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Up For Debate: Rauschenberg made his bed. But does he lie in it?

Art Historian and Contributor to The Art Genome Project at Artsy, Ellen Yoshi Tani discusses a recent team debate around this iconic work of art.

When Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) made Bed in 1955, he had just moved into a studio next to Jasper Johns, who produced his iconic painting Flag in the same year. Bed may well be a product of the productive rapport shared by the two artists, who were also linked by their resistance toAbstract Expressionism at the height of its popularity. Rauschenberg, who once claimed that “a pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil, and fabric,” was committed to absurdity, anti-art, the multiplicity of meaning, and the messy chaos of everyday life. Bed exemplifies what Rauschenberg called a Combine Painting, which combines painting and sculpture. Painting on common materials in place of the traditional canvas, and mounting those materials on a stretcher hung vertically on the wall, Rauschenberg frustrates numerous conventions of modern painting and its ideas of medium specificity. Like many great artists, his work challenges conventional categories and projects like The Art Genome Project.

Bed ignited some recent debate at Artsy: does it constitute a Portrait Without a Face, our category for works that channel the conventions of portraiture but don’t clearly identify a portrait subject? Or is it just a bed made by Bob Rauschenberg? Widely rumored to be made with the then-impoverished artist’s own bedding, Bed implies a personal history: its human scale and slightly mussed sheets and pillow suggest a potentially inhabited space. Rauschenberg frequently incorporated traces of the human body in his paintings—in a manner described by Lawrence Alloway as “lyrical ergonomics"— but he was highly critical of Abstract Expressionism’s claims of expressing the artist’s unconscious through physical, expressive painting gestures. So then, does Bed seek to mock AbEx’s splattered existentialism by embracing conventionally “unsuitable” painting materials? Or is it a frustrated articulation, born of poverty, about the confines of Rauschenberg’s own occupation? We concluded that, as much as it suggests that we put to bed high formalist debates about painting, Bed does count as a Portrait Without a Face in that it also symbolically represents Rauschenberg himself.

Stay tuned for more debates, disputes and discussions from the The Art Genome Project team. 

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