It will not be an overstatement to say that art has been evolving in waves, or in leaps. After a more or less tranquil stretch a turbulent period arrives. Although this statement is a play on words, in comparison with Dadaism and Cubism, the preceding Impressionism is perceived rather calm than not. Similarly, Abstract Expressionism strived to become as emotionless and as vague as possible to be distinct from its predecessors. In its turn, Pop Art appeared as a wave of bright and energetic artworks, in stark contrast to majestic and dignified abstract canvases. As Abstract Expressionists believed that artist should live in an ‘ivory tower’, so Pop Art followers insisted on artists’ anchoring in real life and pop culture as its essential part. A rejecting formalist Robert Rauschenberg employed everyday objects and mundane themes to view himself and society critically. Richard Estes stayed faithful to typical artistic expression.
Through canvas and paint his counteraction to Abstract Expressionism was represented in extremely literal representation named Superrealism. Unlike Abstract Expressionists who shunned away from popular culture, Pop Art and Superrealism artists embrace the possibilities of mundane objects and simple manifestations of life. A close connection to everyday life made these artists the mirrors of their time. Not reports but artistic representations are given in their condensed images of Estes’ 1972 Grant’s and Rauschenberg’s 1970 Signs..
It is curious to know that Robert Rauschenberg started as an Abstract Expressionist. Among his first works were The White Paintings. Assembled of completely white canvases, The White Paintings were supposed to be filled with spectators’ participation through casting their shadows on the matte surfaces. Rauschenberg believed, “A canvas is never empty.” However, he largely opposed Abstract Expressionism’s conception of self-sufficiency of art and turned to everyday life and its objects and themes. One of his early works was Drawing by Willem de Kooning erased by Robert Rauschenberg, where Rauschenberg literally destructed an artwork of his senior colleague. This artwork revealed Rauschenberg’s true identity as a successor of the Dada tradition of playing pranks and tricks. As often as Rauschenberg is called a Pop Art artist in art textbooks, he is called Neo-Dadaist. Following the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, Rauschenberg continued combining found objects and artistic meanings. As a result, his installations were called Combines.
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There is an opinion that Pop Art signals the period when artists stopped inventing the new and began recycling the existing ideas. Rauschenberg believed that he could not create art from a scratch, but he could highlight a certain thing, and people would be it in an unexpected light, and that would be art. It can explain why Rauschenberg was so attached to found objects and endlessly experimented with them. Throughout all his creative period, Rauschenberg kept playing with three-dimensionality, constantly dragging borrowed objects into his otherwise flat artwork. Taking canvas or boards as a basis, Rauschenberg painted them and decorated with collaged items. However, Rauschenberg also added three-dimensional objects to make his point. For example, Bed (1955) has a pillow and quilt mounted on wood to look like a bed splashed with paint; Canyon (1959) features a stuffed eagle with outstretched wings; Winter Pool (1959) has a ladder inserted between two canvases; Pilgrim (1960) has a chair attached to the painting.
A nature of combines, assemblages or collages had always been appealing to Rauschenberg. Working with a variety of materials and already existing objects, such as newspaper clippings, cards, books, stamps, clocks, dirt, and vegetation, Rauschenberg, at first, made his artworks in the mode of Abstract Expressionism. In the 1950s, he painted blocks of primary colours over scraps of newspaper. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Rauschenberg’s collages became less messy. He began using the method of silkscreen printing that allowed him to control the size of prints and use more images per a collage.
National Gallery of Australia owns several collages that demonstrate the artist’s scope of interest. One of the collages is Signs (1970) where Rauschenberg focuses on the important events of the 1960s. Designed as a reflection of a decade, Signs takes a straightforward approach to the subject-matter. All the key figures of the 1960s are large and done in colour against a background of black and white figures. Rauschenberg’s Signs does not have a meaningful centre. Rather, the images are placed in circle. From the bottom left the gaze moves clockwise: an astronaut in a white space costume, two American soldiers in Vietnam in green tint; the vocalizing Janis Joplin tinted red is overlapped by Bobby Kennedy giving a fervent speech; John F. Kennedy’s profile and scenes from his assassination; eventually, Martin Luther King lying in coffin.
Rauschenberg intentionally makes Signs ‘densely populated’ to emphasize how much eventful the decade was. The United Stated witnessed a rise of civil rights movement, with a hope for better and the arrival of new blood in politics, simultaneously being devastated by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Being thrilled with the hippie movement and other manifestations of freedom in music, cinema, and everyday life, as well as new inventions in science, people were extremely frustrated by the war in Vietnam. The artist examines the events, and so far positive and negative events are even. However, space exploration is ‘annulled’ by Martin Luther King’s murder. An assassination of JF Kennedy allows his brother to step forward; an upsurge in music and culture is annihilated by the war in Vietnam. In the centre, white soldiers support each other showing comradery, but next is an image of a black protester smeared in blood probably beaten by white policemen. In Signs, Rauschenberg reveals himself as an activist and a person deeply involved in the social life of his country.
Despite all the accomplishments of art with its rejection of figurativeness, there have always been people who appreciated the “mimetic aesthetic” of art. In the 1950-60s, artists who took great pains to portray reality as ‘real’ as possible were called Superrealists or Photorealists. Unlike Abstract Expressionists, the artists of Photorealism did not aim at higher matters; their subject was everyday life. Photorealists can be compared to the Realists of the 19th century but with more sophisticated techniques and skills.
In terms of how much is portrayed in the picture, Photorealists significantly differ from ascetic Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists. However, it is a false impression in terms of meanings and emotions. Even though Photorealists demonstrate minute details of everything they paint, their artworks are free of their attitude. Richard Estes’s Grant’s (1972) depicts an urban scene – an entrance to a restaurant. The artist makes it as filled with images as possible. Although made in oil on canvas, Estes’s work indeed looks like a photograph. He catches every reflection, every shadow, and every ray of sun. Estes makes his point not to show reality through his ‘auteur’s’ gaze; he does not infuse this urban scene with his own interpretations like Van Gogh or Edward Munch, whose artistic style is very original. Conversely, the figure of the artist in Estes’s Grant’s is as distant as possible. Estes assigns himself a role of a recorder of city life with “the harsh contrasts and precise focus of mechanical vision.”
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However, Estes is praised and loved as ‘a cool chronicler of reality’ because the reality of his paintings is more saturated with images and minutiae than its real-life reflection. Estes adds details and condenses the fabric of his narrative. Using typical urban elements, he creates a recording of the American metropolitan life. In contrast to other artistic movements that intended to express feelings and emotions, Estes is deliberately “cool.” In the 1960s, coolness became highly praised.
Both Rauschenberg and Estes introduced something new into the postmodern artistic scene. Rauschenberg was called as innovative and prolific as Pablo Picasso. Meanwhile, Estes can be called a troubadour of urban realism. Developing in contraposition to Abstract Expressionism, both Rauschenberg and Estes did their part to advance the art evolvement further.