I came across this Warhol portrait of Robert Rauschenberg the other week in Andrea Caratsch’s gallery in Zurich. I was shocked to find that one of the most significant works of the 20th century was selling for less than $2 million — maybe five per cent of what less important, later Warhols can fetch. Last I checked, it still had not been bought. (Caratsch wouldn’t take my Sam’s Club card.)
Made in 1962, this is, as far as I can tell, the earliest portrait of a living sitter in Warhol’s mature career, and one of his very earliest silkscreens. (I don’t count his movie-star images as portraits: They are closer to Rembrandt’s “heads” of Aristotle or Jesus.) That means this work is a first experiment in the genre that filled the final two-thirds of Warhol’s career.
The 1962 portrait features one of the cutting-edge artists that Warhol was most keen on emulating, and whose friendship he had only just managed to win. Average museumgoers, and even experts, don’t always realize how deeply committed Warhol was to the classic, egghead avant-garde, and how deeply immersed he was in it at this point in his career; this portrait stands as his declaration of that commitment. It also comes at just the moment when Warhol was able to turn the tables on Rauschenberg, by offering to help his elder learn the new photo-silkscreen technique. (Although the tale’s also told that Rauschenberg taught him.)
Rauschenberg was also some kind of model for Warhol of what it was to be a successful gay artist, even if he had once rejected Warhol as too “swish” for his tastes. I think you can read Rauschenberg’s un-swish-ness from the way Warhol depicts him here, in an image that has none of the camp playfulness of Warhol’s Pop works from this era. Drowning in a deep-blue sea, Rauschenberg has stronger echoes in this portrait of his own Black Paintings, or of Warhol’s later “Disasters,” than of Warhol’s “Troy Donohue” or “Marilyn” silkscreens. You could almost read this dour, barely-there portrait as being in mourning for, or at least a token of, Rauschenberg’s closeted life. With its figure small and lost, gazing up into the heavens, this is one of the most wistful images Warhol ever made. All that blackness, and the filmic stutters running down the surface of the work, remind me most of Warhol’s dark and cryptic “Shadow” silkscreens from 1978.
The painting also comes close to being a direct quote from the all-blue monochromes of Yves Klein. Warhol cannot have missed the Frenchman’s 1961 New York show with Leo Castelli, who became Warhol’s own dealer not long after. (A couple of years later, Warhol was asking a lover, the art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, to tell him what Klein was like.) Klein is one of the few artists of this era who can rival Warhol for his mix of brainy profundity and absurdist play, and this portrait almost proves the connection. Within a year or two, Warhol was including Kleinian monochromes in his silkscreened diptychs; this earlier “Rauschenberg” can almost be thought of as a collapsed diptych, with a silkscreen portrait sandwiched on top of a blue monochrome. Which means there’s also cancelling-out going on — a deliberate attempt to make a portrait that conceals more than it shows. Warhol may have admired and envied Bob Rauschenberg, but more than anything he wanted to cast the shadow of his own art over his new friend’s. This darkling portrait casts that shadow, symbolically, before Warhol had made a whole lot of art that could actually outshine Rauschenberg’s. (Image courtesy Andrea Caratsch, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.)
For a full inventory of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.