1964 was a year of socio-political, technological and cultural change in America: the nation mourned the murder of President John F. Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; and The Beatles led the ‘British Invasion’ of the American pop market. But 1964 also marked a pivotal moment in the canon of post-war American art.
In a large, lofty studio above a billiard hall on Broadway in New York, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was finalising Buffalo II, one of the largest in his celebrated series of silkscreen paintings that captured the social, political and artistic zeitgeist of the decade.
‘Buffalo II is emblematic of the moment of its creation,’ states Chris Rauschenberg, the late artist’s son. It is also a work that represents an important moment in his father’s career — the series he made between 1962 and 1964 saw Rauschenberg challenge preconceived notions of what art could be.
Acquired by Robert B. ‘Bob’ Mayer and his wife, Beatrice ‘Buddy’ Cummings Mayer, in 1964, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Buffalo II is one of the last major examples of Rauschenberg’s silkscreen paintings to remain in private hands. On 15 May at Christie’s in New York, this imposing canvas, which measures more than 8ft high, sold for $88,805,000 in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale as part of the The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection.
Buffalo II brings together disparate images and motifs that, for Rauschenberg, defined modern life in 1960s America. The canvas is dominated by a large image of the then Senator John F. Kennedy, and includes iconic consumer products and patriotic symbols of America — the Coca-Cola logo, an army helicopter, a Bald Eagle and an astronaut — alongside images of the urban landscape and personal objects, such as a set of keys.
Rauschenberg made this monumental assemblage of appropriated images collected from newspapers and magazines, along with his own photographs, using the silkscreen printing technique — regarded as ‘low art’ at the time, and employed most commonly in commercial advertising.
‘When my father arrived in New York, he started mixing with young artists and the Abstract Expressionists at Cedar Bar,’ explains Chris Rauschenberg. ‘Their art was all about personal expression. But that just wasn't enough for my father — he wanted to talk about the larger world, the larger culture, and bring it to you in all its complexity. He couldn’t be limited to traditional fine-art techniques to do this.’
Rauschenberg started describing himself as a ‘reporter’ around the time he began experimenting with the process. ‘In his silkscreen paintings, he would tell you that there was something important going on, but he would not try to tell you what that important thing was,’ says the artist’s son.
‘This is a work that completely breaks the traditional dimensions of what art could aspire to’ — Chris Rauschenberg
The image of John F. Kennedy would reappear in no fewer than 12 examples of Rauschenberg’s silkscreens. ‘My father had ordered this silkscreen of Kennedy before he was assassinated,’ Chris reveals. ‘When the silkscreen finally arrived, my father suddenly had to deal with the fact that this image, as images do, had radically changed in meaning.
‘[The silkscreen paintings] are a series of open-ended conversations that evolve over time,’ he continues. ‘Buffalo II may not mean the same thing today as it did more than 55 years ago, but it continues to mean something because he’s using metaphor.’
By bringing together pre-existing images from popular culture with an array of drips and painterly gestures, Buffalo II acts as a bridge between the then declining dominance of Abstract Expressionism and the new burgeoning world of Pop art. ‘He rewrote the rules of the game,’ says Chris Rauschenberg. ‘This is a work that completely breaks the traditional dimensions of what art could aspire to.’
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Rauschenberg exhibited the canvas at the XXXII Venice Biennale in the spring of 1964, where he was awarded the coveted International Grand Prize in Painting.
When Robert Rauschenberg heard about his award, he ordered his assistant in America to destroy the silkscreens that had been used to make the paintings. ‘He was like, okay, I have achieved what I was trying to achieve,’ Chris Rauschenberg explains. ‘Now it’s time for me to do something else.’