A Radical Disregard for the Preservation of Art: Robert Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings

Figure 1: Robert Rauschenberg, Dirt Painting (for John Cage), ca. 1953
Dirt and mold in wood box
15 1/2 x 16 x 2 1/2 inches (39.4 x 40.6 x 6.4 cm)
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

*By Charlotte Healy 

Above: Figure 1: Robert Rauschenberg, Dirt Painting (for John Cage), ca. 1953
Dirt and mold in wood box
15 1/2 x 16 x 2 1/2 inches (39.4 x 40.6 x 6.4 cm)
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


In April 1953, Robert Rauschenberg returned to New York after an eight-month sojourn in Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly. Upon moving into his first permanent studio on Fulton Street, he recommenced work on a group of all black paintings, most with patchy, textured surfaces created with newspaper grounds, begun the previous year. He also constructed a series of Elemental Sculptures out of various unembellished found objects like stones and pieces of wood, often joined with twine. From September to October 1953, many of these works were exhibited for the first time at the Stable Gallery in New York in a two-person show with Twombly. In addition, this exhibition included Rauschenberg’s controversial, pristine, and uniform White Paintings of 1951. Also in fall 1953, he produced two of the most notorious and groundbreaking works of his early career: the proto-conceptual Erased de Kooning Drawing, in which he erased and subsequently framed a mixed-media drawing given to him by Willem de Kooning, and Automobile Tire Print, a collaboration with his friend John Cage, who drove his car over twenty sheets of paper while Rauschenberg inked one of the rear tires. Around the same time, Rauschenberg made a series of rectangular, vertically positioned objects generally referred to as the Elemental Paintings. [1] In each, he employed one of five “elemental” materials, three of which were unconventional for painting: dirt (figs. 1, 3), clay, tissue paper (fig. 2), gold leaf (fig. 4), and lead white paint. It is unclear how many he created of each type, given that only a small number have survived; some are known only through photographic documentation.

In this early series, Rauschenberg challenged the traditional and contemporary imperative that an artwork be inextricably linked to its creator, and embraced physical change. Specifically, he eliminated visible gesture — highly valued at the time by the Action Painters and their advocates — in favor of a heightened sensitivity to the essential character of his chosen media. In essence, he strove to collaborate with his materials rather than control them. Moreover, he showed a disregard for the preservation of these works and others, instead choosing techniques and materials that would allow the works to evolve over time. Ultimately, these works are among the earliest to necessitate a reassessment of conservation practice that takes into account the unorthodox intentions of postwar artists.

One of Rauschenberg’s primary goals in creating the Elemental Paintings was to demonstrate that his chosen materials worked equally well as painting media. Motivated by a lifelong sensitivity to objects of all kinds, he strove to eliminate the traditional hierarchical view of materials that existed in both art and life.[2] As he told Barbara Rose in a 1987 interview, “There’s no such thing as ‘better’ material. It’s just as unnatural for people to use oil paint as it is to use anything else.”[3] This comment elucidates Rauschenberg’s inclusion in the series of at least two paintings done entirely in thickly applied lead white paint, Untitled [small White Lead Painting] (ca. 1953) and White Lead Painting (1953-54).[4] Oil paint, a painter’s traditional medium since the sixteenth century, is as basic as dirt or gold — emphasized by the explicit identification of the paint’s elemental makeup in the titles of these two paintings — and has no particular value over other materials aside from its utility.

In interviews, Rauschenberg often lamented the typically associative and socially coded responses to his black paintings that he had not intended. In 1966, he complained, “Lots of critics shared with the public a certain reaction: they couldn’t see black as pigment. They moved immediately into association with ‘burned-out,’ ‘tearing,’ ‘nihilism’ and ‘destruction.’ That began to bother me…. If I see any superficial subconscious relationships that I’m familiar with — clichés of association — I change the picture.”[5] As a rejoinder, Rauschenberg selected his materials for the Elemental Paintings, as Branden Joseph has suggested, to “observe the operation, and potentially test the limitations, of the attributions of meaning from the social sphere.”[6]

Rauschenberg deliberately exploited the symbolic and associative properties of his materials. In an interview with Walter Hopps, he explained, “For each one I did in gold, I did one [the] approximate same size in toilet paper. I was testing the market. I knew this. Gold stays and toilet paper gets thrown away.”[7] Of course he was right: none of the paper paintings seem to have survived, while at least ten of the Gold Paintings are still extant. According to Twombly, for the one paper painting — or, more accurately, the large upright transparent box filled with crumpled paper — documented in a photograph (fig. 2), Rauschenberg did not actually use toilet paper, but rather tissue paper from shoeboxes. This distinction is of little consequence from a purely monetary perspective: even if it lacks toilet paper’s scatological connotations, tissue paper is equally worthless and expendable, especially compared to a valuable material like gold leaf.

