In Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus, a collection of curiosities is fixed on top of a neutral backdrop of browns, grays, and taupes.
Newspaper clippings, black and white photographs, and even a drawing by Cy Twombly are joined by pencil and crayon doodles and swaths of paint that leave trails of red, yellow, and white dripping down the canvas. Almost at the center of the collage is a small printed reproduction of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Created in 1955, Rebus is one of the artist’s quintessential “combines,” a style of art he pioneered over the span of a decade that are part painting, part sculpture.
The seeds for this body of work—particularly evident in this piece—were cultivated in Italy where Rauschenberg was inspired by the works of the Italian old masters (hello, Botticelli), and where his experiments in making collages out of found objects resulted in one of his earliest gallery shows.
Only a selection of his new works that were shown in an exhibition in Florence before he returned to the U.S. survived. At the end of the show, Rauschenberg was faced with steep shipping costs to move his works back home, so he decided on another fate for his art. He took the advice of a disapproving critic and, save for a few pieces gifted to friends, he chucked all of his work into the Arno River.
Rauschenberg was known for his pioneering, often provocative approach to art throughout his long career. He is often credited with providing the link between the Abstract Expressionists on one end of the midcentury timeline and the Pop Artists on the other; as Michael Kimmelman described in his 2008 New York Times obituary of the artist, he was an “irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century,”
Rauschenberg’s fascination with collecting bric-a-brac and treasures from the trash began early in his art career. After spending his childhood in small-town Texas, making a failed attempt at pharmacy school, and being drafted into the navy, Rauschenberg followed both a woman and his artistic calling to Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
There, he studied under one of the Bauhaus greats, Josef Albers. Albers failed to appreciate his eccentric student, but the ill-feeling wasn’t entirely mutual. Rauschenberg described the older artist as “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person.”
While the pair may not have hit it off, it was under Albers’ tutelage that Rauschenberg was introduced to the idea of turning found objects into art, though the very proper Albers could not have anticipated how his student would interpret the lesson.
Inspired by the new approach to creating original art, Rauschenberg volunteered to serve as the school’s garbageman.
“Before going to the dump, he would stop behind a clump of trees and remove anything of interest. The rubbish he did not need for his work helped “furnish” some empty studios where he and his friends hid from Albers’ snooping,” John Richardson reported in Vanity Fair. “When [Albers] eventually discovered his pristine Bauhaus-style studios had been filled with junk from the trash cans and bales of hay from the fields, ‘Albers nearly had a heart attack.’”
After finishing his studies in 1949, Rauschenberg moved to New York City. There, his scavenging continued, but he also turned his attention to creating monochrome paintings—canvases that he first painted solely in glossy white before moving on to black and then red.
In 1951, he was offered his first one-man show at Betty Parsons Gallery, where he sold a single work to the composer John Cage. In a display of his irrepressible sense of humor, Rauschenberg later decided to “touch up” the piece as a favor to Cage for letting him move in following a suspected bed-bug incident at his own apartment. The face-lift occurred during his monochrome period, so he took his black paint and completely covered the piece Cage had purchased. According to Kimmelman, Cage “was not amused.”
Faced with the impending end of his marriage and a New York career that had not yet taken off, Rauschenberg decided to accompany his fellow artist Cy Twombly to Europe in the fall of 1952. Twombly was traveling on a grant that took the duo through Italy, France, and Spain. At one point, money was running low, so Rauschenberg took off to Morocco to work construction, before rejoining Twombly in Italy.
All the while, Rauschenberg picked up some things here, others there—bones, feathers, sticks and rocks, bugs, shells, small mechanical parts, hair, and other flotsam that he found throughout his travels. He then began assembling these finds into little cabinets of curiosities.
Much of Rauschenberg’s work achieved a grand scale later in his career (minus one self-portrait he created for The New Yorker which consisted of a single thumbprint). But his Italian boxes were relatively small, created on pieces of cardboard and in little boxes.
“Rauschenberg was a hunter-gatherer artist, and there’s evidence in these collages of time spent browsing antiquarian bookstalls while keeping an eye on what lay underfoot on the street. He was also, however, as vigorous an editor as he was a collector. And the first striking feature of the collages is how spare they are,” Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times in 2012.
The work caught the eye of Italian gallerists who put the show up for two weeks in Rome before moving it to Florence.
According to Martin Holman writing for The Florentine, “Scatole e Costruzioni Contemplativi” opened on March 14, 1953 at the Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea in Florence.
The almost diorama-like works weren’t just displayed around the room, but were hung by string from the ceiling and were accompanied by a note explaining why Rauschenberg had collected the included materials: “for … the richness of their past: like bone, hair, faded cloth and photos, broken fixtures, feathers, sticks, rocks, string, and rope; or for their vivid abstract reality: like mirrors, bells, watch-parts, bugs, fringe, pearls, glass, and shells.”
The Romans may not have fawned over the works, but they were entertained by them; the conservative Florentines, on the other hand, were not as impressed. One critic said that it was “evidence of an imaginative sensibility verging on distressing oddity,” another called out its “barbaric metaphysics.”
But the review that stuck with the artist was the one that suggested, as Rauschenberg later recounted, that the work was “psychological garbage and that it must be thrown into the Arno.”
While surely not thrilled with this review, Rauschenberg didn’t seem to be devastated by it either. Several days later when faced with the dilemma of what to do with these pieces when he returned to the U.S., the artist decided to follow the critic’s suggestion.
According to Holman, Rauschenberg and Twombly packed a picnic one Sunday, gathered up the pieces shown in the exhibition save for a few that had found homes elsewhere, and “took a walk along the Arno to a secluded spot where the water was deep.” With no witnesses to see the act of destruction, Rauschenberg threw his work into the river and watched them sink out of sight. (He allegedly sent a letter to the critic to let him know his hopes had been fulfilled.)
Soon after, Rauschenberg returned to New York where he would deliberately erase a Willem de Kooning drawing before going on to enjoy a long and remarkable art career. And within a year of settling back in the States, he was already making the next generation of the body of work that began with his Italian boxes, but would come to be known and celebrated as his “combines.”
“He’s a traveler. Travel is a dream state, and the collages are dream documents, light, uneven in impact, but rich with prognosticative information,” Cotter wrote. Presumably that would also apply to those works consigned to watery oblivion in the Arno.