Clogs, pulp and pressed flowers: Rauschenberg and Richard de Bas

Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Page 2’ from the ‘Pages and Fuses’ series, 1974. Pressed paper pulp. Edition of 11.

After a trip to Bordeaux in the early 1970s, printer Kenneth Tyler had been toying with the idea of a project working with paper-making in a traditional French paper mill. The experimental nature of such a project carried risks. He needed an artist who would be able to think on their feet, work rapidly and produce an experimental outcome: All qualities that Robert Rauschenberg embodied, and had put to work during his editions of ‘Booster’ and the Stoned Moon series with Tyler at Gemini GEL. 

In August 1973, Tyler and Rauschenberg left for the Richard de Bas paper mill, near the town of Ambert, France. Across four days of intense activity working with master paper maker Marius Peraudeau, Tyler and Rauschenberg investigated the paper-making techniques of this Moulin à papier. Working with machinery and techniques that date back to the 14th century, the outcome was Rauschenberg’s ‘Pages and Fuses’ series. 

These works saw Rauschenberg focus on the materiality of paper, its pulp, fibre and pressing. Paper, usually overlooked as simply the backing for creative expression, was elevated in an almost sculptural way – just as marble is more than rock, paper was thought of as substance, not surface. Moulds were made by a local tinsmith. Rauschenberg would pour into these moulds wet paper pulp. He would then add foreign elements such as pieces of rag, cord and twine. Light-fast pigments were used to dye the works into vivid reds and yellows.

Rauschenberg wished for these works to be viewed from both the front and the back, and to accommodate this, Tyler and Gemini GEL devised a perspex drawer to hold these works. When the drawer is removed from its storage position, it could be placed on its end to create a upright viewing case. This method of display was likely influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, (also known as The Large Glass, a work made of oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust sandwiched between two panes of glass). Its influence can particularly be seen in the work Page 1. 

Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Page 1’ from the ‘Pages and Fuses’ series, 1974, in its custom perspex display case. Made from pressed paper pulp with embedded screenprinted fabric. Edition of 27. Image taken from the ‘Pages and Fuses’ brochure.  

These experiments with paper pulp sparked a renewed interest in handmade paper for Tyler, which then inspired major paper works by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, David Hockney and Helen Frankenthaler in the years to come. 

From this trip, a photo album was made by the paper mill to honour this visit – the album itself is a beautiful cloth-bound book, its pages are thick and made using the traditional processes of the mill. One of the most delightful elements to this album, however, are the end pages which have pressed into them the leaves, grasses and flowers from the surrounding countryside, presumably gathered in the summer of the visit. 

While we can’t identify the photographer, the photos contained in the album are a fantastic illustration of the level of collaboration that was undertaken. The physical effort required to turn the paper press can clearly be seen!

While the physical effort to make these paper works would have been immense, fortunately the final pages of the album also show Rauschenberg and Tyler taking a moment to appreciate the beautiful countryside near Richard de Bas. Gathered around a picnic rug, Rauschenberg wears a pair of wooden clogs. These would have been similar to the wooden shoes used in a unique method for cancelling the edition: notes from the archive outline that “after all the editions had been completed, the workers of the company, wearing heavy wooden shoes, turned the molds inside out and trampled them, making them unusable and impossible to be put back into shape”.

-David Greenhalgh
Curatorial Assistant, International Prints, National Gallery of Australia

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