Inflectional, Intermedial, Interstitial: Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed
Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) hangs, on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in one of the galleries devoted to both Painting and Sculpture at once –conveniently so. One of the artist’s earliest works executed in the Combine mode, belonging to the same period as the fully three-dimensional pieces like Untitled (Man with White Shoes) (1954), Odalisk (1955-58) and Monogram (1955-59), and pre-dating many of the so-dubbed Combine Paintings—though Rauschenberg himself did not insist on a strict distinction between the two terms1—such as Gloria (1956), Hazard (1957) and Painting with Red Letter S (1957), which by far dominates his oeuvre in this respect, it occupies a saliently singular position with regards to either category.
Bed is, immediately, a bed; such is its physical, visual and conceptual armature. Framed within a shallow wooden structure, a flat, white, sheet-encased surface serves both to indicate the mattress and as the canvas on which the work of art is enacted. A pillow is attached to the top, or head of the bed, and a quilt patterned with a modular design of small red squares and varicolored lines, with a border of three stripes alternating between red and white (or brown – the colors have faded), is covered over a substantial portion of the lower half, wrapped around and pulled flat against the base that holds it up. Here, then, in a coherent and recognizable arrangement of familiar elements, the viewer is presented with the spectacle of the single, readable image2, the bed. Over and on this intimation of the everyday, however, gestural acts of inflection intervene: from the top of the bed to a clearly marked line that runs somewhere through the middle of the pillow occurs a zone of pencil marks, a mass of lines and vague shapes that recalls Cy Twombly’s inscriptional canvases. Running from the pillow over a space of white revealed by where the upper edge of the quilt has been folded back in a draped crease, and over onto the quilt itself, Rauschenberg effects his most arresting and dramatic flourish, splashes of brightly-colored paint applied to the various surfaces of the work—smooth, textured, plain, patterned—in a process of euphoric abandon, contrasting conspicuously with the muted pencil tones.
Bed is explicitly intermedial. It fuses painting, drawing, and found objects into a work that Michael Fried condemned as an “illusion that the barriers between the arts are in the process of crumbling … and that the arts themselves are at last sliding toward some kind of final, implosive, highly desirable synthesis.”3 This synthesis of various media is brought to the fore, deliberately contradicting the work’s iconicity, its rehearsal of the familiar, by a reiteration of variety on a formal level. The division of the surface into distinct fields of visual and tactile experience, from pencil to paint to quilt, signals an interruption of the plenary image, yet simultaneously points to its own arbitrary, synthetic nature by virtue of the blurring of borders between those zones. The bisection of the pillow into areas of inscription and painting seems at first glance to be sharply articulated, but closer inspection reveals a thick wad of white paint—nearly indistinguishable from the pillowcase—applied on the dividing line, right through the middle, dripping runnels of white down into the paint-inflected zone below, bleeding from one category into the next. This particular motif repeats itself throughout the surface of the work, forming a visual complex of rhyming shapes and colors; blue and brown, red and white (the latter two recurring constantly), all seeping in streamlets of solidified paint one into another, making their way down the length of pillow, sheet, quilt.
