Archive for March, 2009

Rauschenberg’s “Signs” – An Appreciation

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

This is the first piece of art I bought.  It’s a silkscreen print created by Robert Rauschenberg.  He titled it “Signs.”



Rauschenberg conceived of “Signs” as a summation of the 1960s.  The piece was an aborted commission for a magazine cover. Rauschenberg released the work in June, 1970, through his gallery affiliation, Castelli Graphics, in an edition of 250 signed impressions. 

The 60s had turned Rauschenberg into a politically engaged artist, and he probably welcomed the challenge of coming to terms with a decade of seering experiences.  Exercising his natural affinity for collage, he would try to make sense out of an explosive arc of events that most observers felt defied all sense.  Raushenberg said the print “was conceived to remind us of love, terror, violence of the last ten years.  Danger lies in forgetting.”

I see “Signs” as an achievement at once topical and timeless.  Topical, obviously, since the artist has brought together a dozen immediately recognizable 60’s images — photos that were then still fresh with pain and joy.  Topical in a slightly broader manner as well, since the picture serves to encapulate the baby boomer generation’s creation myth.  But timeless also, thanks to the artist’s genius in re-fashioning stark images into something whole, something coherent, something aspiring to the redemptive.  

“Signs” belies the rap too often laid on Rauschenberg — that he surrendered to an aesthetic of “messiness.”  I was surprised to find such trash talk being repeated by the perceptive Louis Menand in his recent essay on Donald Barthelme, a modernist author who, Menand argues, boldly borrowed Rauschenberg’s collage approach, and with it made a notable contribution to literature.  (The article, “Saved From Drowning; Barthelme Reconsidered,” appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, available online here.) 

Distinguishing Rauschenberg’s methods from those of previous collagists, Menand makes the following assertions:  “[T]raditional collage arranges fragments into a form, and Rauschenberg’s collages are not organized in any ordinarily legible manner.   …  Most of Rauschenberg’s work … has no center.  Form, in the conventional sense of a hierarchical order, is one of the things he is trying to eliminate.”  Menand sees Rauschenberg’s signature work as embracing “the  illogic . . . the apparent absurdity . . . the arbitrary juxtapositions of radically disparate materials.” 

My purpose in this post is not to quibble with Menand’s characterizationHis article focuses on style, not on the decipherment of any particular work of visual art.  And who can deny that “messiness”  nicely recapitulates the ’60s decade itself. 

Rather, my purpose is to celebrate Rauschenberg’s triumph over formlessness when constructing “Signs.”  I want to praise his decision not to echo chaos or succumb to absurdity. I want to show how he chose instead to commandeer art’s arsenal against entropy.

How did he do this?  Through compositional devices,  juxtapositions,  reconciliations, and slights of hand that are deft, resonant, poignant, and funny.  Logic, not illogic, informs this work of art.  It’s there for all to see:

Tripartite form:   I think even on first encounter the viewer senses both stability and energy in “Signs.”  A feeling of stability derives chiefly from Rauschenberg’s reliance on a structure of three vertical segments nestled in a rectangular confinement.  Up the left side we see a moon-walking Buzz Aldrin claiming a large chunk of space in the frame; above and behind Aldrin is a four-man Army jeep, and above and behind that is a candlelight peace vigil.  The right side is topped with another black-and-white photo, this one of students attending an anti-war teach-in (the left and right corners are nicely balanced).  Below this the artist has positioned a professional photo portrait of a visionary-looking John F. Kennedy, tucked beneath which are a few stills from the Zapruder film that captured JFK’s assassination.  Sandwiched between left and right flanks are puzzle pieces that rise like a totem pole.  Starting from the base, this central composition comprises five elements: (1) the body of Martin Luther King as he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol; (2) a fallen victim of an urban riot; (3) two Vietnam soldiers flanking and supporting a wounded comrade; (4) Bobby Kennedy in earnest oration; and (5) Janis Joplin in wild performance.  The five stations of this central vertical segment are strengthened by an overlapping and interweaving of its parts:  for example, two arms, one begging, one blessing, reach over MLK; RFK’s hand slices through the Vietnam scene, in a call to halt the bloodshed.

