DescriptionRobert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
Acrylic, collage and pencil on fabric-laminated paper
64-3/8 x 48 inches (163.5 x 121.9 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: Rauschenberg 85
Knoedler & Company, New York;
Private collection, New York, acquired from the above, 1989.
FreedmanArt, New York, "Art in the Making," October 30, 2014-April 18, 2015.
This work is numbered 85.039 in the archives of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Moving across the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Conceptualism, Robert Rauschenberg pioneered techniques in almost every medium that he touched, including collage, assemblage, paintings, sculpture, prints, photography, dance, and choreography. During the mid 1970s, he expanded his work internationally, producing inventive mixed media series in France, Israel, and China, and these experiences catalyzed his most ambitious project to date, Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or "ROCI" (named after his pet turtle, Rocky). Rauschenberg envisioned ROCI as a collaborative artistic venture, a bridge between disparate cultures (many of them third-world or stunted by oppressive regimes), and an opportunity for promoting world peace. He explained at a United Nations press conference in 1984, "Art is educating, provocative, and enlightening even when first not understood. The very creative confusion stimulates curiosity and growth, leading to trust and tolerance. To share our intimate eccentricities proudly will bring us all closer" (National Gallery of Art, Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1991, p. 154) (fig. 1).
Spanning 1985-91, ROCI involved eleven countries: Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the U.S.S.R., Malaysia, Germany, and the U.S. What was the ROCI process? With the help of a logistical coordinator, Donald Saff, Rauschenberg spent around fifteen days in a country meeting with artists and officials, collecting materials, and photographing the culture, while his assistants videoed the action; he returned to his Florida studio to design a series of works based on his time there; he revisited the country to hold an exhibition of his creations alongside native art; he presented a single piece to a dignitary in the country and allocated another for the collection of the National Gallery of Art (which hosted an exhibition of the entire ROCI project); and finally, he showed ROCI works from one country in the exhibition of the next country, thereby exposing different peoples to one another. In order to remain completely free from government or corporate interests, Rauschenberg personally funded ROCI by mortgaging his Captiva Island house and selling his private collection of modern art. The ROCI corpus of over 125 paintings and sculpture ultimately impacted hundreds of thousands of viewers around the world.
A self-described agent for positive change, Rauschenberg selected Mexico as the first country on the ROCI tour because of its geographical proximity to the U.S. and because "at that moment our political relationship with Mexico had never been weaker" (National Gallery of Art, p. 164). The exchange was a raging success and boded well for future ROCI venues. For the ROCI/MEXICO series, he employed painting and collage, while also returning to the commercial silkscreen process he had popularized during the 1960s, whereby photographic images were transferred onto canvas. His imagery encapsulated the breadth of his exposure to Mexico City and included his own photographs of everything from lottery tickets, restaurant menus, posters for wrestling matches, family portrait albums, and canned food labels to ancient ruins, cathedral sculpture, patterned fabrics and flour sacks, farm animals, and buses and bicycles. The twelve works from this series typically feature a grid-like organizational structure, as well as poured or vigorously applied acrylic passages in "hot Mexican" colors like lime, cherry, tangerine, or bubblegum pink. Rauschenberg exhibited them with some of his 1970s paintings and indigenous Mexican art at the Museo Rufino Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo Internacional in Mexico City in 1985, where thousands of viewers made visual connections between Mexico and the U.S.
Rauschenberg's ROCI/MEXICO works foreground an aesthetic sensibility rooted in Mexican forms, as well as thematic contrasts between high art versus low art, old versus new Mexico, and rural versus urban Mexico. For example, in Mexican Canary (fig. 2), he assembles a central matrix of black-and-white rectangles composed of lottery tickets and photographs of a temple at Teotihuacan (ancient), school bus (modern), farmhouse (rural), and government building (urban). In the center, he overlays silkscreens of a green ice cream cone and floral fabric with bright slashes of green, white, and red paint - the colors of the Mexican flag - and frames the entire composition with a fabric-like border of labels from La Costeña bean cans. With a more simplified palette of black, white, and red, Park (fig. 3) is a statement about design and domesticity. Here, Rauschenberg has cut and folded a fabric with red flowers into a vertical "totem" with a masked face and torso; he echoes this vertical shape in an opened family album supported on an easel-table; and he weights these images with a photograph of a household curtain made out of Donald Duck fabric. Apparent is his delight in Mexico's strong tradition of textile making, whether handmade or commercially produced.
Heritage Auctions is pleased to offer the present lot, Untitled from 1985, one of several contemporaneous works inspired by ROCI/MEXICO. Rauschenberg arranges the dynamic composition into brightly colored silkscreened blocks: in the upper left, the same flowered fabric and ice cream cone (now red) from Mexican Canary (fig. 2), over which he has painted yellow acrylic, the impasto making the ice cream cone practically eatable; a second tier with red Donald Duck fabric, the same that appears in Park (fig. 3); and a lower blue tier with lucha libre posters - Mexico's famous masked wrestling sport - layered over the Donald Duck fabric. Balancing the rounded ice cream shape, on the right is a rounded silkscreened image of a statue of Macuilxochitl, the Aztec god of flowers, games, music and dance, and writing and painting. Rauschenberg activates this overall ordered geometry with broad swipes of yellow, orange, and red acrylic. As in the twelve works from the ROCI/MEXICO series, Untitled humorously juxtaposes opposites: fleeting ice cream with timeless Aztec statue; kitschy popular culture (Disney and lucha libre) with ancient Aztec culture; domestic sphere (printed fabrics) with recreational sphere (wrestling); and carefree pastime (eating ice cream) with apocalyptic warnings (along the lower edge, the words "Los Apocalipsis," the name of lucha libre wrestler). Untitled's lush pigments and striated bands transform it into a woven Mexican tapestry. At the same time, its layers of images and meaning connote the very complexity and richness of the 1980s Mexico that Rauschenberg thrillingly encountered.
We wish to thank Lawrence Voytek, Rauschenberg's studio assistant from 1982-2008, for providing information about this work.
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