists paved the conceptual path for Rauschenberg, inventing new techniques and new technologies into their work. The show should document the current threads of Rauschenberg's vision, by including photographers who give us seemingly banal scenes to be examined a little closer. These include contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, and Christopher Wool, two artists working today and examining the connections between Art and Life, the main theme of Rauschenberg’s work. Robert Rauschenberg revealed to us the great web of connections between meaning and image, between work and life. His photographs deserve a special note of exploration highlighting this concern.