Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

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Holy junk: Rauchenberg versus the gospel according to St John

This article first appeared in the Times Education Supplement in 2007.

Robert Rauschenberg, who died last year, was one of the most important artists of the 2Oth Century and one of his seminal works is Canyon (1959), in which a stuffed American Bald Eagle perches on an open box beneath a seemingly random collage of found objects (magazine cuttings, product packaging, the flattened section of a metal drum) interspersed by areas of paint . Hanging pendulously from a cord at the bottom of this unusual work of art, is a pillow squeezed suggestively by a tightened noose. Above and to the left of the eagle are two distinct images, one of a child and one of the Statue of Liberty, both crudely framed in paint. Like the eagle, New York’s First Lady, is a symbol of American patriotism and seen alongside the young child (who reaches towards her) there is an obvious Biblical connotation; one which is further supported by the eagle. Early Christian art, depicts St John with an eagle to symbolise how high he rises with his paradigmatic gospel.

Created in 1959, Canyon is one of numerous works created between 1954 and 1962 known as Combines, a title that neatly describes Rauschenberg’s technique of bringing together both three dimensional and two dimensional elements, as well as using a whole gamut of untraditional materials found on the street near his New York studio: packaging, tickets, advertisements, posters, newspapers and comics. The stuffed eagle was probably a junk shop find; in fact, stuffed animals figure in many of his Combines, appearing like emissaries from Noah’s Arc, disembarked and wandering disorientated amongst the jetsam of post war America.

Canyon is neither painting nor sculpture but a hybrid created from an untraditional palette of found objects punctuated with ironic daubs and splashes of paint reminiscent of New York School painters such as Franz Kline and William De Kooning, both of whom at the time were at the forefront of contemporary artistic sensibility. In jokingly referencing the earnest endeavours of this group (with whom Rauschenberg was initially associated), he takes on the mantle of an apostate; one whose gaze was now focused on the world of boomtown commerce and burgeoning popular culture outside of his studio.

Despite the originality of works like Canyon, the Combines can be traced back to the ready mades of the Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp and the collages of Kurt Schwitters as well as the pre-war paintings of Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy. Inspired by these examples, Rauschenberg realised that New York City and by extension contemporary culture could be both his subject and the means by which he could image it. In turn, Rauschenberg’s Combines would greatly influence the work of the Pop Artists of the 1960s, such as Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.

Although he was influenced by the possibilities of chance association, it would be wrong to suggest that the Combines are not in any way planned and Canyon would certainly appear to have some thematic elements around which it is constructed. Almost fifty years later it still looks daring and original perhaps because so much art since then has borrowed from it without ever surpassing it. The eagle may have lost a few feathers and the paint faded but Canyon remains one of the defining images of post war American art.

Jun 27, 05:15 PM by Donald Short