Photographs © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/Vaga, New York, NY. American Flag: © Jasper Johns/Vaga, New York, NY.
From the very beginning of his mad, ecstatic, always-experimenting career, Robert Rauschenberg was looking at photographs. His hungry eye absorbed them; then they reappeared in his paintings, sculptures, and prints, and especially in his combines—the new form he invented, neither painting nor sculpture but a visual-material manifestation of abstract poetry. Rauschenberg appropriated photos from books, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, other artists, art-history books, anyplace. He cut them up, used them whole, pieced them back together, whatever. Given his fecundity—and a spate of pesky copyright cases brought against him—it’s no surprise to learn he also took pictures himself. Lots of them.
Yet there are surprises to be found in Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs: 1949–1962, an exhibition and book of 167 images from the years in which the artist invented his point-and-shoot style. Rauschenberg turns out to have been a natural, breezily brilliant with the camera, never more so than when shooting his circle of artist friends. We see Cy Twombly in Rome, dwarfed by an enormous Roman sculpture; a handsome Jasper Johns in his studio in 1955 next to his masterpiece Flag; an otherworldly Merce Cunningham crouched tigerlike in a motion until then unseen. These are closely observed windows into the nascent postwar art world. (The self-portraits of Rauschenberg—he was dashingly handsome, a young rake—with his work are no less revelatory.) There are images of grazing horses, landscapes, furniture, you name it.
He was good enough, even at the beginning, to have been taken seriously by Edward Steichen, who put one of Rauschenberg’s photographs in a MoMA show in 1951. Life ran a series of them the same year. Even after other work began to dominate his career, Rauschenberg once remarked, “I’ve never stopped being a photographer.” These pictures make Rauschenberg’s fearless eye come to new life.