Robert Rauschenberg's 'Combines' - Masterpieces of the New Sensibility - Between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction

II. Robert Rauschenberg’s New Art

III. The ‘New Sensibility’ of Artworks and Art’s Reception
i. “First Landing Jump”
ii. “Pilgrim”

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography

VI. Reproductions
i. “First Landing Jump”
ii. “Pilgrim”

I. Introduction

For a thorough understanding of the development of the American art scene in the 1950s and 1960s, it is essential to have a close look on the early work of the forerunner Robert Rauschenberg, whose art bridged the way between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. In this context, it is equally important to analyze Susan Sontag’s essays on art and style from the mid-1960s, which had a precursory function in the art critic world and promoted a new kind of sensibility to the audience. Rauschenberg’s artwork as well as Sontag’s essays on the arts challenged people’s perspective on art and its functions. Even though Sontag only directly refers twice to Rauschenberg’s artwork in her essay collection “Against Interpretations,” her ideas of the new kind of art of the late 1950s and early 1960s nevertheless strongly correspond to Rauschenberg’s art concept. The artist and the art critic thus paved the way for a new understanding of art and its reception.

When Robert Rauschenberg was asked by Roberta Olsen from the “Soho Weekly News” in March 1977 how the term ‘combines’ came into being, he answered, “it arouse because some people started saying my work was more like sculpture than painting, while others disagreed and said it was more like painting than sculpture. Instead of actually looking at the work of art, they would argue why it looked more like sculpture or painting. It went on and on … So I had to start calling the work I was doing something…My work was sculpture and painting, a combination of the two. So the next time someone asked me, I said ‘combine.’ After that no one asked.”[1] Evidently, Rauschenberg’s work was so new and unusual in the late 1950s that critics rather concentrated on finding the right label instead of dealing with its content.

Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s are nowadays regarded as his masterpieces. Rauschenberg himself is seen as the artist who saved Abstract Expressionism from stagnation by transforming the style into something new, thus leading the way towards Pop Art. His artwork introduced for the first time the ordinary object to the canvas, which made his ‘combines’ prototypes of the nowadays still popular crossover between the everyday life and the art world. With his new approach, Rauschenberg not only challenged the art scene, but forced his contemporaries, as well as the art critic world, to rethink former definitions of art and its functions.

Susan Sontag took up this challenge. Especially her essay “One Culture and the New Sensibility” from 1965 is concerned with the new role and function of modern art in society. Sontag argues that art’s function has been challenged to become an instrument for modifying consciousness. She concludes that “if art is understood as a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.”[2] To trigger this feeling or sensation, the new kind of art had to be part of the real world, not an artificial category sub- or superordinated to life.

This fusion between art and life was equally essential to Rauschenberg’s new approach towards art. As Peter Selz observes in 1963, Rauschenberg’s “Combine Paintings transform ordinary objects by fusing them provocatively with abstract expressionism.”[3] But it is not simply that fusion of former separate spheres of art and life in the museum context that is so strikingly new in Rauschenberg’s work. It is his recognition of life as art and art as life in one canvas without boundaries that challenges former approaches towards art. Sontag describes best what this new idea means when she writes in her essay “On Style” from 1965 that “art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.”[4]

To understand the development of Rauschenberg’s art concept, which was breathtakingly new at its time, it is inevitable to look at his artistic career and the different influences on his work from artistic models, teachers, and fellow artists. Additionally, an analysis of the 1950s and 1960s art scene and the change of the audience’s reception are equally necessary to recognize the significance of Rauschenberg’s work for its time and beyond. Susan Sontag was one of the first critics to fully acknowledge the importance of Rauschenberg’s ideas for the development of the American art scene. Her essay collection is thus in itself a pioneer work of a new kind of art criticism.

II. Robert Rauschenberg’s New Art

Rauschenberg was born on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas. After studying pharmacy at the University of Texas in Austin for a short period of time in 1943, he was drafted into the United States Navy and served in a hospital in San Diego. In 1947 he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute and went to Paris the next year to study at the Académie Julian. When he returned to the United States in October 1948, he enrolled at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he stayed until June 1949. There he was taught and influenced by the former Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers and the Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell. Between 1949 and 1952 he attended the Art Student League in New York City while still taking classes at Black Mountain College.

At Black Mountain College, he became friends with the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage. The three of them strongly influenced each other and worked together quite often, for example in John Cage’s “Theater Piece # 1” from 1951, which was later known to be the first happening. For one of Rauschenberg’s early works, entitled “Automobile Tire Print”[5] from 1953, John Cage drove his Model A Ford on Fulton Street over an almost seven-meter-long, white paper roll, while Rauschenberg inked its tire to create a scroll with the tire’s print. Already in this work, Rauschenberg uses a common everyday object, the tire of a car, to introduce the notion of texture into a piece of art, thus linking the real life with the art world. In an interview given in 1959, Rauschenberg describes this linkage as follows, “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)”[6]

Significantly, Rauschenberg is especially drawn towards material of the urban life. He is fascinated by New York City. His first atelier is located in the Upper West Side (1950), the second one Downtown (1953). Later he works close to the atelier of Jasper Johns, with whom he becomes friends in 1954. Rauschenberg strolls around the city. He collects items, regarded as urban junk, from the street. He integrates these former useful, everyday-life objects into his art and thus reintegrates them into life. Calvin Tomkins quotes the artist as follows, “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”[7] Though Rauschenberg’s statement about urban junk may sound naïve at first sight, it provokes to rethink one’s own perspective on objects, especially on things that have lost their original function, such as the tire in “First Landing Jump”[8] [pic.1]. That tire will never again transform an engine’s energy into motion, but has it therefore lost all interest to us? Neither has the tire lost its beauty nor has it lost its liveliness. Through integrating the tire into his art, Rauschenberg stresses the beauty of existence of the “useless” tire. It no longer has to have a function to be valued.


[1] Robert Rauschenberg, in: Rauschenberg, The Extraordinary Ragpicker, Roberta J.M. Olsen, Soho Weekly News, March 31, 1977, p. 23.

[2] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Vintage, New York, 2001, p. 303.

[3] Peter Selz, The Flaccid Art, in: Pop Art – The Critical Dialogue, Carol Ann Mahsun (ed.), UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor (Michigan)and London, 1989, p. 78.

[4] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 2001, p. 21.

[5] Robert Rauschenberg, Automobile Tire Print, 1953, Collection of the artist, New York.

[6] Robert Rauschenberg, quoted from: The New Art, Alan Salomon, in: Pop Art, Carol Ann Mahsun (ed.), 1989, p. 54.

[7] Robert Rauschenberg, in: The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, Calvin Tomkins, Viking, New York, 1965, p. 194.

[8] Robert Rauschenberg, First Landing Jump, 1961, Combine, 226,3 x 182,8 x 22,5 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (until September 2004 at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Robert Rauschenberg's 'Combines' - Masterpieces of the New Sensibility - Between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy Institut)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Robert, Rauschenberg, Combines, Masterpieces, Sensibility, Between, Abstract, Expressionism
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Sonja Longolius (Author), 2004, Robert Rauschenberg's 'Combines' - Masterpieces of the New Sensibility - Between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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