It is tempting to read the life in, or into, the art. The Bed as a piece of furniture, as Rauschenberg’s piece of furniture or a representation of such, finds its originary impulse in his oft-quoted statement that “Painting relates to both art and life…. (I try to act in that gap between the two) …”4 Leo Steinberg deciphers the Rauschenberg-ian picture plane as a democratic exercise, akin to “any flat documentary surface that tabulates information…”; despite his assertion that it “no more depend(s) on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does”5, Bed cries out for its human occupant. As a vessel intended expressly for the body, it invites one to read the absent body against it. The integral unity of the sign, of the otherwise neatly-made bed, of the ordered layout of its constituents, minus the human, is belied by Rauschenberg’s inflectional gestures. The various medial and intermedial fields find ready analogues in the psychosomatic realm; they coincide with broad zones of corporeal functionality. The location of a decisive break through the pillow, reifying a split in the sphere of the mental and the ideational, serves to trigger a concatenation of associations. Rosalind Krauss, evoking the specter of sleep in discussing Brancusi’s Beginning of the World (1924)—a tapered bronze teardrop reminiscent of a somnolent head— remarks of the play of light and shadow on the upper- and undersides of its highly polished surface: “It is this differential … that recalls the feeling of the back of one’s head, resting heavily on a pillow, while the face floats, weightless and unencumbered, toward sleep.”6 The dichotomy between converging sensory experiences, at the instant between sleep and wakefulness, alludes again to its referent, here the differential between Twombly-esque pencil marks and the vibrant paint splashes that, even if one is only tangentially acquainted with the facts of Rauschenberg’s life, brings immediately to mind his partnership with Jasper Johns, and the latter’s vividly-colored, lavishly-textured encaustic works of the same period.7
The displacement of pencil by paint registers the moment when Rauschenberg’s relationship with Twombly had ended, and his involvement with Johns began. Indeed, the field of paint celebrates the wakeful state of creative productivity and emotional vivification in which he must have found himself, and the conjugal bliss that likely accompanied this new union. The exuberant disorder of the brushstrokes and bright primary hues attest to the buoyancy of this stage in his life – hands and heart both function within this zone. Further down, positioned exactly at the fold that separates bed from quilt, torso from limbs, and zone from zone, is an interstitial space that bears the freight of the largest color splashes, and the brightest. These, in blue, yellow, red, and, most prominently, white, are made to perform the same gesture of dripping that they do elsewhere; here they connote palpably the bodily discharges that emerge during the sexual act, a breach of the epiderm that results in similar motions of exudation: seeping, bleeding, oozing, sweating. White and red suggest, of course, semen and blood, and it is the former that stands out in the starkest contrast against the background of the quilt, trickling downwards in long rivulets, recurring as isolated patches evocative of semen stains.
Rauschenberg’s Combines have been read as a refusal to follow through on their premises to the logical conclusion: a full embrace of three-dimensionality, an evolution from the wall into “environments, displays, or architectural design.” What they do effectuate, according to Branden Joseph, is an insistence on “their hybrid existence between (or as both) painting and sculpture, 2- and 3-D.”8 The trope of hybridity, of categorical ambiguity, operates at several levels in Bed. It is, as Rauschenberg avers, situated in the interstice between art and life. It re-enacts the everyday—“it let(s) the world in again”9—but this unitary view is not only disrupted by the interposition of the gestural mark, but also belied by the break in contiguity between art and life, a lacuna exposed in the gap visible between the wooden frame and the bed itself. This discontinuity, running all around the perimeter of the enframed object, reveals the structural scaffolding erected behind it: the quilt is shown to be tacked on to one side of a surface constructed of wooden supports and a white sheet; it disappears behind the other side at a point where a break between the modular units of its design occurs, obscuring the distinctive three-stripe border pattern, forging and disclosing at once the conceit of a naturalized cessation. Bed clearly reinforces its status as something other than an actual bed, confronting the viewer not with a view of the world, but with a thing (much in the same manner as Johns’ paintings of flags do) of heterogeneous ontology. As a Combine, it likewise bears a unique relationship to its fellows, located somewhere between the three-dimensional pieces and the Combine paintings. Untitled (Man with white Shoes) and Odalisk are not confined to the wall; they stride un-self-consciously into the center of the room, announcing themselves as occupants and possessors of our space. They approximate the resemblance to actual objects, of cupboards and shelves and stuffed fowl, but simply reconfigured in a-referential ways that Bed shies from. Neither does the latter engage the collage method of the two-dimensional Combine paintings—the yoking together of disparate materials on Steinberg’s flatbed picture plane—instead demanding that it be recognized as both a single and singular image, as verisimilitude and authorial comment. Operating at the threshold between media, styles and forms, it is intermedial, interstitial, inflected.
1 Branden Joseph, in his lecture dated October 2nd, 2007.
2 Rosalind Krauss refers to Bed, along with Johns’ flags of the same period, as “single-image painting”. Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 38-55.
3 Quoted in Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
4 Quoted in Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
5 Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 6-37.
6 Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: Viking Press, 1977),
7 As has been noted by Paul Schimmel. See Paul Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines”, in Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, & Steidl Verlag: 2005).
8 Both quotes are from Branden Joseph, “The Gap and the Frame”, October 117 (Summer 2006): 44-70.
9 Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism”, in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 6-37.