A combine painting is an artwork that incorporates various objects into a painted canvas surface, creating a sort of hybrid between painting and sculpture. Items attached to paintings might include photographic images, clothing, newspaper clippings, ephemera or any number of three-dimensional objects. The term is most closely associated with the artwork of American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) who coined the phrase to describe his own creations. Rauschenberg’s Combines explored the blurry boundaries between art and the everyday world. In addition, his cross-medium creations challenged the doctrine of medium specificity mentioned by modernist art critic Clement Greenberg. Frank Stella created a large body of paintings that recall the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg by juxtaposing a wide variety of surface and material in each work ultimately leading to Stella's sculpture and architecture of the 21st century.
Rauschenberg and his artist friend/flatmate Jasper Johns used to design window displays together for upscale retailers such as Tiffany's and Bonwit Teller in Manhattan before they became better established as artists. They shared ideas about art as well as career strategies. Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art described Rauschenberg's Combine paintings as "some of the most influential, poetic and revolutionary works in the history of American art." But they've also been called "ramshackle hybrids between painting and sculpture, stage prop and three-dimensional scrap-book assemblage" according to The Guardian's critic Adrian Searle. Searle believed the "different elements of the Combines have been described as having no more relation than the different stories that vie for attention on a newspaper page." Jasper Johns, as well, used similar techniques; in at least one painting, Johns attached a paintbrush right inside his painting.
Examples of Rauschenberg's Combine paintings include Bed (1955), Canyon (1959), and the free-standing Monogram (1955–1959). Rauschenberg's works mostly incorporated two-dimensional materials held together with "splashes and drips of paint" with occasional 3-D objects. Critic John Perreault wrote "The Combines are both painting and sculpture–or, some purists would say, neither." Perreault liked them since they were memorable, photogenic, and could "stick in the mind" as well as "surprise and keep on surprising." Rauschenberg added stuffed birds on his 1955 work Satellite, which featured a stuffed pheasant "patrolling its top edge." In another work, he added a ladder. His Combine Broadcast, featuring three radios blaring at once, was a "melange of paint, grids, newspaper clips and fabric snippets." According to one source, his Broadcast had three radios playing simultaneously, which produced a sort of irritating static, so that one of the work's owners, at one point, replaced the "noise" with tapes of actual programs when guests visited. Rauschenberg's Bed had a pillow attached to a patchwork quilt with paint splashed over it. The idea was to promote immediacy.
Exponential increase in value
In the early 1960s, Rauschenberg's Combines sold from $400 to $7,500. But their value shot upwards. In 1999, the Museum of Modern Art, which had balked at buying Rauschenberg's work decades earlier, spent $12 million to buy his Factum II which the artist made in 1957. Rauschenberg's Rebus was valued in 1991 at $7.3 million. A three-panel work created in 1955 that takes its name from the Latin for a "puzzle of images and words", it "builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements," according to The New York Times. MOMA bought Rebus in 2005. Rauschenberg reportedly said that the images in Rebus jostle with each other "like pedestrians on a street." Rauschenberg's Photograph, a Combine painting from 1959, was valued at $10.7 million by Sotheby's in 2008. His work Bantam sold for $2.6 million in 2009. In 2008, The New York Times' art critic Roberta Smith, who described Combines as "multimedia hybrids", wrote MOMA was "Rauschenberg Central" because it owned over 300 of his works. The Whitney owned 60 Rauschenbergs. In 2012, Canyon was donated to MoMA by the children of Ileana Sonnabend as part of an IRS settlement that valued the work at $65 million.
Canyon, one of Rauschenberg's most recognizable Combines, has been the subject of art historical debate revolving around the validity of reading Rauschenberg's work iconographically. Historian Kenneth Bendiner famously proposed Canyon as a playful recreation of a 1635 Rembrandt painting depicting the abduction of Ganymede, interpreting the suspended pillow as Ganymede's buttocks and the stuffed bald eagle as the form assumed by the Greek god Zeus. Other historians and critics, such as Joseph Branden have argued that searching for iconography in Rauschenberg's Combines is useless because it can be made to exist anywhere. Bendiner's interpretation is discredited for failing to account for compositional movement and for disregarding a number of elements within the work, for example the blue and red text in the center, in order to mould the interpretation to it.
Interpretations of Rauschenberg's Combines vary from a deeply personal and subjective collage of expression (often homoerotic), to a surface of indecipherable, or rather infinitely cipher-able, materials which challenge notions of painting, sculpture, reception, and chance, to a multivalent iconographic landscape that seems to resist fixed decoding in favor of a more open-ended play of meaning. Rauschenberg himself states "I don't want a painting to be just an expression of my personality. I feel it ought to be much better than 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."
