©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gemini G.E.L.
This print, numbered 18 in an edition of 80, is part of a series of sixteen lithographs entitled ‘Horsefeathers Thirteen’. Each print is unique and has both fixed images that remain the same in each print and collaged elements which vary across the edition. They were produced by Robert Rauschenberg between 1972 and 1973, in collaboration with the innovative print workshop Gemini G.E.L. Los Angeles. Rauschenberg frequently collaborated with the master printmaker Kenneth Tyler (born 1931) in the workshop to develop innovative new techniques that helped to revive the print medium in America. The ‘Horsefeathers Thirteen’ series involved a complex mix of technical processes, including lithography, screenprint, pochoir (a refined stencil-based technique), collage and embossing, which Rauschenberg had not combined together before.
This print is representative of the ways in which Rauschenberg used found imagery in order to challenge the notion of art as self-expression. Earlier in his career Rauschenberg chose to use motifs of blankness and silence in his work in order to counter the focus on gestural self-expression in Abstract Expressionism. In 1953, for example, he challenged the idea that art expresses the creator by exhibiting a series of monochromatic all-white paintings, which he felt looked completely different depending on the environment they were positioned in. In later works, Rauschenberg chose to do this by switching the focus of his work to wider popular culture, the social and political, and the everyday. He collaged elements of mass media, ephemera, screenprints of found images and his own paint strokes in seemingly random, non-hierarchical arrangements. The unusual combinations of visual cues presented in collaged works, such as the ‘Horsefeathers’ series and his ‘combine’ paintings and sculptures, invited the viewer to decode what they saw, drawing attention to their own role in creating the meaning of an art work.
It has been suggested in more recent scholarship that Rauschenberg’s reasons for wanting to critique the idea of art as self-revelation was also motivated by a desire to keep his own sexuality — and his relationship with fellow artist Jasper Johns (born 1930) — hidden. In the homophobic culture of McCarthy-era America that Rauschenberg was working in, where laws had been constructed specifically to prevent men from expressing their sexuality, how could gay or bisexual people express their intimate feelings through art? In New York City in the 1950s, the law against ‘degenerate disorderly conduct’ was applied to anyone who could be construed as expressing homosexuality through their dress, mannerisms, behaviour or conversation. These laws encouraged the development of a sophisticated culture of coding in gay communities, where people could signal their sexuality to others 'in the know' using less overt visual signs and cues, bypassing the risk of arrest or social ostracism.
It is argued by some scholars that Rauschenberg made use of this system of coding by incorporating established visual codes, more subtle allusions to popular gay culture and camp aesthetics in his works, in a seemingly arbitrary way. His 1955 'combine' painting, ‘Bantam’ (private collection), for example, incorporates a signed photo of gay icon, Judy Garland, whilst this print, ‘Horsefeathers Thirteen III’, includes an image of a man wearing a red cravat and text relating to private gyms and saunas. The red cravat has been used as symbol of homosexuality since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. For Rauschenberg, coding represented a safe way to reference and visually acknowledge gay culture, without undermining his commitment to creating a form of art that encompassed more than his own personal identity and feelings.