Figure 2: Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [paper painting], ca. 1953. Tissue paper in glass display case with wood base, 18 x 14 x 4 inches (45.7 x 35.6 x 10.2 cm), dimensions approximate. Lost or destroyed. Photographed by artist. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


In the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg’s interrogation of the traditional uses and associations of his materials is manifest. In the fifteenth century, the incorporation of precious materials like gold leaf and ultramarine pigment was often stipulated in contracts for commissioned paintings as a way of increasing their value.[8] In icons and Medieval and Renaissance religious paintings, gilding was used to designate the shining heavens and transcendental figures, often adorned with gleaming haloes. By carelessly covering the entire surface with gold leaf and emphasizing its inherent fragility in the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg seemingly parodied this material’s traditional employment in painting. He went further still, making the gold appear dirty and deliberately mishandled as it cracks and flakes off the support, which undermines the material’s high monetary value. The irregular, haphazard, and organic quality of the gold, dirt, and paper compositions can be interpreted as a kind of heightened “naturalism” of materials.

In the interview with Rose, Rauschenberg explained, “The only thing I like to keep out of a work, no matter what the materials are, is the history of the process of putting it together. I don’t bring that into it.”[9] Accordingly, Rauschenberg’s “naturalistic” treatment of his materials can also be explained as a way of masking any signs of process. He seems to have retained the organic, natural quality of his materials so that the effect of his hand on the surface has not only faded into obscurity, but has been reversed. The materials, particularly the dirt and gold leaf, appear to have returned to their natural states. This “naturalism” is antithetical to another method of concealing the artist’s hand, which requires, in contrast, completely disguising oil paint rather than celebrating it in its natural form: the smooth, crisp, photographically precise, and highly illusionistic style of much French nineteenth-century academic painting can in turn be seen as a kind of “idealization” of oil paint.[10]

A deliberate deviation from the objectives of the particular strain of Abstract Expressionism most famously characterized by critic Harold Rosenberg in his landmark essay “The American Action Painters” of 1952, the Elemental Paintings prioritize chance effects over the visible manifestation of the artist’s process.[11] The surfaces of the Gold Paintings are extremely varied due to the arbitrary and seemingly careless application of sheets of delicate gold (and occasionally also silver) leaf of different tonalities, sometimes glued on top of newspaper and other collage materials (fig. 4). Often crumpled and loosely adhered rather than laid flat on the support, the gold leaf puckers and peels off the surface. Consequently, parts of the support are visible between irregular patches of gold. The unevenly and heavily applied layer of varnish-like glue has discolored, making the gold appear darker in certain areas. The lively surface is further enhanced by the reflectivity of the material.

In the other Elemental Paintings, Rauschenberg similarly emphasized the physical and material quality of the surface over personal gesture. In a Dirt Painting made for Cage (fig. 1), an irregular blue and yellow pattern created by the growth of mold or lichen dominates the surface, producing a completely accidental “composition.” Rauschenberg’s actual labor of packing the dirt into a boxlike wood frame is overshadowed by this chance organic effect. Likewise, in a large Dirt Painting that became known as Growing Painting (fig. 3), Rauschenberg’s efforts were again overshadowed by the effects of nature, which he happily embraced. When asked by Rose what he thought was the most inventive thing he had ever done, the artist gave this work as an example: “I was working on one dirt painting underneath a bird cage. Then grass started growing on it and I had to take care of it.”[12] Apparently, some birdseed had accidentally fallen into the dirt and began to sprout. This chance occurrence inspired Rauschenberg to make a “living” picture, as Calvin Tomkins called it.[13] When he exhibited the work in the Third Annual Stable Gallery Exhibition of January to February 1954, he periodically visited the gallery to water and care for the vegetation he had cultivated.

