Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules at SFMOMA

Shotgun Review

Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules at SFMOMA

By Elena Platonova April 10, 2018

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Elena Platonova reviews Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules at SFMOMA in San Francisco. 

Halfway through viewing the exhibition, a visitor—fascinated by Rauschenberg’s 1963 masterpiece, Retroactive I—excitedly asked his girlfriend the name of the artist; this episode is indicative of the mind-boggling diversity of Rauschenberg’s output. After passing four sizable rooms filled with his work, an uninitiated onlooker can still assume that they are visiting a group exhibition! Painting, sculpture, “Combines” (works that merge both), photography, sets for dance performances, art incorporating technology, even art that has travelled to the moon1—Rauschenberg shied away from nothing when it came to materials and what could be done with them.

Robert Rauschenberg. Retroactive I, 1963; oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Perpetually restless and prone to experimentation, the artist frequently changed and elaborated his techniques. One example of this continuous search is his lifelong engagement with photography, borrowed or his own, which is a prominent leitmotif running through the show: the 1950s lyrical photographic portraits of friends and lovers in the first gallery, his striking juxtapositions of blown-up and screen-printed mass media images of American reality in the 1960s, and the ambitiously monumental inkjet transfers of the 1990s and 2000s. And, finally, Ruminations (1999–2000), a late confessional series of intaglio prints based on photos of the loved ones, in the last gallery—a delightful, not-to-miss selection that subtly reverts back to Rauschenberg’s beginnings.

Photography is only one of many elements appearing in the artist’s wall-hanging pieces; others employ a range of unusual materials. For instance, Bed (1955) consists of a quilt blanket, a sheet, and a pillow, splashed with multicolored smears of paint. The notorious Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is, true to its name, a drawing by another artist that Rauschenberg strenuously erased and adorned with his own name. Some featured works likewise involve the hand of other artists, while others incorporate dirt, bird feathers, gold leaf, clothes, and, in one particularly striking instance, a taxidermied goat (Monogram, 1955–1959).

Rauschenberg once stated his ambition to photograph every foot of the United States.2 Although he did not accomplish that, he did portray locales, objects, and individuals around the globe in astonishing breadth. The exhibition affords an exhilarating opportunity to travel through time and space, seeing the world through the eyes of an artist who, for over half a century, ceaselessly reveled in its diversity.

Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules was on view at SFMOMA through March 25, 2018.


  1. Rauschenberg was one of the artists included in The Moon Museum (1969), originated by artist Forrest Myers.
  2. “I decided that my next photographic project was to walk across the United States and photograph it foot by foot in actual size.” Rauschenberg quoted in Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage, 1987), 75.

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