Combine is a term Robert Rauschenberg invented to describe a series of works that combine aspects of painting and sculpture. Virtually eliminating all distinctions between these artistic categories, the Combines either hang on the wall or are freestanding. With the Combine series, Rauschenberg endowed new significance to ordinary objects by placing them in the context of art.
A term coined by Robert Rauschenberg for a type of work he invented in the early 1950s—a very radical form of collage—in which a painted surface is ‘combined’ with various real objects, or sometimes photographic images, attached to it. The most famous example is Monogram (1955–9, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), featuring a stuffed goat with a tyre around its middle, splashed with paint in a manner recalling Action Painting.
A combine painting is an artwork that incorporates various objects into a painted canvas surface, creating a sort of hybrid between painting and sculpture. Items attached to paintings might include photographic images, clothing, newspaper clippings, ephemera or any number of three-dimensional objects. The term is most closely associated with the artwork of American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) who coined the phrase to describe his own creations. Rauschenberg’s Combines explored the blurry boundaries between art and the everyday world. In addition, his cross-medium creations challenged the doctrine of medium specificity mentioned by modernist art critic Clement Greenberg. Frank Stella created a large body of paintings that recall the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg by juxtaposing a wide variety of surface and material in each work ultimately leading to Stella’s sculpture and architecture of the 21st century.
As the name suggests, the Combines are hybrid works that associate painting with collage and assemblage of a wide range of objects taken from everyday life. Neither paintings nor sculptures, but both at once, Rauschenberg’s Combines invade the viewers’ space, demanding their attention, like veritable visual puzzles. From stuffed birds to Coca-Cola bottles, from newspaper to press photos, fabric, wallpaper, doors and windows, it is as though the whole universe enters into his combinatorial process to join forces with paint. A friend of John Cage, Rauschenberg also took an interest in sound, and in his later Combines, he developed analogies between music and visual arts. Through his affinity with Merce Cunningam and dance, some of his works became stage décors.
In the wake of the invention of collage by Braque and Picasso, as well as that of Dadaist assemblage, Rauschenberg reinvented these practices, giving them new impact in his Combines. A child of Dada, Rauschenberg was influenced by the assemblages of Kurt Schwitters, whose example led him to suggest that art and life are but one. Nevertheless, as Barbara Rose has pointed out, Rauschenberg’s art drew its inspiration from the America of that era, and the artist was reacting against Abstract Expressionism and its goal of the absolute when he incorporated images from magazines or non-artistic materials into his works. As with any great artist, the influences on his work can be sought far afield; among the painters who have marked him profoundly, the artist cites Leonardo da Vinci and his Annunciation (1475-1478) at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. “Since his painting is life, the tree, the rock, the Virgin are all given the same importance at the same time. There is no hierarchy. This is what interests me.” (Interview with André Parinaud, op.cit.) The same can be said of the Combines, where each element maintains its own integrity without obscuring the others. The present and the past, press photos or reproductions of masterpieces of Western art, drawing and painting, cushions and boxes are incorporated into his works, as they attempt to introduce “totality into the moment”.
Combines Art is a form Maintaining increasingly subtle relations between painting and sculpture, photographic image and abstraction, claiming to represent a Total Art, which includes music and dance and in which time is an element of visual artwork, the artist continues to question and exceed the boundaries between art forms.
From the beginning, the artist has proclaimed: “I want to incorporate into my painting any objects of real life.” (Interview with André Parinaud, op.cit.) Although close in spirit to Dadaism and Schwitters’ use of discarded objects as a creative principle, Rauschenberg distinguishes himself through the dimensions of his works; very large, they invade the viewer’s space. “I would like to make a painting and a situation that leaves as much space for the person looking at it as for the artist.”
Examples of Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings include Bed (1955), Canyon (1959), and the free-standing Monogram (1955–1959). Rauschenberg’s works mostly incorporated two-dimensional materials held together with “splashes and drips of paint” with occasional 3-D objects. Critic John Perreault wrote “The Combines are both painting and sculpture–or, some purists would say, neither.” Perreault liked them since they were memorable, photogenic, and could “stick in the mind” as well as “surprise and keep on surprising.” Rauschenberg added stuffed birds on his 1955 work Satellite, which featured a stuffed pheasant “patrolling its top edge.” In another work, he added a ladder. His Combine Broadcast, featuring three radios blaring at once, was a “melange of paint, grids, newspaper clips and fabric snippets.” According to one source, his Broadcast had three radios playing simultaneously, which produced a sort of irritating static, so that one of the work’s owners, at one point, replaced the “noise” with tapes of actual programs when guests visited. Rauschenberg’s Bed had a pillow attached to a patchwork quilt with paint splashed over it. The idea was to promote immediacy.
The prevailing theme of Rauschenberg’s “combine” paintings is “nonmeaning, the absurd, or antiart.” In this regard the combine paintings relate to Pop art and their much earlier predecessor Dada.
Rauschenberg picked up trash and found objects that interested him on the streets of New York City and brought these back to his studio where they could become integrated into his work. He claimed he “wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn’t a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.”
Rauschenberg’s comment concerning the gap between art and life can be seen as a statement which provides the departure point for an understanding of his contributions as an artist. In particular his series of works which he called Combines served as instances in which the delineated boundaries between art and sculpture were broken down so that both were present in a single work of art. Technically “Combines” refers to Rauschenberg’s work from 1954 to 1962, but the artist had begun collaging newsprint and photographic materials in his work and the impetus to combine both painting materials and everyday objects such as clothing, urban debris, and taxidermied animals such as in Monogram continued throughout his artistic life.