growing painting
Figure 3: Robert Rauschenberg, Growing Painting, 1953, Dirt and vegetation in wood frame, 72 x 25 inches (182.9 x 63.5 cm), dimensions approximate. No longer extant. Photographed by artist. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The Elemental Paintings illustrate Rauschenberg’s claim that, “I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control.” [14] In these works, the inherent nature of the materials themselves plays as much of a role as the artist in determining the final outcome. Like Cage, Rauschenberg was inclined to substitute chance and other impersonal operations for self-expression. According to Tomkins, “what Rauschenberg was getting at was a kind of painting in which the artist — his personality, his emotions, his ideas, his taste — would not be the controlling element.” [15] To Rose, Rauschenberg professed, “I don’t want my personality to come out through the piece.” [16] His disdain for self-expression and his desire to “collaborate” with his materials partially account for his tendency to let his works slowly evolve over time. As he told Rose, “I like the history of objects.” [17] This anti-preservation attitude towards art has a number of ramifications for the collectors of his works and for the conservators who treat them.

Historical accounts reveal Rauschenberg’s radical disregard for the preservation of his art. He painted over many existing works, in part because his lack of financial resources prevented him from purchasing new supplies. According to Hopps, “when the occasion demanded, making new work overrode any sentiment the artist might have had for past accomplishments.”[18] There are numerous examples of White Paintings masked by subsequent paintings and black paintings covering earlier works.[19] For instance, when staying at Cage’s loft while his studio was fumigated in 1953, Rauschenberg discovered an early work of his that his friend had acquired before the two had ever met. He immediately set about turning it into a black painting by applying a newspaper ground and covering it with black paint. Fortunately, Cage, the painting’s owner, did not mind the unsolicited reworking.[20]

Rauschenberg’s enormous White Lead Painting (1953-54) is another example of his apparent indifference to the perpetuation of his early works, even ones that he clearly cared about. Over an extended period, he slowly built up the surface of an approximately six-by-six-foot stretched canvas with layers of lead white paint. According to Twombly, Rauschenberg spent an inordinate amount of time and money on this work, especially given his impecunious circumstances and the relatively high cost of lead white paint. When Rauschenberg moved his studio from Fulton Street to Pearl Street at the beginning of 1955, the size and weight of the piece prevented its removal from his old studio. Consequently, he was forced to abandon the painting.[21]

In his interview with Rose, Rauschenberg recalled destroying Growing Painting (fig. 3) after two white mice he had bought as a present for a friend froze to death in his unheated studio: “So I broke the growing painting into bits. It was another sort of dying. The painting was having problems with the lack of heat anyway. And no one was particularly interested in it. They couldn’t see that there was more to it. There was the feeling that you have to take care of things in order to keep them going. That’s true with art. When the mice died, I killed the painting.”[22] In spite of the ultimately destructive nature of his action, his rationale demonstrates an awareness of how one should take care of art, especially according to modern conservation practice, in which preventive conservation measures are often considered. As explained by MoMA conservators James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, preventive conservation consists of “taking steps to minimize the potential for damage and to slow degradation processes, thereby postponing or entirely avoiding hands-on restoration of the work. This paradigm is most widely manifest as environmental standards for displaying and storing art.”[23]

Just as he was willing to paint over, abandon, or destroy artworks, Rauschenberg became known for accepting and appreciating changes to his work as his materials transformed over time. For centuries, painters have been using techniques (like applying varnish) and relatively stable materials that allow their works to be preserved with only minor intervention on the part of conservators (for instance, by removing and replacing varnish). In contrast, Rauschenberg’s use of unconventional and often organic materials enabled him to exploit and thematize such physical transformations. No better examples exist than Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (fig. 1) and Growing Painting (fig. 3). Visible change due to natural processes of growth and decay became essential aspects of these works. Both their appearance and material makeup have altered over time.[24]

Some of these changes pose major problems for conservators. The extant Gold Paintings and clay painting have transformed substantially due to the fragility of the materials employed. As a result of Rauschenberg’s haphazard method of application, some of the loosely affixed gold leaf in the Gold Painting that is jointly owned by the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (fig. 4) has actually detached from the fabric-on-Masonite support and fallen to the bottom of the deep wooden frame. For each of the Gold Paintings, Rauschenberg originally constructed permanently affixed wood-and-glass frames, which have protected them as they have become more fragile.[25] Likewise, the appearance of Pink Clay Painting (To Pete) has also changed over the past sixty years: it has weathered, cracked, endured minor losses, and faded, transforming from bright pink to a dull rusty orange.[26] Rauschenberg devised a unique hinged wooden door over an orange velvet covering, which concealed the rough surface and could be lifted to reveal the painting.[27] However, these protective presentational devices have since been lost, leaving the work even more vulnerable to damage and change than the artist had intended.

