Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Plots Ambitious—and Free—Catalogue Raisonné

Alex Greenberger

BY ALEX GREENBERGER

A white man wearing overalls stands
Robert Rauschenberg in his studio, ca. 1962.ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION ARCHIVES, NEW YORK

In addition to being definitive, catalogue raisonnés, books that index every single artwork than at an artist has made, are known for being expensive and big, in part to curry favor from historians and market experts that rely on them for research and authentication purposes. In an unusual move, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation is plotting a catalogue raisonné that will be neither cost-prohibitive to purchase nor overly expansive in physical size.

On Tuesday, the New York–based foundation revealed plans to kick off a multivolume catalogue raisonné for the artist that will exist online, where it will be made available free of cost to all. In 2025, the foundation will unveil the first two volumes—one that acts as an overview of Rauschenberg’s work, the other featuring an in-depth record of all works he produced between 1948 and 1953.

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The catalogue raisonné will deal only with Rauschenberg’s paintings and sculptures (including his famed “Combines”), so it is set to exclude his drawings, prints, and works in other mediums. Still, all told, the catalogue raisonné will cover some 3,000 paintings and sculptures by the artist, who died at 82 in 2008. The scope of the project and its ability to be reedited as needed—an intervention only possible because it is digital—are meant to act as a reflection of Rauschenberg’s own ethos. Julia Blaut, the senior director of curatorial affairs at the foundation who has been overseeing the catalogue raisonné with Eric Banks, said in an interview, “There is this kind of messiness to Rauschenberg’s career, and we didn’t want to artificially clean it up.”

Kathy Halbreich, the executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, said that the unusual format for the catalogue raisonné is in part a response to the “fluid, nonbinary” nature of Rauschenberg’s practice. Because the catalogue raisonné is free, she continued, it “allows us to serve a broader audience than most [catalogues raisonnés] do, which are first about the market and second about scholarship.”

A catalogue raisonné is typically composed of an exhaustive listing of artworks by a given artist, and this one will indeed serve that purpose, too. But whereas catalogues raisonnés can often be inaccessible to people who don’t have graduate degrees in art history, this one will function more like the luxe tones that accompany major artist retrospectives, with essays by artists and art historians that elucidate aspects of Rauschenberg’s life and art.

Art historian Michael Lobel will address historiography surrounding Rauschenberg, and artist Amy Sillman will address the interplay of ready-made images and gestural abstraction in Rauschenberg’s paintings. Whitney Museum conservator Matthew Skopek and historian Darby English will write on the same work: Untitled [four panel glossy black painting] (ca. 1951), which dates back to Rauschenberg’s early period. Other essays will be penned by curators Carlos Basualdo, Helen Molesworth, and Courtney J. Martin, and by artists Glenn Ligon and Terry Winters.

Halbreich described the project as a constantly evolving one that has been constantly in flux—partly because of Covid, which has prevented the foundation from examining certain works, and partly because it was always intended that way. “Most catalogues raisonnés are done,” Halbreich said. “That’s it. That’s the man, that’s the life, that’s the woman’s ambition, the end. This doesn’t really have a ‘the end’ to it, and I think that’s really suitable for this artist.”

Correction, 2/1/21, 10:50 a.m.A previous version of this article misstated the scope of the catalogue raisonné project. It will cover Rauschenberg’s paintings and sculptures, not just his paintings. Additionally, Julia Blaut’s last name was misspelled.

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