Rauschenberg's enthusiasm for found materials and his rejection of the angst of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work dominated the avant-garde in American art in the early part of the 1950s, led him to search for a new means of expression. He found his signature style by embracing non-traditional materials while always demonstrating rigor and concern for formal composition.
Among the earliest Combines in the exhibition is Collection (1954, San Francisco Museum of Art), a large, predominantly red work in which the artist transgressed the traditional boundaries of a painting by placing elements outside of the pictorial rectangle. Also from that year, Pink Door (1954, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Stiftung Sammlung Marx), a delicate yet vibrant work rarely shown in the United States, helps to introduce the audience to Rauschenberg's unique approach to painting and sculpture.
One of the more restrained and elegant Combines is Levee (1955, Private Collection). To the right of a rectangle of woven fabric with a landscape image, the artist has fixed a reproduction of an early sixteenth-century drawing of Princess Elizabeth of Saxony by Lucas Cranach. The princess's high, rounded forehead echoes the geometry of concentric circles in the printed clock-like diagram to her left. Both princess and diagram evoke two of Rauschenberg's favorite subjects, past time and the passing of time.
The equally understated Untitled (ca. 1955, Stefan T. Edlis Collection, Chicago) pushes gently into the viewer's space, as strings from a small parachute dangle a foot below the canvas perimeter. A man's sock fixed to the canvas suggests the movement of a falling body and brings to mind the mythical character Icarus.
Other exhibition highlights include Factum I (1957, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) and Factum II (1957, The Museum of Modern Art). This pair of paintings reflects the artist's wry attempt to make two identical pictures, in order to test the boundaries of painting and to call into question the spontaneity said to characterize Abstract Expressionism. Although comprised of identical collage elements and similar strokes of paint, the two Factums are nonetheless subtly distinct from one another and announce the deliberate choices involved in the artist's creative process.
A number of Rauschenberg's most celebrated Combines are on view, including Bed (1955, The Museum of Modern Art), Summerstorm (1959, Michael and Judy Ovitz Collection, Los Angeles), and Wager (1957–59, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf). A remarkable example of Rauschenberg's hybridization of painting and sculpture, Bed represents one of the artist's most significant contributions to the history of modern art. With a swift gesture, Rauschenberg transformed a traditionally horizontal object into a vertical one and, in doing so, he obstructed the Renaissance notion of a painting offering a window onto another, ideal world. Instead, Bed confounds the viewer's expectations by confronting the audience as an object in our world.
Rauschenberg's singular creative approach is manifest magnificently in Summerstorm. In this three-panel Combine, the artist layers the surface with an array of materials, including printed reproductions, oil paint, and a zipper. On an even larger scale, Wager is a five-panel work that incorporates collage elements such as paper, fabric, and photographic reproductions, in addition to a full-body tracing of a male figure on the far right panel. Wager exemplifies Rauschenberg's ability to work in grand formats, while nonetheless retaining a human scale and thereby enabling the viewer to engage directly with the work.
Bold canonical works are also on view, such as Monogram (1955–59, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), which displays a paint-daubed angora goat, girded by an automobile tire and mounted on a kind of pasture seeded with urban debris. In Canyon (1959, Sonnabend Collection), an American bald eagle perches on a cardboard box nest, "feathered" by a pillow hanging below. The bird appears to fly out of the canvas into the space of the viewer.
In contrast to the subtle paintings of the mid-1950s that show the artist's frequent drift from syncopated grid compositions to nearly monochrome canvases, there is a selection of "letter" Combines. Works such as Talisman (1958, Des Moines Art Center) and Magician (1959, Sonnabend Collection) incorporate truncated words made from collage printed letters. These Combines and other "letter" works are not intended to be read, per se, but rather to exist as both image and text.
The exhibition concludes with Gold Standard (1964, Private Collection), a freestanding Combine that the artist originally created for the performance "Twenty Questions to Bob Rauschenberg" in Tokyo in 1964. Comprised of a large gold folding Japanese screen, Gold Standard incorporates materials found in earlier works, for example shoes, clocks, and road signs.