Figure 4: Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Gold Painting), ca. 1953. Gold leaf on fabric and glue on Masonite in wood-and-glass frame. 12 1/4 x 12 5/8 x 1 1/8 inches (31.1 x 32.1 x 2.9 cm). Joint bequest of Eve Clendenin to the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The one remaining Dirt Painting (fig.1) has also suffered from age. Cage, to whom Rauschenberg dedicated and presented the work, poetically recounted its continual transformation: “The message is conveyed by dirt which, mixed with an adhesive, sticks to itself and to the canvas upon which he places it. Crumbling and responding to changes in weather, the dirt unceasingly does my thinking.”[28] The instability of this work has ultimately resulted in a drastic change in its presentation. Despite their unconventional materials, Rauschenberg intended for all of the Dirt Paintings to be presented vertically on the wall like conventional paintings. In his famous discussion of Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane” in the essay “Other Criteria,” Leo Steinberg described this positioning of Growing Painting as “a transposition from nature to culture through a shift of ninety degrees.”[29] Due to the current fragile condition of Dirt Painting (for John Cage), it must be presented horizontally instead, thus making it appear more like an object than a painting as the artist had envisioned.[30] As Rauschenberg told Rose, “The nature of some of my materials gave me an additional problem because I had to figure out how they could be physically supported on a wall when they obviously had no business being anywhere near a wall. That was the beginning of the combines.”[31] In 1954, the artist began making the wall-mounted and freestanding assemblages incorporating various found objects that he called “combines” and for which he is now best known.

Given Rauschenberg’s embrace of his work’s deterioration and change over time, his use of unstable and ephemeral materials epitomized by the Elemental Paintings has proven problematic for conservators and collectors. Because modern conservation practice dictates a consideration of the artist’s original intent, any conservation treatment of Rauschenberg’s work should take into consideration his acceptance of change and the process of aging, even if it contradicts established conservation standards aimed to protect cultural heritage. As conservator Paula Volent has explained, “Traditionally, the conservator and the curator have attempted to keep the art object frozen in time, both as an historical and aesthetic object. However, dialogue with contemporary artists reveals that, in many cases, this approach may be antithetical to the aesthetic concerns of the artist.”[32] The incongruity of these two seemingly irreconcilable positions can lead to legal and ethical issues.[33] According to conservator Suzanne Penn, who has worked extensively on the art of both Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer, it is hard for people to accept signs of age and deterioration “given the high monetary value” of works by these two artists, who both intended for their works to change over time.[34]

Antonio Rava, in addressing some of the philosophical issues of contemporary art conservation, has perfectly summarized the challenges presented by Rauschenberg’s work to conservators: “Should one apply different conservation practices to works created with the aim of defying eternity than to those in which transformation and deterioration play an intentional and integral role?”[35] When conservators consulted Rauschenberg about the treatment of particular artworks, he tended to request minimal intervention, authorizing the stabilization of damaged elements but refusing cosmetic cleaning, asking that any patina, discoloration, or other evidence of age be retained.[36] According to collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, “for artists like Rauschenberg, sometimes conservation, even simple cleaning, can be dangerous if done with excessive care, inasmuch as aging and alterations caused by time and dirt embellish the painting. This is work on recapturing the memory; the dirt and yellowing of the surface add a special quality to the work and it is a mistake to remove them.”[37]

Like conservators, museums and private collectors have also realized that they must take into account the artist’s wish to let the work evolve over time. Collector Attilio Codognato has acknowledged the necessity of allowing his works to age: “I own a work by Rauschenberg that was bought thirty years ago, made of organic materials, and therefore with its own life. I am particularly proud of the fact that the work changes, because I think this was also Rauschenberg’s notion: that time works to bring about the work’s metamorphosis. I believe that the perishability of a work does not affect its validity. The work may change, but on a poetic level it always remains the same.”[38]

