Paper Rain: Rauschenberg, the document & archive


Figure 1 Robert Rauschenberg in the Miami Herald archives, 1979. Photo attributed to John Doman.

As an archivist, your work begins and ends with documents – the printed page; bytes and formatted files; images that reveal themselves when held up to the light – It can be easy to get lost amongst these documents. It’s also possible to inhabit the lives of the people you find printed across the page. If ever time travel were possible, a filing cabinet in an archive would most certainly be the portal.

However, an archive is not a place to escape to, nor a holiday destination. There is serious mental effort required if you wish to be transported through time and space. This is due to the immensity of the documents that must be read, considered and understood in relation to one another, in the archive’s original order. It’s akin to moving through a thicket of lantana: dense, thorny and difficult to move through if you approach it with speed. You must move slowly through an archive, page by page.

Then there is the archivist’s dilemma: there is a disconnect between the pace in which documents can be worked through, and the speed with which they are created. You are also subjectively blind to what may be considered valuable – so you retain everything – no matter how innocuous it may seem.

I’m not sure that there’s a single word to describe this dilemma: a sort of information saturation; a spiralling scale to our information-fuelled world. Art critic and theorist Andrew Frost came close when he coined phonotony to describe a certain ennui felt by the saturation of images experienced in modern life[1].

But this is no phonotony: As I work my way through the Kenneth Tyler archive here at the National Gallery of Australia I have the privilege of gazing over a history of 20th Century American Art and its luminaries: Warhol, Frankenthaler, Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Stella. This history is told across four printmaking workshops: Gemini Ltd and Gemini GEL (which were based in Hollywood, Los Angeles); & Tyler Workshop Ltd. & Tyler Graphics Ltd (which were based on the East Coast, New York State).

While archivists have a reputation for a professional ‘neutrality’, I’ll admit here that I’ve begun to develop affinities with particular artists Tyler worked with as master printer. This has led me to cherish moments with certain photos or sheets of print documentation. It’s a sort of impersonal relationship that grows as you stuff these great artists into inert plastic sleeves.

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Figure 2 Robert Rauschenberg at Gemini GEL in 1967, unknown photographer.

The closest impersonal relationship I’ve developed is with Robert Rauschenberg. He has a warm and personable smile, an angular all-caps signature and in most images, a glass of liquor in his hand. But it is more than this, it’s as though we’re having a conversation through time. Rauschenberg’s artwork understands the dilemma of the archivist. His work seems to directly address the beginnings of our information saturated world. He has a special relationship to documents too. He understands where I’m coming from.

As I begin to scratch the surface, this Rauschenberg-resonance reveals itself as more than just a gut-feeling: The post-war United States was prosperous, and media proliferated like never before: advertising, publishing, and in particular, television was everywhere. The transition to a post-Industrial economy was underway, with manufacturing industries in relative decline and a new white-collar information worker began to fill the cities of the United States. This shift meant that the intangible asset of Information now became the basis for the modern economy. The rest of the developed world would soon follow suit. Documents were everywhere. Images were omnipresent. The Information Society had arrived. America was rapidly changing and so was art. As Branden Joseph examined in Random Order: Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings mark “the beginning of a larger aesthetic transformation brought on by the pressures of the media. Rauschenberg later recalled about this period ‘I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the refuse, by the excess of the world’”[2]. John Cage thought that looking at a Rauschenberg was like looking at “many television sets working simultaneously all tuned in differently”[3]. Rauschenberg himself notes that “the printed material became as much of a subject as the paint (I began using newsprint in my work) causing changes of focus: A third palette”[4].


Figure 3: Robert Rauschenberg, Booster, 1967, colour lithograph and screenprint.

The use of this ‘third palette’ certainly wasn’t unique to Rauschenberg, but the density and unabashed use of the square frame of the original document was uniquely Rauschenberg. While other collage artists sought to liberate the subject from its document with scissors and Stanley knives, Rauschenberg tore the image from its binding and transferred it, without edit, to the canvas. Rauschenberg didn’t delicately edit, he simply amassed, often from one edge of the canvas to the other. Like a quiet corner of a city street on a windy day – the reproductions of commerce, journalism and advertising accumulated within a border.

