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Robert Rauschenberg's Transfer Drawings: A Pop Art Master

A new exhibition at Offer Waterman explores Robert Rauschenberg’s first experiments with images from the mass media. Discovers the power of his transfer drawings

In another era when the United States – and the world – was caught between a whirlwind of overachievement and a climate of political and social turmoil, American artist Robert Rauschenberg wrangled it all into his work, in an ever-changing array of mediums and styles.

A five-month retrospective on the painter-sculptor-printmaker-photographer opens at the Tate Modern on 1 December, the first since his death in 2008, but from 2 December an exhibition at Offer Waterman will focus on one lesser known strand of his work.

Rauschenberg began experimenting with transfer drawings in 1952 on a trip to Cuba. These large sheets anticipate the multimedia Combines and silkscreen paintings for which he is perhaps best known, and are some of his first attempts at harnessing the power of mass media imagery.

Offer Waterman will exhibit more than 30 examples from the 1950s and 1960s (a sizeable percentage of the total that Rauschenberg created), with almost half on loan from major private collections. Those for sale include a piece that was once in Andy Warhol’s personal collection, and none of the drawings have been exhibited publicly in London before.

Despite the moniker, they cannot be considered as ‘drawings’ in the traditional sense. To create them, Rauschenberg cut out photographs and articles from newspapers and magazines, soaked them in solvent (turpentine or lighter fluid), then laid them onto white paper backgrounds. Next, he used a dry pen nib to rub or hatch the image – transferring it in reverse – onto the surface.

According to Brice Marden, who worked as Rauschenberg’s studio assistant from 1965, the artist did most of his work at night: “For weeks there was a stack of Scientific American magazines sitting in the kitchen. Then, suddenly, they had been gone through overnight, and the images removed became Bob’s images.”

The process is more precise than an actual drawing; removing any margin for interpretative error, since the photographs are true to life. And although the final visual effect is hazy (conjuring some idea of movement), both the artist’s message and choice of subject matter are quite deliberate.

“One of the defining aspects of Rauschenberg’s work is its ability to challenge and push the boundaries of art and how we define it,” says Polly Checker, Offer Waterman’s exhibition director.

“Like the Combines, which presented a hybrid between painting and sculpture, in these works Rauschenberg develops a technique that lies somewhere between monotype, collage, drawing and painting.”

Rauschenberg continued to make transfer drawings after he had begun silkscreening, and even into the late 1960s. “For an artist whose work was marked by constant change, the fact that he worked with this process consistently from 1958 to 1968 reflects the potential for exploration and innovation that it offered,” says Checker.

Having stuck with this form of visual art, Rauschenberg made more than 100 transfers in the 1960s. He created 75 in 1968 alone, a year of particular note in both American history and Offer Waterman’s exhibition.

“1968 was one of the watershed years in post-war American culture,” says Checker. “Political Folly was made for the one-day group show Response to Violence in Our Society, organised by ten Chicago art galleries in response to the violence between police and anti-Vietnam war protestors surrounding the Democratic Convention in August of that year.” Images of Senator Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, as well as of protestors, were torn directly from various newspaper sources.

Elsewhere, Rauschenberg wielded the power behind images of the Kennedys, the Olympics in Mexico City, and headlines about racial segregation and the space programme to capture the charged political and social issues – and emotions – of that eventful year.

Popular and political culture come together time and again in the transfer drawings: Apology nods to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute, while Ursula Andress rises from the sea in a still from Dr. No. The sources that Rauschenberg drew from were less sensational than those favoured by his contemporary, Andy Warhol, and more from what was then occupying the national interest.

Rauschenberg used these images as signifiers that have only grown more potent over time, and allow his transfer drawings to be read – quite literally. More than 50 years on, these first experiments serve a timely reminder of just how influential mass media and its imagery are in the way that we view the world and its woes. 

Robert Rauschenberg, Transfer Drawings from the 1950s and 1960s, 2 December – 13 January, www.waterman.co.uk