Painting

Everyday Images Shaped by Convention

Robert Rauschenberg Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error, from the series Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno 1958

Photo-based media had already entered Rauschenberg’s work in clippings glued to the surfaces of Combines such as Canyon (1959) and Monogram (1955–59)…; with his transfer drawings, photomechanical images plucked from the flux of contemporary culture became central. The Dante project provided Rauschenberg with what the art historian Rosalind Krauss has described as “his apprenticeship to the media image,” training in the strategic premises of what would become known as Pop art. The Dante drawings led Rauschenberg almost immediately to efforts to scale up, to create a painting with readymade images: the artist first made Calendar, a solvent “transfer painting,” in 1962, which he felt was not fully successful in the way that the magazine images were dwarfed by the large canvas; he then attempted and failed to find a way to produce photosensitive canvas that would allow images to be imprinted directly onto the support; and finally—after consulting with Andy Warhol, who had just begun making silkscreen paintings—he adopted the silkscreen technique himself. “Silkscreen was a way not to be victimized and limited in scale and color, but still have access to current worldwide information,” he would explain in 1997 in comments he made on an essay about his work that Krauss was preparing for publication. Combining photography and painting, machine work and manual work, these early silkscreens registered images of culture at large but also reflected on the tradition of fine-art painting. In Rauschenberg’s case, the move from collaged abstraction to media-based imagery came via Dante. [Leah Dickerman on Rauschneberg’s Dante’s Inferno]

Jasper Johns Hatteras 1963

Raising the issue of slippage between form and handling, however, reminds
us how barren any isolated delectation of Johns s surfaces and lines must quickly become. If we are to grasp his ambition as an artist — to understand both its singularity and its relation to modern traditions — we should attend simultaneously to his subjects, and to what he has said about them. Johns has wanted his subjects, like his schematic models for drawing, to come ready made. He has also long favored those that have arrived involuntarily, through chance encounters or uncontrolled circumstance —fleeting glances, unexpected gifts from friends, suggestions made by others, or even, in the case of the first Flag , 1954—55, a dream. This is clearly not, however, a belated case of the Surrealist courtship of chance and the unconscious mind, which meant so much to the generation of American artists immediately preceding Johns’s. What came to him from his initial dreams and serendipities were not primal icons beyond civilizations reach, or exotic eccentricities, but everyday images shaped by convention and culture. The prime gift, the dream of painting the American flag, was prime precisely because it provided the most conventional of conventions, a wholly public symbol. [Kirk Varnedoe on Jasper Johns]

Robert Rauschenberg Canto XIV- Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art 1958

Rauschenberg’s tracings of his own hand and foot allude to the artist’s identity and its place in the narrative. Despite having referred to himself as merely a “reporter” of the cantos, Rauschenberg carves out a space for himself in the fourteenth-century epic poem. His indexing of his own body declares an artistic presence in addition to that of Dante’s—one that complicates and even perhaps contradicts Dante. While Dante remains a strict adherent to Christian piety, and his journey through Hell is an allegorical journey with the goal of recognizing and rejecting sin, Rauschenberg at times appears to sympathize or ally himself with the sinners being punished. He also uses images from contemporary American politics and pop culture to provide his own commentary about his nation and his era. Despite Rauschenberg’s statements about his work on the series, his canto drawings do not adhere strictly to the text but rather create a unique visual interpretation of the poem that incorporates anachronistic and autobiographical elements in order to convey ideas about his own body and sexuality and to explore notions of materiality and immateriality in art. [Eliza Mott on Rauschenberg’s Inferno series]

Jasper Johns Skin with O’Hara Poem 1963–65

In more particular terms, the theme of the body offers one key point of connection between Johns’s work and specifically contemporary concerns. Since the mid-1980s, in a period when a new consciousness of sexuality has been affected by aids, and when sex and gender have been put under intense scrutiny as matters of the mind and of society as well as of biology, the singularly fraught store of morbid sensuality that Johns long ago began investing in corporeal imagery seems revivified. The object-body interchanges that mark Robert Gober’s art, for example — his combination of homages to Duchamp and veristic segments of torsos and limbs — move back onto territory Johns broached in the early 1960s. Similarly, Kiki Smith’s sacks of flayed flesh, and her splayed deformation of her face, reawaken the climate of feeling that surrounded Johns’s Study for Skin drawings — at the same moment when Johns himself, in the stretched and dislocated “face” he derived from Picasso and from a child’s drawing, is reexploring this very terrain of epidermal distension and pyschically decentered dissociation. For Murray, these new stretched faces in Johns’s work evoke a child’s fascination with pulling and stretching his or her body as a possession to be tested and discovered; pushing toward that inside-outside attitude, they pass through the adult repugnance that buries such instincts and cloaks the body in clothes and willed forgetfulness. Even beyond the Freudian linkages of early pleasures and adult sufferings in this explicit “infantilism,” Murray senses that such seemingly innocent trompe l’oeil devices as the standing nails and pieces of masking tape in the recent imagery may evoke “the pain of the body” and a compulsive, Band-Aid-like covering of the flesh. [Kirk Varnedoe on Jasper Johns]

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