Revolutionary

By 1955, the triumph of American painting seemed complete—Europe's luminous haystacks, melting watches, and fractured faces had been eclipsed by Gotham's abstract expressions. Yet that same year, after slathering onto canvas a few rhombuses of dripping paint in homage to his elders (Pollock would be dead inside a year), Robert Rauschenberg snatched the torch and highlighted comic strips, newspapers, and campaign broadsides in his pivotal painting Rebus. Collage was nothing new, but Rauschenberg avoided Picasso's faux chair-caning and Ernst's fever dreams while pushing past the gray newsprint transfers de Kooning had introduced into abstraction. Juxtaposing colorful Sunday comics and a denatured print of Boticelli's Venus, Rauschenberg pitted popular trash against high culture as if staging a prizefight; he replaced the classic horizon line with a belt of paint samples that run the chromatic gamut while supporting photos of a pair of sprinters, one black and one white, racing from right to left, arriving at a fragment of a political poster reading "THAT REPRE."

Reresents who? What? A rebus is a puzzle, and this 11-foot-wide enigma—still powerful even if yellowed with age like an old parchment—represents what Thomas Jefferson recommended for the nation: ongoing revolution.

 
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