Sociologist Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s theoretical distinction between “docile” and “unruly” objects elucidates some of the problems museums face with works like Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings. According to Domínguez Rubio, works of art are not simply objects. Rather, he prefers to call them “slowly unfolding disasters,” since all artworks are constantly transforming over time due to changes in the environment. The most important task of the museum is to turn these “disasters” into stable objects (primarily through preventive conservation measures), which requires an organized infrastructure that distributes labor and knowledge. Some artworks lend themselves to standard museum divisions more readily than others. Domínguez Rubio calls these “docile” objects. They are more easily stabilized as objects by the museum, given that they can be classified into established categories of artworks (such as paintings, sculptures, and works on paper), which reinforce the traditional roles of museum staff like conservators and curators. On the other hand, “unruly” objects are not so easily turned into stable objects, as they tend to be “elusive and ambiguous,” “variable,” or “unwieldy.” Because they do not fit nicely into the typical divisions of conservation and curatorial knowledge, “unruly” objects often require interdisciplinary collaboration across set boundaries within the museum.[39]

The Elemental Paintings exhibit certain characteristics of “unruly” art objects, especially due to their material deterioration. For instance, conservators and curators at MoMA found it difficult to classify the Gold Painting that the museum jointly owns with the Guggenheim (fig. 4) when it first entered the collection in 1974, presumably because of its unusual materials and collage-like construction. Originally placed in the holdings of the Department of Drawings, it was not transferred to the Department of Painting and Sculpture until 1984, following a review of the museum’s collections for the preparation of the publication of the collection catalogue Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art.[40] This reclassification indicates that Rauschenberg’s Gold Paintings do not clearly fit into set divisions of curatorial and conservation knowledge, and likely require collaboration between departments. Undoubtedly, the Dirt Paintings, Pink Clay Painting, and paper paintings would also require interdisciplinary collaboration. According to Amanda Swift, the treatment of the combines in the Panza Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 1989 and 1992 “required the collaborative efforts of various groups of conservators” specializing in paper, objects, textiles, and paintings, due to “the bizarre nature of many of the materials incorporated into the combines and the idiosyncratic methods used by the artist in their construction.”[41]

The highly vulnerable state of the Gold Painting has necessitated that it rarely be permitted to travel to other museums, thereby disrupting standard museum practice. In response to a loan request for the exhibition Part Object Part Sculpture at the Wexner Center for the Arts that opened in October 2005, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief curator Lisa Dennison wrote:

As you are no doubt aware, Rauschenberg’s Gold Paintings are particularly fragile and any movement, regardless of how carefully done, greatly disturbs their surface. For this reason, we do not feel that we are able to lend on this occasion. Please be assured that my colleagues and I have struggled over your request as we believe in the scholarly merit of your exhibition. I trust however that you will understand that the successful long-term preservation of this piece must be our first and foremost priority.[42]

The Guggenheim’s concerns echo a number of the considerations for loaning works in poor condition outlined by Penn: “One must weigh the risk of transporting, handling, and publicly exhibiting the work against [the] benefits [of loaning a work]…. Should a work of art be jeopardized for an exhibition that may be very pretty and entertaining for the general public, but not necessarily intellectually substantial nor scholarly?”[43] Swift has pointed out that the fragile condition of many of Rauschenberg’s works has “severely limit[ed] their accessibility to the general public.”[44] Evidently, even if museums are willing to respect the artist’s intended deterioration, as reflected by minimal conservation treatments, they have instituted stricter preventive conservation measures (such as travel restrictions) to counteract or at least slow down such transformations.

The Elemental Paintings concisely summarize Rauschenberg’s view of and approach to materials. His subversion of traditional hierarchies of materials, his emphasis on the inherent qualities of his chosen media over personal gesture, and his embrace of physical changes in these early works allowed him to interrogate the standard boundaries and priorities of painting. These three tendencies characterize Rauschenberg’s aesthetic preferences for the remainder of his career, and are particularly evident in the radical combination of a vast array of unusual and sometimes unstable materials in his innovative and celebrated combines of 1954-64. Following his precocious acceptance of deterioration and change in the Elemental Paintings of ca. 1953-54, a wave of postwar art emphasizing degradation and mutability has demanded a revision of standard conservation practice.

