Press, Fold and Other Procedures: Robert Rauschenberg’s Dimensions

Oct 20, 2014 5:44PM

It is a cardboard box splayed out on the wall, like an asymmetrical butterfly. It is an animal feed bag flattened then silkscreened, a newspaper unfolded, a map laid out, a door that swings. It is a line where the ground becomes the wall; an image of two bodies printed as if ready to be folded, merging into one.

This exhibition brings together Rauschenberg’s work across mediums and time. Throughout the guiding thematic is the artist’s connected set of operational procedures, his manipulation of things in the space between flatness and spatiality: the pressing, unfolding, flattening, hinging, and expanding of the diverse materials that make up his work.

In conversations about Rauschenberg’s work, Leo Steinberg’s concept of the “flatbed picture plane,” first proposed in an essay published in 1972, remains influential. Steinberg argues that Rauschenberg shifts the vertical plane of painting to the horizontal flatbed, a metaphorical “receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed.” Rather than a matter of literally putting everything on the ground, however, Steinberg stresses that what’s changed is “the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation.”

Such a shift in the viewer’s mind occurs as well when we think about the materiality of the work’s making. Sometimes, like in the Cardboard series and the Chow Bags prints we look at the work and can immediately imagine its prior, three-dimensional form. Sometimes, such as in Untitled (Double Rauschenberg) and Pegasus..., the possibility of movement is hinted at and lingers in our mind as we start to imagine that, if we could touch it, we could fold the image, compress the work into a different form. In all of these works we begin to feel the sense of a recursive folding and unfolding, a looping dance of the static that involves our tactile sense.

Historically painting has often been associated with the idea of a window that opens onto the world. Well-known among his early work, the Black and White Paintings close that window with their resolute denial of depth illusion. With their multi-panel format, viewed together with the triptych form of a later work like Trophy II, the disparate elements of Photem #12 -- seemingly always ready to be folded “back” -- or the inclusion of actual doors in Interview and Whistle Stop, something else also begins to emerge: even the black and white panels seem as if they, too, could pivot.

“I liked the fact that a picture could come out into the room,” Rauschenberg said in 1964, explaining the three dimensionality of his Combines series (1953-1965), such as Interview and Trophy II). The same could be said of work from other periods, too, though, for Rauschenberg continually reverts the metaphorical window of painting, his pieces always at the brink of folding towards us, but not quite. In that interstitial space is also our imaginative confrontation.