Hierarchical order:   This piece most definitely has a “center.”  The central totem is a well-ordered pillar of life, a hierarchy of energy, a flow of life force.  It begins in silence with a photo of MLK in his coffin, his blood stilled by death.  It steps up to the bloodied man fallen in an urban riot.  It rises next to a trio of troops, wounded, bleary, yet upright.  It climbs to catch Robert Kennedy in the middle of an impassioned but controlled speech.  It crescendos with the ecstatic singing of Janis Joplin.  Think of it also as a fountain of youth —  all of its featured players are young (MLK, 39; RFK, 42; Joplin, 27) —  but one tinged with irony.  Only a few months after Rauschenberg completed his composition and released it to the world, Janis Joplin, his friend and fellow escapee from Port Arthur, Texas, died of a drug overdose.  With that death, the vector of the totemic form was altered.  No longer an unstoppable upward force, it now circles back on itself.  It has become a circle of life. 

Cohesion through repeated motifs:  With the possible exception of eyes, the human organ or appendage most crucial to an artist is, I would argue, the hand.  “Signs” is largely a composite portrait, which means it is all about faces.  But to my eyes it is the hands in “Signs” that resonate most strongly.  Notice how Rauschenberg emphasizes their physical meaning while also teasing out their symbolic importance.  A hand may choose to grip a bayoneted rifle to control others, or hold a candle in a hopeful prayer, or grasp a tool of communication (a microphone) to express freedom.  A hand’s fingers may splay to signify peace or extend to confer a blessing over the dead.  Our pride in seeing the iconic image of an American astronaut standing on the lunar surface is tempered when we realize that the sole visible hand of Buzz Aldrin is, in fact, not visible at all.  The hand is protected, swaddled like a mummy, rendered uncommunicative, unlike the vulnerable but expressive hands of earthlings here below.  As for the “face” of America’s technological triumph, it too is so denatured by protective gear as to become literally a “faceless” achievement.  

Unifying  light:  The strong sun and shadow on Buzz Aldin’s space suit blend seamlessly with the other wholly disparate components of the assemblage.  Rauschenberg achieves compositional coherence by making two tears in the material, at the top and right edges, to reveal a white underlayer.  We “read” this exposure as the source of bright light unifying all parts of the composition.  In addition to its formal function, the light poignantly supplies a sacred nimbus around the late RFK’s head.  It may remind us of a painfully ironic fact:  in the 1960’s, men of heart were extinguished, one after another, by head wounds. 

Meaning through color, direction, and tilt:   To begin with the most obvious color cliche, Janis Joplin is red hot.  Then, in the upper left corner’s overlapped images, note how the intense color of the guards gives way to calmer gray tints of a time-hallowed prayer for peace.  Consider also the way in which the dull unlit eyes of the vehicle’s headlights are shamed by the insistent glow of lit candles.  See how the quartet of uniformed men looks left (symbolically toward the past), their eyes shrouded from view, while the lone female representative of the vigil crowd turns her face rightward to meet the future.   If you stare at “Signs” long enough may experience a mild case of vertigo, as there appears to be no pure vertical line anywhere in the composition, no steadying plumb line straight down to the earth.  With the possible exception of the central image of wounded troops, every component is tilted slightly, as if confounding gravity and the comfort of rest.  This floating quality is consistent with Rauschenberg’s practice, in art works he called “combines,” of eschewing a sense of up or down.  In “Signs,” I think these off-kilter notes lend energy and flow to the work.  This is an appropriate way to express a dynamic, unstable period.

