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In 1962 Rauschenberg began using commercially produced silkscreens to make large-format paintings based on his own photographs and found media images, using a technique that he was introduced to by Andy Warhol. These paintings may be considered an extension of the transfer drawings made between 1958 and 1969, in which he directly transferred the contents of newspapers and magazines onto sheets of paper. Since he could photographically enlarge imagery on the silkscreens, this process freed Rauschenberg from the scale restrictions of the transfer technique and allowed him to easily reuse images in varied contexts.
Barge, which was executed in a 24-hour period, is the largest of the series of 79 silkscreen paintings the artist made from October 1962 until June 1964. While its imagery is devoted primarily to transportation and transportation-related structures—freeways, trucks, spacecraft, radar, etc.—the painting is bargelike in its scale and dimensions. The canvas also contains many other recognizable images—athletes, a key, clouds, buildings under construction, mosquitoes, caged birds, passages of stenciled text, and images from Old Master paintings (Diego Velázquez's Rokeby Venus [1647-51] and Peter Paul Rubens's Toilet of Venus [ca. 1606-11], for example). This panoply or cacophony is typical of the artist, who liked things to be messy, complicated, and full of the juxtapositions of everyday life.
Rauschenberg often worked in grisaille when experimenting in a new medium, and, characteristically, the earliest silkscreened paintings are in black and white and resultant tones. By August 1963, however, he began to introduce brilliant color into the series. The 41 colored examples are less abstract and contain more readily identifiable images—specifically, references to Americana such as baseball, astronauts, then-president John F. Kennedy, and New York street scenes. Rauschenberg abruptly ended the series in June 1964, upon winning the International Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice Biennale: after the press conference on the Giardini grounds, he promptly telephoned his studio assistant in New York, instructing him to destroy all the silkscreens in his studio as a preventive measure against self-repetition.
— Susan Davidson