DescriptionRobert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
Van Vleck Series VI, 1978
Solvent transfer on fabric collaged to wooden panel with acrylic paint
43 x 37 inches (109.2 x 94.0 cm)
Signed, titled, and dated verso: Van Vleck Series VI / Rauschenberg 78
Private collection, acquired from the above;
Sotheby's, New York, May 13, 2009, lot 247;
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey, "Robert Rauschenberg, Two Serial Works: The Van Vleck Series and The Chow Series," January 13, 1980 - March 3, 1980;
The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey, "Robert Rauschenberg: Eight Paintings," April 26, 1980 - June 8, 1980;
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; The Utah Museum of Fine Art, Salt Lake City, Utah, "Robert Rauschenberg: The Van Vleck Series, I-VIII," April 9, 1982 - February 13, 1983;
Olyvia Fine Art, London, "Sold Out: American Pop Art from the 1970's and 1980's," October 22, 2010 - November 20, 2010.
This work is numbered 78.036 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 1970s, for his series Spreads (1976-81), Rauschenberg returned to the transfer printing process that he had invented in the 1950s: using solvents and pressure (typically from a lithography press) to transfer images from magazines, newspapers, or photographs directly onto a support, such as fabric affixed to wood or foam-core panels. The word "spread" denotes a broad tract of land in West and perfectly captures the expansive format of Rauschenberg's works, which could stretch across an entire room. For example, in Rodeo Palace (1976, Collection Norman and Lyn Lear, Los Angeles), he conjoined collaged panels and wooden doors to cover a 12 x 16' wall. In Hiccups (1978, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), he used solvent transfers with fabric and zippers on 9" paper sheets to fill a 62' gallery space. Many of the Spreads feature photographs from Rauschenberg's personal collection, and some, recalling his famous 1950s Combines, incorporate three-dimensional household objects. Almost all of the Spreads employ a grid-like structure of brightly hued collaged fabric. The sea blues, lawn greens, and hibiscus reds and yellows reflect colors of his home in Captiva, Florida. Indeed, critics have called the Spreads highly autobiographical in their evocative imagery and coloration.
One of the most unique Spreads that Rauschenberg created in 1978 was the Van Vleck Series, a composite family portrait. Commissioned by his Captiva neighbor Joseph Van Vleck, the series consists of eight 43 x 37" wooden panels with acrylic paint and solvent transfers on fabric. Each panel represents a different member of the Van Vleck family: Joseph, his third wife, Louise, and his six children from previous marriages. A Columbia-trained professor of sociology, Joseph was from the wealthy Van Vleck family of Montclair, New Jersey. His lavish country estate with Italianate villa and spectacular gardens is open to the public today. Dividing time between Montclair and Captiva, Joseph and Louise traveled widely, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia, where Joseph regularly lectured. A friend over cocktails, Rauschenberg no doubt knew of Van Vleck's illustrious biography, but rather than depict him and his family in traditional portraits, he created collages with transfer images that hint at each person's personality or history.
Rauschenberg originally designed the Van Vleck panels to hang together in a continuous Spread. Each portrait shares formal similarities, notably the repetition of purple and red fabric rectangles. However, each panel also has a distinct personality. The magic of the series its flexibility to function as a single work or as several individual portraits. As Rauschenberg described, "I thought of the commissioned series of collage paintings that I made for the Van Vleck family as a group of abstract portraits each with the family unification and restrictions, and each with the uniqueness and curiosity of the chosen individual in the choosing. The radical differences hopefully, and the blood calm as security, each subject would have to recognize his own likeness" (Robert Rauschenberg Foundation archives).
In Van Vleck Series VI, Rauschenberg selected transfer photographs typifying a person who loves nature and the man-made (especially the sea and architecture). Images from left to right include a sea urchin, white cranes beneath an X-ray, lily pads, scaffolding, fronds, the torso of a male bather, an aerial view of a staircase (red rectangle), a body of water behind a dam, and a textured surface. Rauschenberg organized the compositional space into a checkerboard, balancing the saturated colors of the central red, purple, and yellow-striped fabric swatches with the more faded colors of the nature images and with the almost white areas of "negative space."
Art historian Leone Otis has written about Rauschenberg's treatment of space, time, and place in the Van Vleck Series as a metaphor for "Einstein's theory of relativity, which suggests an underlying unity of objects and events widely separated in time and space" (L. Otis, "The Van Vleck Series: Eight Portraits," unpublished manuscript, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation archives). Rauschenberg used the construct of the checkerboard to play with the complexities of space: the faint transfer images show objects in three-dimensional space, the purple and red rectangles of fabric assert the two-dimensionality of the support panel, and the white negative spaces connote "etheric or undefined regions." Furthermore, Rauschenberg's transfer images for the Van Vleck Series often allude to art history, travel, and outer space, and, as such, the continuum of time and place. For example, Van Vleck II highlights photographs of a medieval stone lion and of a gondolier in Venice; Van Vleck VII, a photograph of a galaxy; and the current Van Vleck VI, photographs of scaffolding (perhaps for a rocket) and of a textured moon-like surface. In this fascinating series, Rauschenberg ultimately proposes that the entire Van Vleck family, as well as each person in the family, is a composite of multiple histories -- past, present, and future.
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