Surface versus depth:  In their original condition, the dozen photos that Rauschenberg selected to fill the rectangle differed in their objectively measurable proportions, lighting sources, coloration, and focus, and many other inherent qualities — not to mention differences in the sensibilities of a dozen different photographers responsible for the images. There is every reason for the assemblage to fly off in all directions beyond the frame.  Yet somehow the pieces settle into position, inviting the viewer to proceed with decipherment.  One thing that locks the parts into place is a bit of legerdemain, namely, the appearance of a round, clear glass paperweight on the flattened surface plane, just to the right of Joplin’s microphone.  Its clever purpose is to arrest fugitive movement.  We also notice a scraped trail, yellow in color, leading up to the paperweight’s current resting place, suggesting that the weight recently migrated diagonally from a position atop the fallen riot victim, stopping atop Janis’s tossed hair — hair the large convex lens magnifies and swirls into a psychedelic hallucination.

Generosity of details:  After all these years there are parts of “Signs” that newly intrigue me.  I’ve mentioned the intricate interweaving of imagery in the central “totem” which required careful scissoring of figures; why then is the JFK photo the only one with a sharp right angled corner left intact?  Why no contouring, no integration of that photo?  And is that a snippet of a Lichtenstein pop art painting under the President’s nose?  What is the meaning of  the eleven blue dots in the lower right corner, traditionally the location for the creator’s signature?  Bullet holes?  Is it fair to say the decade was “signed” by gun violence?  

Irony and humor:   Ironic visual juxtapositions abound in Rauschenberg’s work.  Here, in the upper left a military jeep purports to escort a trailing “CONVOY,” while the only group that’s “FOLLOWING” is a peace vigil in repose.  Also on display is tongue-in-cheek ribaldry.  Note how RFK’s mouth, at a moment formed into a suckling shape, approaches Joplin’s breast.  The rectangle’s black border can sturdily contain every image, except for two forces that pierce the top margin: the thrust of a bayonet (does its violation of the skin of the piece account for the drops next to RFK’s hand?) and the force, like rising red molten lava, of a volcanic Janis Joplin.  In a final flourish, the artist asserts his dominance: small block letter initials — R.R. — resting on the bottom margin, are so powerful that their strength can lift up, and playfully tilt, a hero astronaut.


“Signs,” screenprint (silkscreen, silk screen, screen print) in colors, 1970, signed in pencil, numbered [my impression is numbered 40/250] and dated, lower right, on wove paper, published by Castelli Graphics, New York, 35 1/4 by 26 5/8 inches; 895 by 677 mm.  Purchased from Makler Gallery, Philadelphia,  March, 1977.  I first saw the work not at a gallery but at a museum exhibition, the 1976 Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition staged at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Art (now the National Museum of American Art) in Washington, DC.  One room in the show was devoted to prints, one of which was “Signs.”  I was so bowled over by its power that I vowed to acquire an impression of the print, at whatever sacrifice it took.


UPDATE 06-14-2009:  Today I came across a blog posting that provides additional background on the genesis of “Signs,” including key details that I believe had not previously been published.  According to an article posted on on July 21, 2008, entitled “Rauschenberg – part 1,” the work was initially commission by Time magazine:

“’Signs,’ 1970, was originally created as an illustration for a Time magazine cover that would herald the 1970s. Rauschenberg felt, however, that the 1970s was really a continuation of the 1960s and inserted images of Janis Joplin, Martin Luther King, the moon landing, and the Kennedy Assassination. The cover was rejected by the Time Magazine editors who wanted to look forward to hopefully better times than the tumultuous 60s. Leo Castelli (Rauschenberg’s dealer at the time) stepped in and published a photosilkscreen edition of the collage.”

I’m struck by the joy expressed by Rauschenberg enthusiasts, as in this essay by John Haber on the occasion of the Rauschenberg retrospective in NYC over a decade ago:   Can any other recent artist match him?

Winifred Milius

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Winifred: now there’s a name that conjures up a lost era.  If you’re thinking the Great Depression, you’re right on the money. 

