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The pursuit of new techniques has been a continuous theme of Rauschenberg’s work. During a trip to Cuba in spring 1952, the artist first experimented with transfer drawings, taking printed images, primarily from newspapers and magazines, placing them face down on sheets of paper, and then rubbing the backs of the images with an empty ballpoint pen or other burnishing device to transfer the original to the paper. The technique, which Rauschenberg continues to use, has been described as imparting a veiled quality, which the artist heightens by applying paint, pencil, and crayon marks over the transferred images. Yellow Body exemplifies a technical development in which Rauschenberg applied a chemical solvent, such as lighter fluid, to the preprinted image, facilitating a clearer and more complete transfer.
Both Untitled (1952) and Yellow Body demonstrate Rauschenberg’s concentrated interest in the popular media and his practice of juxtaposing myriad recognizable images. The iconography of these works, which also recalls that of his early silkscreen paintings, includes modes of transportation, astronauts, athletes, and fragments of comic strips. Often an autobiographical reference will be part of this varied mix. Yellow Body includes images of fellow Port Arthur, Texas native Janis Joplin (whom Rauschenberg met in 1968 at the New York nightclub Max’s Kansas City) and Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
After his move to rustic Captiva Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida in 1970, Rauschenberg’s focus shifted from urban and pop culture to an abstract idiom. He adopted unconventional materials, such as cardboard, paper bags, and silk, reflecting his consistently innovative approach to art making. By altering these materials only slightly, the artist emphasized their inherent colors and textures. Rauschenberg transferred newsprint to torn pieces of cheesecloth using an old Fuchs and Lang proofing press, which he had acquired shortly after his arrival in Captiva. The process not only transmitted visual texture but also a physical imprint, shaping the fabric into tail-like lengths to which the artist applied watercolor. For Untitled (1974), Rauschenberg then inserted the fabric between two sheets of paper, leaving the paper unadorned apart from the impression left by the form of the cheesecloth and his signature. The resulting “kite” is exhibited with only the paper pinned to the wall, allowing the fabric tails to catch the passing breeze.