Rauschenberg and Collage in the Digital Age / by Kristin Anderson

Rauschenberg made me fall in love with collage. I was in the Des Moines Art Center, making the usual rounds, admiring some of my favorite expressionists--Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, whose work always carries me away to Neverland when I saw it: a mystery jar of black dust hanging from a niche in Bob’s Talisman Combine, 1958. It made me want to laugh, not with ridicule, but surprise. It seemed very simple, the bringing of real life stuffs into painting, but I had never see it done so plainly. The jar reminded me of rummaging through drawers in my Grandparents’ farm house, admiring the variety of aged things that I didn’t necessarily understand the purpose of.

For Rauschenberg, of course, the imagery in Talisman, was not aged and nostalgic, but new or, at least, recently set aside. The concept too, of arranging found imagery as if on a cluttered table was new. According to Leo Steinberg in the early 70’s this arrangement constituted a new conceptualization of the pictorial surface, which he called the “flat bed picture plane.” In the history of Western Art, the image is like a window, revealing a world “out there.” The horizontality of Rauschenberg’s “combines,” however, marked a dramatic shift in perspective that “let the world in again,”—the modern world, of radio, television, printed media, and an abundance of stuff in general.

To speculate about how Rauschenberg's art may have been different had he grown up with Twitter and Reddit is probably a ridiculous endeavor. Still, I can't help but wonder about the new implications of "accumulation" in our era of mass data collection in which image and language are reduced to pixels and dished up on standardized trays. Today on social media sites, ads, news, and entertainment are all served side by side--cat videos and military crisis visually indistinguishable from each other. According to Steinberg, the world Rauschenberg honestly portrayed was like a cluttered table top, where tokens of everyday life mingled with a surplus of printed media.

But what does our world look like? Is collage still relevant?

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