*Charlotte Healy is a doctoral student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, where she specializes in the materials and methods of modern art. She received her MA from the IFA in 2013, and wrote her thesis on tactility in Paul Klee’s paintings. She holds a BA from Williams College, graduating with Highest Honors in Art History. She has completed curatorial internships at The Museum of Modern Art, The Phillips Collection, and The Frick Collection. She recently participated in the First Museum Research Consortium Study Sessions at MoMA, and presented a paper at the Cleveland Symposium in October 2014.  


[1]. As John Cage wrote, “He changes what goes on, on a canvas, but he does not change how canvas is used for paintings — that is, stretched flat to make rectangular surfaces which may be hung on a wall.” John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 100. This is not a completely accurate description of these works, given their thick three-dimensionality.

[2]. According to Walter Hopps, “as a crucial part of his early childhood, Rauschenberg…collected and arranged a great miscellany of things that were meaningful to him, obsessively adding jars and boxes and all sorts of found specimens such as rocks, plants, insects, and small animals” to a compartmentalized “collection wall” he built in his room. Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 14. Hopps has suggested that consequently Rauschenberg’s training at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, under the strict instruction of Josef Albers, solidified this inherent “belief in the usefulness and worth of any material.” Hopps, The Early 1950s, 16. Albers’ multimedia approach to teaching was largely informed by his Bauhaus colleague László Moholy-Nagy. Like Moholy-Nagy, Albers stressed the essential properties of a wide variety of materials and the proper way to manipulate and handle each. In response to a question about his time at Black Mountain in an interview with Barbara Rose, Rauschenberg revealed, “I maintained my affection for the materials and the physical aspects of art.” Later in the interview, Rose commented, “The original Bauhaus course that was taught in Germany was based on properties, qualities and characteristics of the materials. This attitude is a central part of your art also.” Rauschenberg replied: “I have a great respect for my materials.” Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 23, 89.

[3]. Rose, An Interview, 58.

[4]. For reproductions of these two works, see “Untitled [small White Lead Painting],” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, http://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/untitled-small-white-lead-painting, and Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 202, respectively.

[5]. Dorothy Gees Seckler, “The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg.” Art in America 54, no. 3 (May-June 1966): 76.

[6]. Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 92.

[7]. From an unpublished interview conducted January 18-20, 1991. This line is quoted in Joseph, Random Order, 92. In an interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, Rauschenberg reiterated his desire to compare paper with gold as painting media, again finding them equally valid materials for his purposes: “I did a painting in toilet-paper, then duplicated it in gold-leaf. I studied both very carefully and found no advantage in either: whatever one was saying, the other seemed to be just as articulate. I knew then that it was somebody else’s problem — not mine.” Seckler, “The Artist Speaks,” 81.

[8]. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 6-11.

[9]. Rose, An Interview, 90.

[10]. This kind of “idealization” of the medium of oil paint is epitomized by the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme. More recently, throughout his career Vik Muniz has taken an “idealizing” approach to various unconventional media, such as dust, chocolate syrup, and garbage — in other words, he masks their identities in order to create recognizable images, which he then photographs.

[11]. In his essay, Rosenberg declared, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…. A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist.” Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon Press, 1959), 25, 27. This essay was indicative of the growing preference in the early 1950s for the large gestural canvases of First Generation New York School artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and the accompanying obsession with their artistic process.

[12]. Rose, An Interview, 56.

[13]. Calvin Tomkins, The Bride & The Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant Garde (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 209.

[14]. Ibid., 204. Rauschenberg restated this idea in the 1973 documentary Painters Painting: “You begin with the possibilities of the materials, and then you let them do what they can do, so that the artist is really almost a bystander while he’s working.” Emile De Antonio and Mitch Tuchman, Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 92.

[15]. Tomkins, The Bride, 204.

[16]. Rose, An Interview, 72.

[17]. Ibid., 56.

[18]. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 153.

[19]. See throughout Hopps, The Early 1950s.

[20]. Cage recounted this experience in a series of statements on Rauschenberg: “The door is never locked. Rauschenberg walks in. No one home. He paints a new painting over the old one. Is there a talent then to keep the two, the one above, the one below? What a plight (it’s no more serious than that) we’re in! It’s a joy in fact to begin over again.” Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” 101.

