Using materials found within walking distance of his studio, Robert Rauschenberg's "Canyon" conveys much beyond its apparent randomness, as Donald Short explains
This remarkable work is by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was 80 last year. In celebration, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has organised an exhibition of his so-called "Combines", one of which is depicted here. In "Canyon", a Bald Eagle is perched on an open box beneath a seemingly random collage of found objects (magazine cuttings, postcards, product packaging, the flattened section of a metal drum) punctuated by applied areas of paint. Hanging off-centre from a cord at the bottom of the frame is a pillow, creating a sense of imbalance not just to the overall composition but the whole object. As if sensing this, the eagle, wings extended, prepares for flight to another perch. Is it an allusion to gravity, to vertiginous canyons perhaps? The pillow can be interpreted as being hermaphroditic: squeezed at its centre it suggests both male and female genitalia. Adam and Eve maybe, like Hermes and Aphrodite, now combined. Or does it suggest comfort?
Above and to the left of the eagle are two distinct images, one of a child and one of the Statue of Liberty, both crudely framed in paint. New York's first lady, photographed here from below is (like the Bald Eagle) an official symbol of American patriotism; and again seems to refer to the notion of vertigo and gravity in its towering form. Seen alongside the young child, who appears to reach up to her, there is an obvious biblical connotation further supported by the eagle. Early Christian art depicts St John with an eagle to symbolise how high he rises with his paradigmatic gospel. To the right of the eagle, above the patch of white paint, is a picture cut from a magazine of a star-filled night sky, one of which is indicated by an arrow. Christianity, patriotism - on closer inspection this work reads like the Pledge of Allegiance that all US schoolchildren have to recite each morning before class. Nevertheless, to truly understand "Canyon", one needs to put it into the cultural context into which it was made.
Created in 1959, it is one of numerous works made between 1954 and 1962 whose designation, Combines, neatly describes Rauschenberg's technique of bringing together three-dimensional and two-dimensional elements, as well as using a whole gamut of untraditional materials found on the street near his New York studio: packaging, tickets, advertisements, posters, newspapers and comics. The taxidermied eagle was probably a junk shop find; in fact, stuffed animals figure in many of his Combines' appearing like emissaries from Noah's menagerie; disembarked and wandering disorientated, surrounded by the jetsam of post-war America.
"Canyon" is neither painting nor sculpture, but a hybrid created from an untraditional palette of found objects punctuated with ironic daubs and splashes of paint reminiscent of New York School painters such as Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning who, at the time, were at the forefront of contemporary artistic sensibility. In jokingly referencing the earnest endeavours of this group (with whom Rauschenberg was initially associated), he takes on the mantle of an apostate, one whose gaze was now focused on the world of boomtown commerce and burgeoning popular culture outside his studio. Despite the originality of works like "Canyon", the Combines can be traced back to the "ready mades" of the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp and the collages of Kurt Schwitters as well as the pre-war paintings of Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy. Inspired by these examples, Rauschenberg realised that New York City and, by extension, contemporary culture, could be both his subject and the means by which he could image it. In turn, Rauschenberg's Combines would greatly influence the work of the Pop Artists of the 1960s, such as Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.
Although he was influenced by the possibilities of chance association, it would be wrong to suggest that the Combines are not planned; "Canyon" would certainly appear to have some thematic elements around which it is carefully constructed. This idea of using a theme around which to create an artwork will be familiar to pupils working at key stages 45. Exam boards, too, also usually require pupils to show work in more than one discipline, eg, painting and sculpture.
"Canyon" is therefore an excellent example of how you might bring a multi-disciplinary approach to bear on a project. Forty-five years later it still looks daring and original, perhaps because so much art since then has borrowed from it without ever surpassing it. The eagle may have lost a few feathers and the paint faded but "Canyon" remains one of the defining images of post-war American art.
See "Canyon" at www.metmuseum.org and www.artchive.com
www.guggenheimcollection.org www.moma.org www.nga.gov
Rauschenberg: Art and Life By Mary Kotz Harry N Abrams Inc, pound;40
Donald Short teaches art at Moyles Court School, Hampshire
Born in 1925
Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas. He was drafted into the US Navy in 1942 and worked as a neuropsychiatric technician. He later attended Kansas City Arts Institute, Academie Julien, Paris, and Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he was taught by Joseph Albers. His work brings together a number of American and European traditions in an exciting concoction of painting, collage and sculpture.
Art and design
Ask the children to keep household packaging instead of throwing it away.
This can then be "changed" by applying partial paint finishes, cuttorn and rearranged. A "random" collage can then be constructed, or a themed work created perhaps around the idea of recycling. Alternatively, a face could be created with reference to the painter Archimboldo.
Taking a class out to collect rubbish from bins or picking it up from the street is unfortunately out of the question because of health risks. Vetted rubbish, though, can be placed in containers and treated like a lucky dip.
The resulting finds create a challenge for pupils to construct a work of art using Rauschenberg's example. For best results attach the rubbish to a board with staples, nails or glue. To enhance their work, pupils can bring in a number of their own "objects". Paint can also be added for effect.
Investigate how Rauschenberg uses a "theme" to create some of his Combines.
Using your own theme, take a multi-disciplinary approach to the preparation and final outcome of your project. Try to do more than make a copy. Use things that were not available to Rauschenberg such as Photoshop to bring the work up to date.
Make a study of Rauschenberg's links to artists such as Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Bill Woodrow and Damien Hirst. Rather than paraphrase reams off the internet, create a purely visual story of these connections.
Rauschenberg claimed to have walked once around a block near his studio for his objects; if he still didn't have enough, he would allow himself one more block, but that was all. Try out this strategy by marking out a route near your home or school. You could mark out a number of routes, number them and throw a dice to see which one to take. Make a number of Combines from your finds.