Combine painting

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The artwork Buksa mi (My pants) by the Norwegian artist Bjørn Krogstad, from 1968, an example of combine painting

A combine painting is an artwork that incorporates various objects into a painted canvas surface, creating a sort of hybrid between painting and sculpture.[1][2][3] 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[4] 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.[5]


Robert Rauschenberg, Rhyme, 1956

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.[6] They shared ideas about art as well as career strategies.[6] 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."[6] 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.[6] 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."[6] 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).[2] Rauschenberg's works mostly incorporated two-dimensional materials held together with "splashes and drips of paint" with occasional 3-D objects.[2] Critic John Perreault wrote "The Combines are both painting and sculpture–or, some purists would say, neither."[2] Perreault liked them since they were memorable, photogenic, and could "stick in the mind" as well as "surprise and keep on surprising."[2] Rauschenberg added stuffed birds on his 1955 work Satellite, which featured a stuffed pheasant "patrolling its top edge."[7] In another work, he added a ladder. His Combine Broadcast, featuring three radios blaring at once,[3] was a "melange of paint, grids, newspaper clips and fabric snippets."[8] 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.[8] Rauschenberg's Bed had a pillow attached to a patchwork quilt with paint splashed over it.[3] The idea was to promote immediacy.[3]

The prevailing theme of Rauschenberg's "combine" paintings is "nonmeaning, the absurd, or antiart." In this regard the combine paintings relate to Pop art and their much earlier predecessor Dada.[9]

Exponential increase in value[edit]

In the early 1960s, Rauschenberg's Combines sold from $400 to $7,500.[3] 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.[10] Rauschenberg's Rebus was valued in 1991 at $7.3 million.[11] A three-panel work created in 1955 that takes its name from the Latin for a "puzzle of images and words",[12] it "builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements," according to The New York Times.[7] MOMA bought Rebus in 2005.[12] Rauschenberg reportedly said that the images in Rebus jostle with each other "like pedestrians on a street."[12] Rauschenberg's Photograph, a Combine painting from 1959, was valued at $10.7 million by Sotheby's in 2008.[11] His work Bantam sold for $2.6 million in 2009.[13] 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.[7] The Whitney owned 60 Rauschenbergs.[7] 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.[14]

Canyon (1959)[edit]

Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon combine 1959: oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas with oil on bald eagle, string, and pillow.
Canyon, 1959 Combine: oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas with oil on bald eagle, string, and pillow Robert Rauschenberg 207.6 × 177.8 × 61 cm

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.[15] 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.[15] 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."[16]

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,[17] 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.[18]

Additional note[edit]

Under U.S. law, Canyon can never be sold since it contains a stuffed bald eagle, violating the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act as well as the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Artspeak, Robert Atkins, 1990
  2. ^ a b c d e 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),...
  3. ^ a b c d e "Art: The Emperor's Combine". Time. Apr 18, 1960. Retrieved 2010-01-08. Rauschenberg calls his works "combines' because they combine painting with props pasted or fastened to the picture ...
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ Unhappy Medium, Frank Stella and Kurt Schwitters by John Haber. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e 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, ...
  7. ^ a b c d 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.
  8. ^ a b 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.
  9. ^ Varieties of Visual Experience, Edmund Burke Feldman, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; 3rd edition (March 1987), ISBN 978-0-8109-1735-4
  10. ^ 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)
  11. ^ a b 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.
  12. ^ a b c 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.
  13. ^ 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 ...
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ a b Branden, Joseph (2002). Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: MIT Press. p. 162.
  16. ^ Rauschenberg quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Profiles: Moving Out,’ The New Yorker, vol.40, 29 Feb. 1964, p.59.
  17. ^ Jonathan Katz: ‘Lovers and Divers’ (1998) p.24
  18. ^ Bois, Yve-Alain. "Eye to the Ground." Artforum International. Artforum Inc. March, 2006. p.246-247
  19. ^ Kinsella, Eileen (January 5, 2012). "Rauschenberg Eagle Ruffles Feathers". Art News. Retrieved February 10, 2018.