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Figure 4 Robert Rauschenberg, Test Stone #6; from Booster and 7 studies, 1967, colour lithograph.

This use of images reminds me of the Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, originally published in 1977, this short story tells of a man’s reclusive neighbour whose apartment, in a plumbing emergency, must be broken into. After breaking into his apartment, the reclusive neighbour is nowhere to be found but in every corner of the house are heaving piles of documents: the neighbour has treated everything he has encountered as worthy of archiving. A short essay is found on a table which reflects on how he stood ‘under a paper rain’:

…allow the flow of paper to engulf you, considering it impossible to separate the important from the unimportant – wouldn’t that be insanity? When is that possible? It is possible when a person honestly doesn’t know which of these papers is important and which is not, why one principle of selection is better than another, and what distinguishes a pile of necessary from a pile of garbage… should everything, without exception, before his eyes in the form of an enormous paper sea, be considered to be valuable or to be garbage, and then should it all be saved or thrown away? Given such a relationship, the vacillations in making such a choice become agonising. A simple feeling speaks about the value, the importance of everything. This feeling is familiar to everyone who has looked through or rearranged accumulated papers: this is the memory associated with all the events connected to each of these papers. To deprive ourselves of these paper symbols and testimonies is to deprive ourselves somewhat of our memories… they form chains and connections in our memory which ultimately comprise the story of our life.[5]

These words might have well been spoken by Rauschenberg, who said that “he almost became a photographer, and the project he imagined embarking on… [was] to photograph America, foot-by-foot, ‘in actual size’”[6]. Rauschenberg as the reclusive neighbour.

The idea of an archive in Rauschenberg’s work is reflected in Rosalind Krauss’ essay Perpetual Inventory (October Journal, Spring, 1999) where the loose grid of framed images in Rauschenberg’s screen-prints “seems to present one with nothing so much as a visual archive: the storage and retrieval matrix of the organised miscellany of images”[7]. Krauss frames Rauschenberg’s archival collecting of imagery as an oscillating space akin to the memory and the subconscious – constantly bombarded with fresh information and free to creatively associate between images – but always retaining the trace of what was impressed beforehand. Which could very well be a job description for an archivist too.

I’ve begun to find resonance in this view of Rauschenberg’s work as a sort of ‘living memory’. His oscillating images are an attempting to make sense of the new information-driven world that America began to experience after World War II. Underneath the deluge of images and documents, the mediated, the reported, and the reproduced became Rauschenberg’s eyes and ears to the outside: A world he clearly depicted as complex, multifaceted and not easily categorised.

I’m certain that as he moved through the Time or Miami Herald archives – a moment that was captured in the opening photo of this essay – in the hunt for images, an archivist would have explained to Rauschenberg the dilemma of the ever expanding infosphere and the inability to ever process and interpret this information deluge. This would have been an inspiring insight for Rauschenberg as he embarked on his work.

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Figure 5 Robert Rauschenberg, From the seat of authority, from A suite of nine prints, 1979, photo-screenprint and screenprint, printed in colour, from multiple stencils.

Rauschenberg surely had become aware of archival principles and thought in his employment of them for source material. If not, he arrived at similar conclusions to the archival profession: even when individual documents are arranged in a certain order, thoughts, ideas and information be elicited from this order – whether this is in a filing cabinet, or on a canvas. The viewer of the work brings their own context to this visual banquet, and in doing so reads the work in thousand different ways. Rauschenberg’s work is an archive and in this he as the author remains elusive, enigmatic. This is the joy of his work – we aren’t passive bystanders to a didactic image, we become willing participants in the image: Archival researchers interpreting a deluge of documents, standing under a paper rain.

– David Greenhalgh,
Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection,
August 2018.



[2] Joseph, B.H. (2003). Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde. MIT Press: Cambridge. p. 180

[3] Cage, J. ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and his work’ in Harrison C. & Wood, P. (eds.). Art in Theory: 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell Publishing: Malden. p. 736

[4] Ibid. p. 734

[5] Kabakov, I. (1977). ‘The man who never threw anything away’ in Mereweather, C. (ed.). (2006). The Archive. MIT Press: Cambridge. p. 32

[6] Krauss, R. (1999). ‘Perpetual Inventory’ in October Journal 88, p. 107

[7] Ibid. p.107