Robert Rauschenberg: Canyon

by Matt Carey-Williams

Executed in 1959, “Canyon” is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s greatest works and an eponymous example of his Combine series. Begun in 1954, Rauschenberg’s Combines fused both two-and three-dimensional elements together, manifesting themselves as visual and intellectual hybrids that concurrently spoke the languages of painting, sculpture, collage, installation and, even, the readymade. Rauschenberg’s Combines were creatively cacophonous — like artistic Towers of Babel — with the multi-laminated, interdisciplinary and chance-driven nature of their production vital to any understanding of the object itself. “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” Rauschenberg once said. And so, in the 1950s, Rauschenberg would scour the streets around his studio in downtown New York, sourcing and then repurposing materials he found. The surface of “Canyon” is made up of a collage of painted canvas; a collared shirt; some floral fabric; a flattened drum; a wrung-out tube of oil paint and a photograph of Christopher, Rauschenberg’s son. Two elements — quite literally — jump off the surface of the work and dominate the composition. Dangling pendulously, like a pair of testicles, a pillow harnessed in netting, hangs off the bottom of the painting from a piece of string. The androcentricity innate in this form is further announced by the startling addition of a stuffed bald eagle — that signifier of American pride and prowess — adhered to the canvas. His friend, the artist Sari Dienes, found the taxidermied eagle in a pile of junk belonging to her recently deceased neighbour, who happened to be one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. “Canyon” is a painting about America and simultaneously a selfportrait. It’s the Grand Canyon; a portrait of the artist as a man and as a father; it’s the great American landscape; it’s a work that scrutinises the power of abstract and expression yet inveighs against the Billy-Big-Bollocks-ness of Abstract Expressionism. It’s one of the cleverest art works of the 20th century, by one of its greatest artists. “Canyon” is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Robert Rauschenberg was born on this day, 1925.