Time Capsule, 1970 : Rauschenberg's Surface Series from Currents
The Art Museum is pleased to present the extraordinary Surface Series from Currents—eighteen provocative screenprints created by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), one of the most influential American artists in the second half of the twentieth century. This rarely seen series, made in 1970 entirely from collaged newspapers, represented what Rauschenberg thought of as “the most serious journalism I had ever attempted.”
By 1970 American culture had moved into a period of enormous social and political change. The enthusiasm of the 1960s surrounding the Kennedy Administration, the emergence of the civil rights movement, broad economic growth, and the start of the space program had succumbed to pessimism by the end of the decade with the advent of political assassinations, violent social unrest, ballooning budgets, and the ongoing war in Vietnam.
Rauschenberg’s career as an avant-garde artist blossomed in the 1960s as he mixed screenprinted images collected from popular media with an eclectic array of found objects, gestural painting, and performance art to produce some of the most effervescent, daring works by any artist of his generation. By the end of the decade, Rauschenberg was internationally famous; at the same time, his work was becoming darker as he began to focus on his long-held interest in social activism.
In a burst of activity in early 1970, Rauschenberg produced Currents, an extensive collection of newspaper collages and silk screens first exhibited at Dayton’s Gallery 12 in downtown Minneapolis. Located on the twelfth floor of Dayton’s Department Store, the gallery had become pivotal in the Minneapolis art scene, mounting exhibitions of work by Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, and Rauschenberg. In the fall of 1969, when Rauschenberg mentioned to the gallery’s director that he had been working on an idea for a large-scale drawing, she offered him the opportunity to realize it on a long wall in the gallery. By the time it opened in April 1970, Rauschenberg’s drawing exhibition had transformed into an ambitious printmaking project that encompassed a combination of eighty-one prints and collages.
Rauschenberg and his assistant Bob Peterson began the project by collecting stories, headlines, advertisements, and images cut from more than fifteen newspapers and tabloids—eight of which, the New York Times, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star, Minneapolis Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Times, and Herald Examiner, were published in January and February of 1970. These clippings, combined with drawn, printed, and transferred images, were pasted together to make thirty-six collages that were then photographed. The photographic negatives were enlarged and used in a variety of combinations to create screens for three series of photo-screenprints.
The exhibition took the title Currents from the key work of the installation: an enormous silk screen hand-printed in black and white on a continuous sheet of paper six feet high by fifty-four feet long—the largest work of its kind to date. This monolithic print reproduced all thirty-six of the original collages, while Features from Currents consisted of twenty-six collages printed over pastel grounds on individual sheets of paper. Finally, for Surface Series from Currents, Rauschenberg superimposed two different negatives when making each of the screens for eighteen additional prints, resulting in a nearly illegible cacophony of words and images. The accidental patterns that are distinctive in this series are the result of having enlarged the negatives to the point where Benday dots from the reproduced newspaper photographs are clearly visible. When the original collages and three groups of prints were shown at Dayton’s Gallery 12, they engulfed the visitor in a cascade of current events, repeated over and over again. The works formed, according to Branden Wayne Joseph, “a sort of time capsule from the end of the ‘Great Society,’ buried so that future observers would know how it ended: in escalating violence, warfare, political backlash, and police repression.”
The Art Museum is fortunate to have in its collections the entire suite of eighteen screenprints in Surface Series from Currents. Today, forty-nine years after Rauschenberg immersed visitors in his stark barrage of the printed daily news, we have a chance to peer inside his time capsule and witness the political and cultural events within.
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
This exhibition is curated by Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings, and Juliana Dweck, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement, with the invaluable research support of curatorial assistant Annabelle Priestley.