What Were They Thinking!? - Monogram
In this series we examine works of art and concepts that might puzzle or confuse at first sight. You know the ones we're talking about. The work you look at and say to yourself, "what were they thinking!?"
Art history is all about the search; for the meaning, the narrative, or the date for that one painting you can't remember in your Cult of Saints midterm. In the search for understanding, we've created this series. We've all come across a work of art that initially puzzles us. You look at it and think something along the lines of "this is weird." And don't think you're alone, art historians think this more than they'd like to admit. You look at the label; it gives the date and title but doesn't do anything to help you decipher what you're looking at.
Here we're going to dive deeper. Hopefully, we'll get a better understanding of why the artist created the artwork and if/what additional meaning might be lurking.
Up first - Robert Rauschenberg's Monogram, 1955-1959. I was first introduced to this artwork in a History of Contemporary Painting class. If you've never seen it before I'll describe it to you. It's a taxidermy Angora goat stuffed through a car tire. Standing on top of a painting.
My first reaction too. The goat looks old and ragged; his face is splattered with colorful paint. You look at the tire and wonder how Rauschenberg managed to fit it on (the tire is actually cut on the bottom so that you can easily take it on and off). Then you look down at the painting. Among the few things you'll see are collage material, the heel of a shoe, footprints, and a tennis ball strategically placed behind the goat. The familiarity of those everyday objects pulls you in, but the combination of everything together throws you. So now we have to ask ourselves: why?
Rauschenberg created this in New York in the late 50's. Abstract Expressionism was having its hay day and Pop Art was gaining in popularity. Then you have Rauschenberg. He wasn't interested in creating artwork like either of these groups. His creation is defined as a Combine. Coined by the artist himself, Combine refers to an artwork that combines painting, sculpture, and assemblage. It creates a tension between objects of everyday life and the materials of art, the hallmark of any Rauschenberg piece.
Painting as Pasture
Rauschenberg toyed with the design of this Combine for several years before settling on this version. He positioned the painting vertical and behind the goat in an earlier design but was unhappy with the resulting look. Rauschenberg scholar Catherine Craft cites Jasper Jones, the artist who created Flag and Rauschenberg's then partner, as the one who suggested orienting the painting horizontally. The goat standing on top of the painting (instead of in front or beside it) is a direct reference to the obsession Ab Ex artists had with the medium of painting. Furthermore, the decision to place the painting flat on the ground is a sly dig at Jackson Pollock's famous technique of laying his canvas on the ground. If you need any more clues about what this goat put out to pasture thinks of the movement just take a look at where the tennis ball is placed behind him. Gone was the idea of the artist as tortured genius and here was an artist who bridged high art with the everyday.
Figuring out the Tire
There have been many interpretations as to why the tire is wrapped around the goat. One of them relates to the title of the work, Monogram. The official origin story is that Rauschenberg thought the intertwined shapes of the goat and tire looked like the interlocking letters of a monogram.
There are also many sexual interpretations available. Some argue that the presumed act of stuffing the goat through the tire alludes to anal sex; which makes sense if you view the piece with the knowledge that Rauschenberg identified as gay. Others have made the connection between an animal stuffed through a "rubber." These interpretations get messy when you consider the tennis ball as scat behind the goat. Either way, Rauschenberg never commented on the validity of these theories.
Monogram, and Rauschenberg's Combines in general, create a space for our everyday world to mix and mingle with art. While eccentric at first glance, they serve as a testament to an artist who refused to fit into any one category. Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, assemblage, painting, and collage are all present. Rauschenberg stands out during this period of art history because he doesn't fit into a box. His wide mixture of media and collaborations with other artists influenced generations after him. You may look at Monogram and just see a goat, but I hope the next time you see a Combine you remember the revolutionary spirit of the artist who created it.
Monogram - Robert Rauschenberg Foundation