The Synthesis of Text and Image
My interest in Robert Rauschenberg lies in his efforts to dissolve the boundary between text and image. In response to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Emerging Curator Competition, my exhibition, “The Synthesis of Text and Image,” brings together the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Leon Ferrari, and Cy Twombly. This proposal centers around W.J.T. Mitchell’s use of the term “right-labeling” to pose the question: “are images properly labeled as ‘natural signs,’ and words as conventional (i.e., arbitrary, customary, or ‘instituted’) signs? (Mitchell 77). Rauschenberg’s coherent applications of text in his images allows for a synthesis of these two mediums, rather than a comparison. He shows that the image and the word are both modes of communication, and are therefore of the same nature. By forcing us to read text the same way we read the image, Rauschenberg opens the door for the discussion of how a viewer responds to visual imagery and text simultaneously. His use of visual imagery relies on an assumed understanding of a cultural vocabulary. He exposes the reality of how we read text in everyday scenarios; how newspaper reads differently than traffic signs, and how these conventions have been taken for granted.
In 1948, Robert Rauschenberg's piece entitled, This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time, cleverly highlights how language can influence the perception of an image as existing in the dimension of time, rather than just in space. The title transforms the piece, allowing it to exist forever in a transitional state. On numerous occasions, Rauschenberg's titles inform the viewer as to how they should approach a particular work. His cardboard box wall sculptures, for example, got their titles from the printed words on the boxes used to construct the piece. This shows how the everyday can become a point of consideration when framed in a particular manner. In his Stop Side Early Glut combine from 1987, we are shown what happens when a stop sign is taken out of its context and adapted to exist as art on a gallery floor. A stop sign becomes something other than an indication of possible oncoming traffic because the stop sign itself can be art, too, without surrendering its original identity. It also becomes an opportunity to consider this type of everyday textual information in a new light, illuminating the way we typically respond to linguistic commands.
Rauschenberg was not alone in his endeavors to experiment with new roles for language in the visual arts. My exhibition would include works by Leon Ferrari and Cy Twombly, whose works both loosely refer to the linear format of handwritten characters without ever taking the form of any recognizable language, and Jean Michel Basquiat, whose use of handwriting is much more literal.
Throughout the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s archives we see that the union of the word and the image was a recurring theme for Rauschenberg. By employing both text and image, he and his contemporaries have enabled the visual arts to communicate a broader spectrum ideas.
Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. 1986. The University of Chicago Press.