[21]. For a more detailed account of the White Lead Painting and Twombly’s assessment of it, see Hopps, The Early 1950s, 163-64.

[22]. Rose, An Interview, 57.

[23]. James Coddington and Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project — An Ounce of Prevention…,” Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog, December 10, 2012, http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/12/10/momas-jackson-pollock-conservation-project-an-ounce-of-prevention.

[24]. As Branden Joseph observed, the Dirt Paintings and Growing Painting “appear as attempts to show matter in its own duration: a duration related to the natural creation or deterioration within which humanity exists, but that is not itself dependent on humanity.” Joseph, Random Order, 61.

[25]. Unfortunately some of these original frames are now missing. See, for instance, “Untitled (Gold Painting),” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, http://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/untitled-gold-painting-0.

[26]. In 1991, Hopps assigned this work to 1953. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 212-13. However, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has reassigned this work to 1952. “Pink Clay Painting (To Pete),” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, http://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/pink-clay-painting-pete. For the work’s current condition, see the Sotheby’s condition report. “Contemporary Art Day Auction, Lot 160: Robert Rauschenberg, Pink Clay Painting (To Pete),” Sotheby’s, http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/contemporary-art-day-sale-n09142/lot.160.html.

[27]. According to Hopps, “This vibrant juxtaposition of pink and orange recurs throughout Rauschenberg’s palette…. This work in its original incarnation was also an early example of Rauschenberg’s fascination with doors and their functions of concealing and revealing.” Hopps, The Early 1950s, 162.

[28]. Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” 100.

[29]. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 87.

[30]. Hopps, The Early 1950s, 162.

[31]. Rose, An Interview, 58.

[32]. Paula Volent, “When Artists’ Intent is Accidental. Artists’ Acceptance of and Experimentation with Changes and Transformations in Materials,” in Modern Works, Modern Problems? Conference Papers, ed. Alison Richmond (London: Institute of Paper Conservation, 1994), 171.

[33]. Conservator Ann Baldwin has explained some of the legal issues related to artist’s intent: “Artist’s intent has been a focus of professional conferences and is covered under copyright law in federal courts and in California and New York. These laws were written to extend legal protection against many types of alteration, including vandalism, of an artist’s original work. Any type of damage — including significant change resulting from a conservation treatment — may be subject to a legal action.” Ann M. Baldwin, “The Wayward Paper Object: Artist’s Intent, Technical Analysis, and Treatment of a 1966 Robert Rauschenberg Diptych,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 38, no. 3 (Autumn-Winter 1999): 416.

[34]. Suzanne Penn, “Johns, Rauschenberg and Kiefer: Preserving the Artist’s Intentions,” The Journal of Art 1, no. 2 (January 1989): 24.

[35]. Antonio Rava, “Robert Rauschenberg,” in Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials, and Research, ed. Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation), 211.

[36]. See Volent, “Artists’ Intent,” 172; Baldwin, “Wayward Paper Object,” 417. For the treatment of all the combines in the Panza Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “it was agreed that no surface should appear ‘pristine’ as this would ‘contradict the artist’s assumed intention.’” Amanda Swift, “Robert Rauschenberg: The Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” in Modern Works, Modern Problems? Conference Papers, ed. Alison Richmond (London: Institute of Paper Conservation, 1994), 168.

[37]. English translation in Rava, “Robert Rauschenberg,” 210.

[38]. English translation in ibid.

[39]. Domínguez Rubio emphasizes that docility and unruliness represent two ends of a spectrum. Fernando Domínguez Rubio, “The (uneasy) rise of the conservator” (presentation at the Mellon Research Initiative conference Conservation and Its Contexts, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, New York, NY, December 7, 2013); Fernando Domínguez Rubio, “Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA,” Theory and Society (August 2014): n.p.

[40]. Collection file 441.1974, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; MaryKate Cleary (Collection Specialist, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), email message to author, December 18, 2013.

[41]. Swift, “Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” 168.

[42]. Letter dated 7 September 2004, from Lisa Dennison to Sherri Geldin. Collection file 74.2109, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

[43]. Penn, “Preserving the Artist’s Intentions,” 24.

[44]. Swift, “Neo-Dada Junk Aesthetic,” 168.