Rauschenberg/LeWitt: chronophotography and seriality

Ruth Burgon
Oct 19, 2014 4:53PM

Robert Rauschenberg’s Cy + Roman Steps (I-V) (1952), taken while the artist was in Rome with Cy Twombly, shows Twombly descending the steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The spatial shift of the body is broken down into incremental stages, stilled at five points as Twombly approaches the camera. The image reflects a rising interest in chronophotography that took place amongst American artists from the mid-twentieth century onwards.

In the earlier twentieth century the innovative photographic work of Étienne-Jules Marey had influenced European artists, most notably Italian Futurists such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, and also, famously, Marcel Duchamp in his Nude Descending the Staircase (1912), which vividly captured the movement of the body within the stasis of the painted image.

Rauschenberg owned several plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series (1887), and Cy + Roman Steps evidently reflects such an influence. Likewise, Sol LeWitt found direct inspiration in Muybridge, when, in the mid-1950s, he found a book of the photographer’s work that had belonged to a previous tenant of his apartment. For LeWitt this chance discovery led him on the path towards ‘the logic of the serial image.’ His Schematic Drawing for Muybridge series (1960s and ‘70s) shares much with Rauschenberg’s Cy + Roman Steps as both sets of photographs can be seen as quite direct and literal translations of Muybridge’s lessons. But it is the concurrent development of a more conceptual seriality that marks a true synthesis of nineteenth-century chronophotography into the practices of both Rauschenberg and LeWitt. In Rauschenberg’s White Painting [seven panel] (1951) and LeWitt’s Five Modular Units (1971), for example, we see a ‘serial logic’ at work.

Rauschenberg’s This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (c.1949) is a series of woodcuts that begins with a black monochrome, striped with one more horizontal cut on each successive print, until the last imprint is closer to white than black. Such a simple conceptual construct allowed Rauschenberg to create an abstraction of the chronophotographic walking figure, about formal rather than figurative progression through time. In LeWitt’s Untitled (1969) such a temporal logic of seriality is also followed. Here, seriality is clearly cumulative, as one block becomes three and then four.

It becomes clear, then, that when one walks past the seven panels of White Painting, each panel is not simply a repetition of its predecessor, since a cumulative and temporal logic is also at play here. The shadows Twombly casts on the successive steps in Cy + Roman Steps become the shadows the viewer casts upon the successive canvases as she walks past. Walter Benjamin wrote that chronophotography introduces its viewer to ‘unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’. Rauschenberg’s White Painting has this kind of power, as these paintings reveal unconscious optics in the shifts and shadows of their surfaces.

Ruth Burgon