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.