Robert Rauschenberg, “Untitled (Elemental Sculpture)” (c. 1953), hinged steel flange, stone, steel strap, and iron bolt (orientation variable), 13 5/8 × 18 1/4 × 9 1/8 inches (irreg.), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Ben Blackwell, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. All images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

He used a rope and nail to tether a stone to a wood block. He made another work the same year, in which he attached a metal screw eye inside a box. He then tied twine to the screw eye and wrapped it around a stone that, in this instance, he placed outside the box. The person standing next to me says: “ball and chain.”

He made a drawing using a car (a Model A Ford, to be exact) as the drawing instrument. A friend drove the car slowly, inching it forward, on joined sheets of typing paper that had been carefully placed in its path. Two tire tracks are visible, one in ink and the other the impression left by the tire treads. The tire tracks, perfectly aligned from sheet to sheet, form a scroll nearly 24 feet long, a drawing of two wide lines, one of which is ghostly, that stretches from one wall to another. He could have made a dozen or more of these scrolls, but he was too restless to do it again.

Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage, “Automobile Tire Print” (detail) (1953), tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. x 22 ft. 1/2 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Don Ross, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

Erasing a work that he had solicited from an older artist whom he admired, one who was celebrated for his drawings, became another drawing. It took him 40 erasers to complete the task, but the sheet of paper is unblemished by creases or erasures. He repeatedly caressed the older artist’s drawing until it all but vanished.

He made a series of “transfer drawings” illustrating the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno. These drawings look as if he did a rubbing of a flat image, coalescing into ghostly echoes in the streaks and smears.

The gesture used in erasing a drawing presages the one used in making the “transfer drawings,” the repeated rubbing of erasure.

A man clad in a towel descends into hell. He stands before what looks like a railing. Torments of all kinds are stacked up below him.

He reinvented frottage. He made drawings without drawing. He was interested in ghostly images and traces. In his best works, he is often agitated and fastidious.

Robert Rauschenberg with Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953), A de Kooning drawing, graphite, and other media on paper, erased by Rauschenberg and mounted in a gilded wood frame with label inscribed using a metal template in blue ink on paper by Jasper Johns, 25 1/4 × 22 3/4 × 1/2 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Ben Blackwell, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

He kept the erased drawing in a drawer and did not show it. Another artist convinced him to put it in an exhibition. This artist matted the erased drawing and fit it into a gold gilded wood frame. He also provided the label, which he inscribed with perfect penmanship, using a metal template in blue ink, and affixed it into a cut-out in the mat. The gilded frame and label authenticate the drawing as a museum piece. One artist made the drawing. Another artist erased it. A third artist contextualized it. The context helps complete the viewer’s understanding of what is being looked at.

He made paintings from dirt, as well as used paint made from pigments.

He used taxidermied animals, dead insects, and engravings of beetles in his work.

He has gotten the tire around the stuffed angora goat, which he first saw in the window of a secondhand office furniture store. Eventually, through the suggestion of another artist, the same one who provided the gilded frame and inscribed label for his erased drawing, he places the goat on top of a painting lying on the floor instead in front of a painting hanging on the wall. The painting, which becomes a platform, is raised on casters. The platform becomes a low pedestal. We can still look the animal in the eye and contemplate his paint-smeared head.

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram” (1955–59), oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters, 42 × 53 1/4 × 64 1/2 in., Moderna Museet, Stockholm, purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet (© 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

There are footprints on the edge of the painting that has become a pedestal, as well as a street barricade with signboard lettering.

Behind the goat, on the platform, the artist has placed a paint-smeared tennis ball, a perfectly spherical turd.

Perhaps he lifted this turd from a urinal.

Dirt, paint, at least one turd, dead insects, stuffed animals. He goes from stench and perfection to perfection and putrefaction — a huge vat of percolating tan sludge.

He smears paint, nail polish, and toothpaste onto a pillow and quilt, evidence of what happened there. The quilt is a grid, which is the way he organized his diverse images and materials. He puts one rectangle (or thing) next to another. He never got out of this way of arranging his images.

Nearly 350 years later, Rubens’ oil painting Venus at the Mirror (1615) becomes an oil and silkscreen painting titled Persimmon (1964).

In Rubens’ painting, Venus at the Mirror, Cupid holds a mirror up for Venus. An African maidservant looks on. The mirror faces us, so that we see Venus’ reflection in the mirror, looking at us. One interpretation of this is the reflection of Venus, which reveals her beauty to the viewer, becomes a symbol of painting that competes with nature to produce an image that is as real as possible. From the expression on her face and the direction of her glance, it is clear that Venus is aware that we are admiring her.

Ruben’s painting is about painting — about reflection, beauty, and the viewer. Its purpose is to please the viewer, to give pleasure.

Do we prefer one more than the other — artifice or nature? Or do we desire to have both? What does it mean when he says: “My work exists in the space between art and life”? Is there a space between the two?

He turned Rubens into a silkscreen, a representation of a representation. He changed the colors, added images of his own. The African maidservant is replaced by the image of a city street where the sign, “Cafeteria,” is prominent. Four years earlier, four African-American college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The one becomes many. Our eyes consume what is around us.

The image of a round ripe persimmon, with its smooth indentation, sits right beneath Venus’s buttocks, a perfect anus.

The word “persimmon” dates to America’s colonial period. It comes from the Powhatan name for the fruit, pichamin. It is a member of the genus Diospyros, which has been misread to mean “divine fruit.’ It has led some to believe it is the lotus Homer writes about in the Odyssey. In Powhatan, an Algonquin language, it means “a dry fruit.”

A stone inside a box; a tire wrapped around the belly of a goat; an inverted pail that can be raised or lowered into a metal shaft; a dirty, paint smeared bed; a dirty tennis ball (or perfect turd).

Robert Rauschenberg, “Bed” (1955), oil, pencil, toothpaste, and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt, and bedsheet mounted on wood support, 6 ft. 3 1/4 in. × 31 1/2 in. × 8 in., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Leo Castelli in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (photo by Thomas Griesel, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

In the silkscreen painting, the persimmon is the most boldly colored area of the composition — it is a round form inside a similarly colored square. A gauzy strip of cloth wraps around Venus’s right buttock, crosses over the crack of her ass, and touches against the top left edge of the torn rectangle (its top edged in white), framing the persimmon and the voluptuous indentation.

Venus looks back at us, knowing what we are thinking.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...