Winifred Milius (born 1914) is an American artist and writer who first made her mark in the 1930s producing prints in sympathy with the WPA era social realist school.  Here is a photo of her marching in an Artists’ Union Rally in 1935. 

This morning I successfully bid at auction for a 1937 woodcut of hers entitled “Newsboy.”  It’s a close-up view of scurying street life, rendered in a loose expressionist style suitable to the woodcut medium.   Smack dab in the center of the chaos Milius places a kid hawking papers.  Depicting this occupation was a favorite of urban artists of every stripe.  In an earlier period the subject produced some awful, sentimental pictures meant for the walls of Victorian parlors.  By the 1930s the subject could be used symbolically in the fight for economic and social justice.  A newsboy offers a two-fer:  he’s a hard worker fending for mere coins, and also a kid whose formal education has been sidetracked so he can develop the street smarts needed to support his family.


[Winifred Milius, “Newsboy,” woodcut, 1937, signed and dated lower right, numbered (#12) and titled lower left, 8 1/8 x 5 1/4″.  Acquired at Rachel Davis Fine Arts – Paintings, Prints, and Sculpture at Auction, March 21, 2009, Lot 202.]

Stuyvesant Van Veen

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

First of all, what a great name.  He could be a character in a novel by Thomas Pynchon or T. Coraghessan Boyle. But instead Stuyvesant Van Veen (1910-1988) is the name of  a vital American artist of social conscience, and one who deserves greater attention. A painter, muralist, satirist, and illustrator, he employed his well-honed graphic talents most powerfully during the 1930s.

Searching Google uncovers only bits and pieces of his legacy: a cursory NY Times obit found here; his 1932 depiction of the folly of war here; a 1937 photo of Van Veen working on a U.S. Courthouse mural in Pittsburgh here; a profile of his work during World War II (Van Veen served as Sgt. in the Army) creating a mural at what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, here (second photo of 24).

Recently I won an eBay auction of a drawing Van Veen created in 1937 for publication in the radical monthly, The New Masses. (I was the only bidder.)  The image of looming military threat — literally from over the horizon — was common in political cartoons of that era:




Now comes the fun part — researching the history and meaning of the piece. I’ve got to find a set of New Masses from 1937 to see if in fact the drawing was reproduced there. Was it used to illustrate an article?  On what subject?  What’s the meaning of the title, “Silk Stockings are Bayonets”? Does the image depict a specific episode of fascist aggression — somewhere in Europe or Asia?  Why did Van Veen make the drawing so large (it’s 29 x 20 inches)? Was that the standard size New Masses required its illustrators to submit for purposes of reproduction? Or did Van Veen intend the drawing for public display separate and apart from its magazine appearance?

I will update this post when answers are found.

UPDATE (09-26-2010). Adam McIntosh posted a comment explaining the title and historical context: “The title “Silk Stockings are Bayonets” is a reference to the fact that the silk used in the making of stockings in the 1930s was imported from Japan. Thus implying the buying of silk stockings was funding the Japanese war of aggression in China. Besides the title, if you look at the soldier, despite the dehumanizing vagueness of the depiction, his gear, especially the helmet, is unmistakably that of the Imperial Japanese Army.”  My thanks go to Mr. McIntosh. With his information about the Second Sino-Japanese War that broke out in 1937, and with a little help from Google, I found a photograph in which”New York ladies parade with non-silk stockings to support the boycott on Japanese goods”:



Room for one more?

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Saw this car a few mornings ago on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.



I’m trying to understand why you’d plaster a non-junky car with dozens of bumper stickers.  Did the owner get caught in the vise of the potato chip vice — after the first one there’s just no stopping?

If in doubt, don’t go out

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Over-lawyering on the Big Island:



I’m thinking this could be a catchy hook for a pop song about love gone awry — a song with the title, “Strong Current“:

“If in doubt . . .  don’t go out . . . you could be swept away.”

(Photo from 2008)