Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959
Sharon Lorenzo’s first profile of one work of art at a major museum.
For the next twelve months, I will be providing a profile of one work of art from 12 different museums hoping that the audience for A Sharp Eye will venture forth and have a longer look at some of these fascinating treasures. Analysts say that the average time a viewer spends looking at a work of art is 20 seconds. My goal is to double that at least!!
For my first try, I returned to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with my 93 year old mother. We have visited many times together as she is an accomplished painter herself. Of all the works we saw, I chose Canyon by Robert Rauschenberg as we both found the story of how and why this work is in the MoMA to be a very engaging tale.
Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas. Dyslexic in his early years, Robert attempted to study pharmacology at the University of Texas, but soon enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943. After the war, he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he met modernist Josef Albers, who was his art instructor. Robert’s interest in modern art blossomed there and he soon married and had a son, Christopher, with Susan Weil in 1951. They went to live in New York City where he studied at the Art Students League. After two years they divorced, and he continued to paint with his first retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1963 in NYC. At his death in 2008, the family heirs formulated The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation which will manage more than 4000 works of art which will be sold and donated to many locations around the globe.
Ileana Sonnabend was a well- respected dealer in modern art and a great friend and patron of Rauschenberg. At her death she owned the Canyon canvas from 1959. It is what Robert called a ‘combine’, a work of art that is both canvas and found objects in one. In 1954 Robert found this stuffed bald eagle in the hall way of his studio building and took it in to his work area. He attached it to the canvas with a hanging pillow and various pieces of cardboard and paint tubes. The heirs of Sonnabend were told by the Internal Revenue Service that this work was appraised at a value of $65 million dollars in her estate. A litigation commenced as the heirs could not sell the work with a bald eagle as it was a felony under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A settlement was reached whereby the estate donated the work to the MoMA and assigned it a zero value. It can be found on the 5th floor of MoMA amidst the work of many of Rauschenberg’s peers in the field of abstract expressionism.
With more than 20,000 artists represented in the collection accumulated by MoMA since its beginning in 1929, this institution has grown and changed with the waves of time and artistic style over many decades. Begun by Abby Rockefeller when her husband John Jr. and son Nelson were developing Rockefeller Center, it is indeed the small world department that the current chair of MoMA is Jerry Speyer whose company manages Rockefeller Center today. Abby was a great art collector as she was raised by her father, Nelson Aldrich, the senior senator from Rhode Island in a very cultural family. Her father’s legacy was the founding of the Internal Revenue Service in 1913 along with its provisions that encourage tax deductions for the donation of works of art to non- profit institutions.
I hope a visit to the MoMA will include a long look at Canyon, as it is a classic example of how modernism included both specific and random elements in complex compositions. From found objects to repurposed materials, this work is like a vegetable soup- a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You may not want to have it in your home, but you can get a laugh or a smile from the bald eagle suspended in space at the MoMA.
Canyon by Robert Rauschenebrg – Gift of the Estate of Ileana Sonnabend