Moira Roth links the Combines to Duchamp's indifferent attitude in art, arguing that the perceived density of the content, and the integration of mass media elements is a facade born out of the alienation and indifference experienced by the artist during the McCarthy Period. Jonathan Katz argues that underneath the impersonal and inexpressive appearance of his work is a secret homosexual code that can unlock some of the significance of Rauschenberg's work, but Ed Krčma points out the weakness of steering the analysis towards preconceived conclusions, especially since Rauschenberg's work is described as a poetry of infinite possibilities.
More recent interpretations of Canyon reconsider the work in postmodern terms, claiming that the Combine works more like a human mind than a human eye; Fragmented scraps of images, news cutouts, found objects and paint interact in esoteric ways and more closely resemble a cerebral process than a 'traditional' image. Yve-Alain Bois calls the search for iconographic meaning in Rauschenberg's work misguided because it is too limiting. His art's "lack of center" is a statement in itself, and the infinite permutations of meaning that can result highlight the subjectivity of art reception that postmodernism explores.
- Artspeak, Robert Atkins, 1990
- John Perreault (January 6, 2006). "Rauschenberg's combines". Artopia. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
If you have never seen Robert Rauschenberg's iconic Bed (1955), Canyon (1959), or the free-standing Monogram (1955-59),...
- "Art: The Emperor's Combine". Time Magazine'. Apr 18, 1960. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
Rauschenberg calls his works "combines' because they combine painting with props pasted or fastened to the picture ...
- The New York Times October 24 2013 "“We are fortunate to have six Combines from the mid-’50s through 1961,” Ms. Temkin said, referring to the term Rauschenberg coined to describe works that incorporate castoff objects like tires, flatware or furniture."
- Unhappy Medium, Frank Stella and Kurt Schwitters by John Haber. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
- Adrian Searle (28 November 2006). "Stuff happens: His work is packed with jokes, ideas - and farmyard animals". The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
What Rauschenberg came to call his Combine paintings are the core of his art, ...
- Roberta Smith (May 16, 2008). "Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
In New York, MoMA is Rauschenberg Central. It owns nearly 300 works, many of them prints, and usually has at least a dozen major efforts on view.
- Grace glueck (May 4, 2001). "ART REVIEW; A Collector's Collector Whose Works Went Pop". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
...Broadcast. A carefully composed melange of paint, grids, newspaper clips and fabric snippets, it has fastened to its back a real radio, whose knobs are visible on the painting's surface.
- Varieties of Visual Experience, Edmund Burke Feldman, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; 3rd edition (March 1987), ISBN 978-0-8109-1735-4
- Kelly Devine Thomas (May 2004). "Tracking the highest prices paid for contemporary artworks". ARTNews. Archived from the original on 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
...New York’s Museum of Modern Art spent around $12 million in 1999 for Rauschenberg’s combine painting Factum II (1957)
- Judd Tully (May 2, 2008). "Art+Auction". ARTINFO. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
$10.7 million, set last May at Sotheby’s New York by Photograph, a small 1959 “Combine” painting.
- Emmanuelle Soichet (January 23, 2007). "MoMA Acquires Rebus, A Key Early Work by Rauschenberg". BLOUINARTINFO. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
the Museum of Modern Art announced today that it has bought the three-panel "combine" painting long thought to be a seminal work in the artist's development.
- Judd Tully (January 7, 2009). "New York: Contemporary Art". BLOUINARTINFO. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
Robert Rauschenberg’s little 1955 combine painting Bantam (est. $3-4 million) for $2,602,500 ...
- Patricia Cohen (Nov 28, 2012). "MoMA Gains Treasure That Met Also Coveted". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
The I.R.S., however, insisted this masterwork was worth $65 million. It demanded they pay estate taxes of $29.2 million plus another $11.7 million in penalties.
- Branden, Joseph (2002). Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: MIT Press. p. 162.
- Rauschenberg quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Profiles: Moving Out,’ The New Yorker, vol.40, 29 Feb. 1964, p.59.
- Jonathan Katz: ‘Lovers and Divers’ (1998) p.24
- Bois, Yve-Alain. "Eye to the Ground." Artforum International. Artforum Inc. March, 2006. p.246-247
- Kinsella, Eileen (January 5, 2012). "Rauschenberg Eagle Ruffles Feathers". Art News. Retrieved February 10, 2018.