Rauschenberg Research Project at SFMOMA

Sep 19, 2014 10:59PM

Contributed by Sarah Roberts

In July 2013 SFMOMA launched the Rauschenberg Research Project on the museum’s website. Produced under the auspices of the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), the project represents SFMOMA’s first major publication created solely for the digital environment. In it you will find more than 90 artworks by Robert Rauschenberg, all of which are in the museum’s collection. 

Every artwork has an overview page, and the most significant works are treated in essays that draw on more than five years of research conducted by SFMOMA curators and conservators with the help of the terrific staff at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. 

Because the catalogue is web-based, its scope isn’t obvious. But when you add up all the pages, the Rauschenberg Research Project represents the most in-depth publication on an individual artist ever produced by SFMOMA; its print equivalent would amount to more than 600 pages.

Museum collection catalogues are ripe for re-imagination as digital publications. Collections grow, ongoing research prompts changes to artwork information, and the thick books museums traditionally have published about their collections are expensive to produce and purchase and often become obsolete almost as soon as they leave the press. When we planned the Rauschenberg Research Project, we knew we wanted to take advantage of all the things you can do online that you simply cannot do with a book, such as zoom in on images and view video. We particularly wanted to capitalize on the capacity of digital platforms to incorporate numerous images, previous publications, and conservation documentation. These resources are gathered on pages labeled “Research Materials.”

For an artwork like Rauschenberg’s Collection, you will find an historical photograph of the work when it was shown in the artist’s solo show at the Egan Gallery from December 1954 to January 1955, which helped us determine that he made significant changes to the work after it was exhibited. Those changes are highlighted in another image in the catalogue; this documentation of the reworking led us to re-date the work from 1954 to 1954/1955. The materials for Collection also include a video of the artist discussing his approach to making the work and another video showing a delicate conservation treatment.

All these resources informed the essay about Collection, but we really wanted to share more than just a scholarly text. We wanted to open our files, in a sense, to current and future researchers interested in Rauschenberg’s work. As a museum, our primary mission is to make artworks accessible to the public and communicate what we learn about the works in our care through ongoing research. By providing a selection of the materials we gathered in the course of our work on the catalogue, we open the door to future scholars—such as those engaged in the Rauschenberg Foundation’s Emerging Curator Competition—and invite them to dive into the staggering complexity and richness of Rauschenberg’s work.

Sarah Roberts is the Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the primary author and Director, SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project.

Explore more works by Robert Rauschenberg in SFMOMA's collection and learn more about the Emerging Curator Competition.

All images © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Detail of Collection captured with deep zoom tool; Installation view of Collection, Charles Egan Gallery, New York, December 1954–January 1955; View of Collection with highlighting indicating alterations made after the work was exhibited.