New Rauschenberg to be 'Cornerstone' of Art Institute collection

June 10, 2011

The Art Institute of Chicago announced Friday that it has acquired a major work by the late American artist Robert Rauschenberg. 

Short Circuit, 1955 is considered one of Rauschenberg's Combines as it incorporates painting, mementos, artifacts, cabinet doors, and fabrics into a single mixed-media composition.

"Short Circuit is without question the most important work by Rauschenberg to enter the collection," said James Rondeau, the Art Institute's Frances and Thomas Dittmer Curator of the Department of Contemporary Art. "It is not only a pivotal work in Rauschenberg's career but was also a trailblazer for the new direction art would take after Abstract Expressionism."

Rauschenberg died in 2008, but his work created a powerful link between the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940's and the Pop Art expressions that followed in the 1950's and 60's.

Short Circuit provides a visual intersection of many of those threads as it was among Rauschenberg's first works to combine painting with three-dimensional objects and artifacts, including an autograph from Judy Garland, a program from a John Cage and David Tudor performance, as well as works by fellow artists Jasper Johns and Susan Weil.

"This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected," Rauschenberg said at the time.  "It is a double document."

But why would Rauschenberg include works by other artists in his finished piece?

According to a review last year in the New York Times, Rauschenberg had planned to participate in an annual exhibition at New York's Stable Gallery in 1955, which was open to new artists.  But when the gallery declined to exhibit works by the artists he suggested, he elected to subvert the process - and invited his friends and fellow artists to produce work for his piece.  Thus, Johns and Weil created pieces that were featured under the hinged cabinet doors on each side of Short Circuit.

A decade later Johns' flag painting was stolen from the piece, so Rauschenberg replaced it with a work from Elaine Sturtevant, who was known for interpreting recognizable works by contemporaries.

The Art Institute acquired the piece from the artist's estate through the Gagosian Gallery and will be displayed in the museum's Modern Wing.

"It will truly be a cornerstone of the collection," said James Cuno, the Art Institute's outgoing President and Eloise W. Martin Director.