Robert Rauschenberg, ‘This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So’, 1961, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Robert Rauschenberg was invited to take part in the group exhibition Les 41 présentent Iris Clert [or 41 Portraits of Iris Clert] for the inauguration of Galerie Iris Clert’s new exhibition space in Paris in 1961. Calvin Tomkins reports that Rauschenberg, who was in Sweden for the installation of another exhibition at the time, forgot to make a portrait as promised. At the last minute he sent the telegram stating “THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO” for inclusion in the show. Rauschenberg’s purely conceptual contribution destabilizes all conventions of traditional portraiture, proclaiming identity as a subjective condition: unstable and at the whim of the speaker (or reader). The referent of the “I” in his text becomes ambiguous as each viewer reads the work. While Rauschenberg’s absurd gesture follows in the Neo-Dada spirit of the time, it simultaneously presages the trend toward emphasizing the conceptual in art that would come to the fore later in the decade.

Image rights: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York

"This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today"

Ahrenberg Collection, Vevey, Switzerland

About Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg’s enthusiasm for popular culture and, with his contemporary Jasper Johns, his rejection of the angst and seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists led him to search for a new way of painting. A prolific innovator of techniques and mediums, he used unconventional art materials ranging from dirt and house paint to umbrellas and car tires. In the early 1950s, Rauschenberg was already gaining a reputation as the art world’s enfant terrible with works such as Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), for which he requested a drawing (as well as permission) from Willem de Kooning, and proceeded to rub away the image until only ghostly marks remained on the paper. By 1954, Rauschenberg completed his first three-dimensional collage paintings—he called them Combines—in which he incorporated discarded materials and mundane objects to explore the intersection of art and life. “I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world,” he said. In 1964 he became the first American to win the International Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice Biennale. The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece (1981–98), a cumulative artwork, embodies his spirit of eclecticism, comprising a retrospective overview of his many discrete periods, including painting, fabric collage, sculptural components made from cardboard and scrap metal, as well as a variety of image transfer and printing methods.

American, 1925-2008, Port Arthur, Texas, based in New York and Captiva Island, Florida