In the 1950s, a new thing started happening in Art. Note the uppercase, capital-A “Art” here, because we’re speaking not of art, as in any one piece of art, but of the Art World. The new thing was not a new thing in terms of what people do (it turns out people had been doing it all along). It was new in terms of what people notice and begin to do on purpose.
That New Thing is exemplified in the work of artists such as, to name only a few, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and perhaps most iconically, in the work of Robert Rauschenberg.
In the early 50s, Rauschenberg, while traveling through Europe and northern Africa with his buddy Cy Twombly, started collecting trash he found along the way, and creating assemblages of it. Some of it he sold in galleries. He had to come up with a new term for the new thing; he called them combines.
Rauschenberg’s combines weren’t painting, weren’t drawing, weren’t collage, weren’t sculpture. They were at the time (and they remain) uncategorizable by any of the existing nomenclature of the art world. Their identifying feature was the bringing together of disparate elements, sometimes two-dimensional, sometimes incorporating 3-dimensional objects, but in every case blurring the line between objects made and objects found.
The impact of Rauschenberg’s combines still percolates through the art world, even among artists whose work is strictly 2-dimensional. There’s a standout example of this in Rauschenberg’s own early work. It is an almost blank piece of paper mounted in a simple frame. The key word, here, is almost.
Rauschenberg had already exhibited a series of blank white canvases. Art? Maybe, maybe not. (Feel free to argue amongst yourselves.) But artistic statement? Definitely. Rauschenberg was all about how much the artist’s intentions figured into a work, and how much, or whether, they are perceivable. And whether said perception even matters.
Rauschenberg must have also begun to wonder what constitutes a “blank” canvas, because he soon became interested in the question of whether an artwork could be produced entirely by erasure. He tried erasing some of his own drawings, but he felt this wasn’t creative enough. (Some would agree.) He decided to request a drawing from Willem de Kooning, an established artist whom Rauschenberg admired, for the express purpose of erasing it. De Kooning took some persuading, but finally came through with a drawing for Rauschenberg to erase. His choice suggests, also, that he came through with his sense of humor intact, as the piece he handed over was a densely layered drawing done in crayon, ink, pencil, and charcoal. (He told Rauschenberg, “I’m not going to make it easy on you.”) It took Rauschenberg, depending on whom you talk to, a month to two months to obliterate as much of the drawing as he could, using a variety of erasers. As a finishing touch, Rauschenberg placed the drawing in a simple gilded frame, and asked his friend, artist Jasper Johns, to add an inscription. Johns wrote: “Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.” The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the piece has been since 1998, describes it in its catalog as a “drawing [with] traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame”.
Hang onto the word media, here, because that’s where all this is going. First, though, let’s take a closer look at that blank, erased sheet of paper. You start with the knowledge that this was a work of art done by one of the most important artists of the day. Which, of course, was the important thing for Rauschenberg, who was making poetry as much as he was making visual art. Then consider that, as anybody knows who’s ever tried to fix a paper boo-boo with an eraser, you just can’t return the page to the way it was before. There will always be marks left on the page… marks left by the pencil as well as new ones left by the eraser while trying to remove the pencil marks. The act of removing the marks leaves marks of its own.
What you end up with is a new kind of surface on that sheet of paper. Just as a piece of charcoal makes raw-edged marks on paper that can then be polished into smooth gray tones by smudging with your finger, making a pencil mark and then rubbing it with an eraser pushes particles of graphite deeper into the paper fibers. It smears the graphite into finer and finer layers, throwing almost microscopic details of the paper into sharp relief, like staining a microscope slide to highlight cellular structures otherwise invisible. The more you work with it, the more you end up with something that not only doesn’t resemble the original pencil marks… it doesn’t even resemble paper. The paper begins to look translucent, as if you can see into it or behind it.
Artists’ materials such as oil paints, watercolors, charcoal, conté crayon, were developed over time and refined to produce certain predictable results. But suddenly people were using them in unintended ways, to produce hitherto unpredictable outcomes. People started combining materials that were never intended to be mashed together. And they started looking in a new way, and with delight, at the results.
The new thing mentioned at the top of this article is not Rauschenberg’s combines (though the stir they created in the art world was, indeed, the newest thing since people like Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock made people question what Art is… and not just in the visual art world, as composer John Cage cited Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing as an inspiration for his silent musical composition titled 4’33”). The New Thing lies in that word media, as we mentioned earlier, and it’s still going on today. A medium, to an artist, is the set of materials used to make art. Oil paints and canvas are a medium. Charcoal and rough-surfaced paper are a medium. In the art world of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, this new, purposeful combining and recombining of art methods and materials needed a name.
Artists who wanted to exhibit this new work were faced with a problem: when you mix a lot of different media together, what do you put on the label? A piece comprising layers of graphite, crayon, oil paint, torn paper, and maybe a stuffed animal or two could no longer be served by a card hanging next to it on a gallery wall listing all the things it was made of (as funny as some such lists tend to be). By the time some pieces are finished, the artist can no longer even remember or identify what the various layers are! So, for lack of a better term, artists began referring to this mashing up of materials and methods simply as mixed media.
Today, we (bloggers and blog-readers) are privileged to be present at the birth of yet another new permutation of the mixed media explosion that gathered so much momentum so quickly in the middle of the 20th Century. Because the artistic medium that most exemplifies our age is that which is made up of pixels on computer screens… and most recently, on the screens of handheld mobile devices. The medium is digital art, and the new mixed media equivalent of it is called app stacking.
The art history lesson is over. Come back for Part 2. And, yes, this will be on the test. ^michael