Rauschenberg's Combine Statement
Japanese and English
Translated by Marie Iida
I’ve enclosed my manuscript. I hope it reaches you in time. Right now, along with Merce [Cunningham], John [Cage], David [Tudor], and the dancers, I am riding on a Volkswagen bus. Everyone says hello. We are touring through the land of cowboys and Indians. I’m sure no one will be able to translate this manuscript. Please, do not revise or change it in any way. Send me a letter.
It was about mid-November when I received this letter, postmarked Austin, Texas, from Rauschenberg. The manuscript he refers to is something I had requested for the feature “Gendai sakka no hatsugen” (Statements by Contemporary Artists) planned for the seven hundredth issue (June 1963) of the monthly art magazine Mizue (Water Painting). I had collected “statements” by nineteen Western artists, from Pollock to Jasper Johns, over a period of six months, but Rauschenberg, no matter how many telegrams I sent, did not reply. Finally, I settled on citing a quote by him from an old catalogue. But at last, after all this time, a thick envelope, fragrant with the dust of the American Southwest, arrived unexpectedly. As Rauschenberg mentioned in the letter, he seemed to have written the manuscript while touring with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham, alongside Martha Graham and José Limón, is a pioneer of American modern dance. In contrast to Graham’s work, already considered a classic, and Limón’s strong literary overtones, Merce’s dance is dedicated to the pursuit of abstract movements themselves, and his use of “randomness” in his choreography is considered a unique feature of his work. The latter is known to have resulted from the influence of John Cage, and Merce has recently assembled a radical crew, including Cage as music director, Tudor as pianist, and Rauschenberg as art director in charge of stage sets, costumes, and lighting. The sight of this entire crew climbing into a big Volkswagen bus and touring various places on the vast American continent has the character of an expedition of early pioneers; they could also be called a stagecoach of avant-garde gypsies. Moreover, in order to support Cunningham’s Broadway performance, his friend Jasper Johns established the Merce Cunningham Foundation, and painters and sculptors associated with the New York School and Pop art, including de Kooning, contributed their work for a benefit exhibition. What an enviable, moving story.
Late last year, I went to see the performance of these avant-garde gypsies. It was in Binghamton, a small city about three hundred miles from Manhattan. I climbed into Johns’s car with a pretty Swedish girl and finally made it to the performance after about a five-hour drive. The stage was a college auditorium in upstate New York, however, the dance of Cunningham’s company brimmed with an unparalleled, pure beauty. While Cage and Tudor tapped the piano strings and the bottom of the piano and made electrical sounds using their trademark technique, the dancers’ aggressive, elastic movements unfolded in an unsettling and disorderly manner as if to shatter the viewers’ conventional sense of rhythm. It was like a pillar of ice collapsing suddenly, or mysterious birds fluttering past. . . . There, after all form and literature were eliminated, “time” itself, as if it had assumed the shape of the physical body and movement, expanded endlessly before our eyes. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg added to this movement his costumes of red-and-black tights; a band of dangling, empty cans; braided elastic cords; and lighting that changed out of sequence. Sound, dance, and art—these three players, as opposed to the effeminate compromise of so-called “unity,” achieved a rare fusion by crashing into one another with naked antagonism. After the evening’s performance, I was in a daze as I sent Cunningham’s company off in their “stagecoach,” heading toward their next destination. By the time I reached New York City after driving for another five hours or so, it was nearly daybreak.
Now, let’s turn to Rauschenberg’s manuscript “Note on Painting” (October 31–November 2, 1963). As instructed in the letter, I respected his wishes and had the manuscript printed as is. The writing is very typical of him. While written in a seemingly extremely logical manner, it contains completely unrelated words that jump out among the others like alien objects. I will translate the opening section as an example.
I FIND IT NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE FREE ICE TO WRITE ABOUT JEEPAXLE MY WORK. THE CONCEPT I PLANTATARIUM [sic] STRUGGLE TO DEAL WITH KETCHUP IS OPPOED [author’s note: the s has been dropped from “opposed”] TO THE LOGICAL CONTINUITY LIFT TAB INHERENT IN LANGUAGE HORSES AND COMMUNICATION.
“Free ice,” “plantatarium [sic],” “ketchup,” “horses,” and “lift tab” are, presumably, words that Rauschenberg encountered along highways, at gas stations, and on signboards in cities as he traveled through Texas by bus. Writing the note inside the rattling bus, he lifted his eyes to look out and carelessly threw into his logical sentences any word that jumped out at him in that moment. As if to cut off the neat sequence of logic and grammar, the readymade words barge in with muddy feet. Here is the following section:
MY FASCINATION WITH IMAGES OPEN 24 HRS. IS BASED ON THE COMPLEX INTERLOCKING OF DISPARATE VISUAL FACTS HEATED POOL THAT HAVE NO RESPECT FOR GRAMMAR. THE FORM THEN DENVER 39 IS SECOND HAND TO NOTHING. THE WORK THEN HAS A CHANCE TO ELECTRIC SERVICE BECOME ITS OWN CLICHÉ. LUGGAGE. THIS IS THE INEVITABLE FATE FAIR GROUND OF ANY INANIMATE OBJECT FREIGHTWAYS.
Rauschenberg hates the word “collage,” and so he calls his works “Combines.” In these pieces, various objects—a pair of shoes, a ball, Coca-Cola bottles, signboards, old paintings, a stuffed goat and a chicken, even a bed and a ladder—appear. However, the result is different from the happy encounter of strange objects in the internal world that the Surrealists call “collage.” On the contrary, the objects in Rauschenberg's work retain their heterogeneity and antagonism as they “combine” without any connection and exist contemporaneously. Even the paint in his work begins to look like one of the disparate objects. Instead of drawing materials toward himself and expressing something, he throws himself into the chaotic relationships found in reality and thereby establishes an alibi of identity. The situation is the same with this “note.” The note is different from Surrealist poems that uncover a new, internal world through the connection of illogical words. In the note, logic and readymade words, like paint and Coca-Cola bottles, exist side-by-side without ever meeting eye to eye. And if the point of Rauschenberg’s argument is to assert this contemporaneity, the logic, by existing at the same time as the readymade words that are the examples of his argument, is destroyed all the more vividly. Certainly, this deserves to be called a “Combine-Statement.” I invite the reader to read the rest by making your own “combines.”
About ten days after I received this manuscript, I heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. It also happened in Texas. Not far from where Rauschenberg had penned his “note” as he collected words from the road, the bullet of a single madman pierced through the brain of what had been a precarious symbol of peace. Faced with this strange “combine,” we are now left without any sense of what to do.