Blue Eagle of 1961 is a prime example of what could be called a transitional period in Rauschenberg’s career, a time when he was topping out of Combine mode and shifting into something else—a something else that at that moment was fluid and yet to be defined. The pieces produced in this phase applied a severe, reductive approach different from the bloated, “everything, everywhere” aesthetic of the Combines. While not tremendously out of step with said Combines in execution, these pieces feel distant, cool and standoffish in comparison to the warm, rich, inviting atmosphere of those earlier works. There’s a tension that lends the work a stark and aggressive edge.
In Blue Eagle, a smattering of objects are grafted onto the canvas—all twisted up, crushed and mangled—while a few desperate swaths of color (mostly neutrals) are spattered on for good measure. Yet the sparse compositions are striking in their blatant absence of material. Here, in lieu of dense clusters of material, the white of the unprimed canvas becomes a participant in the composition and the space between objects is called into service—but only to a point. The canvas is no longer a window, but a wall. It’s a place to put stuff, not gaze into—and dimensionality is being eliminated before our very eyes.
It makes sense then, in retrospect, that his next body of work would see the surface almost completely flatten out with found objects replicated as printed facsimiles. In the mostly two-dimensional silkscreen paintings of 1962–65, Rauschenberg renewed his maximalist tendencies, this time with layers of overlapping imagery. But not before paring things down to their essentials and building back up. It’s thrilling to see the transition unfold in works like Blue Eagle where things are up in the air, a little bit out of control and clear answers still out of reach.
Blue Eagle was on view this past summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.