Robert Rauschenberg > Minutiae

Minutiae, 1954 Freestanding combine Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, metal, plastic with mirror, on wooden structure, 214.6 x 205.7 x 77.4 cm

From the beginning, the artist has proclaimed: “I want to incorporate into my painting any objects of real life.” (Interview with André Parinaud, op.cit.) Although close in spirit to Dadaism and Schwitters’ use of discarded objects as a creative principle, Rauschenberg distinguishes himself through the dimensions of his works; very large, they invade the viewer’s space. “I would like to make a painting and a situation that leaves as much space for the person looking at it as for the artist.” (ibid.)

Whereas in a Picasso collage, the object or the heterogeneous material is inserted into the framework of the composition, in the Combines, the objects are simultaneously caught in the web that integrates them and are highly recognizable, and as such are rejected. All pictorial illusions and the idea that an artwork has only one meaning are thwarted. “In Rauschenberg’s work, the image depends not on the transformation of an object, but rather on its transfer. Taken from its place in the world, an object is embedded in the surface of a painting. Far from losing its material density in this operation, it asserts, to the contrary and insistently, that the images themselves are a sort of material.” (Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image”, in L’originalité de l’avant-garde et autres mythes modernistes [French translation of The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985)], Macula, 1993). This observation holds for all Rauschenberg’s work, whether it involves an image or an art photo, a shirt or a tyre.

Minutiae is one of the first and most important freestanding Combine paintings. Designed for a dance performance for his friend Merce Cunningham, the work is from the outset at the centre of life. It consists of three vertical panels of different sizes, connected to each other.

As in all the Combines paintings, the surface is irregular, covered with newspaper clippings of comic strips, old photos and pieces of posters. Paint covers the entire piece, in the form of drips or coloured surfaces. Between the panels is a passage in which a multicoloured fabric curtain serves as the element joining the different parts. This fabric, attached to the top of the panels, allows the dancers to pass through. Wood, metal, plastic, and a mirror mingle in this composition dominated by reds, yellows and blues. On the left panel is a curious plant motif, as if thrown there with a few brush strokes and almost intact in its pictorial vivacity, resembling an ancient fresco from Pompeii, which attracts the viewer’s attention, by suddenly introducing an element from another time and place.

All at once a screen, a stage prop and a painting, this Combine painting presents itself as an open structure. Requiring more than a simple glance, this work does not demand the multiplicity of viewpoints, but the “multiplication of gazes”, as Catherine Millet has noted, adding that the Combines incite us to pass freely through the work. (“Le corps morcelé de la sculpture, Robert Rauschenberg” [The divided body of sculpture, Robert Rauschenberg] in Art Press, no. 90, March, 1985.)

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