Robert Rauschenberg's Skyway
The following is an essay by Abigail Hoover from the 2003 publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.
The tradition of history painting is embodied in the works of artists like Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Cole, and John Trumbull. Robert Rauschenberg can be seen as the 1960s answer to history painting, creating works that reflected the postmodern experience. The artist is known for his large silkscreened collages that use reoccurring images from the mass media to chronicle the cultural, personal, and social climate. In his painting Skyway, Rauschenberg deftly conjures up the promise and perils of the early 1960s and the ascendancy of the mechanical age with images from media widely accessible to a world audience.
It is no wonder, then, that Philip Johnson invited Rauschenberg to create a painting for the exterior of the United States Pavilion, a structure designed by Johnson for the New York World's Fair of 1964. Rauschenberg's painting Skyway hung next to works by pop art masters Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, testifying to his status as one of the most important artists working in the United States. Rauschenberg, along with these other famed artists, challenged the conventional definitions of paintings and subject matter established by the abstract expressionists of the previous decade (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko), while integrating new developments in technology. Completed in the same year it was first exhibited, Rauschenberg's painting captures a juicy slice of contemporary American life through the silkscreened collage of images of space exploration, urban construction, patriotism, and John F. Kennedy.
Skyway tells the story of a society's advanced progress toward potential conflict. Scientific and technological innovation moved forward at a fast pace. The early 1960s were redefined through space exploration, satellites, the use of light waves for communication, the introduction of IBM's first mass-produced computer, and the presence of televisions in nine out of ten American homes. Broadcasts on the growing strength of Communism in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Cuba incited fear during the Cold War, while images of civil rights demonstrations revealed an American nation beginning to experience social and political unrest. The images in _Skyway _convey the heady atmosphere of innovation and instability that characterized this tumultuous period.
Skyway acknowledges the crisis of the everyman in the face of changing contemporary life in a shifting industrial and technological era, while at the same time commemorating the freedoms of America and our ability as a nation to adapt during tense social and political periods. Much of the imagery in Skyway, including Rauschenberg's often used pictures of space exploration, Kennedy, and Peter Paul Rubens' Venus at Her Mirror, demonstrates the artist's connections with both the history and current trends of society and culture. In the case of the powerful image of John F. Kennedy, whom Rauschenberg greatly admired, the artist demonstrates how the president became a symbol of the industrial and political transformations take place in an increasingly unstable era of American history.
Much of Rauschenberg's art is clearly inflected by his childhood and early travels. His Texas upbringing resurfaces in a great deal of his work: Skyway refers to space exploration, suburban migration, and the question of patriotism associated with the space center at Houston and the site of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Traditional art historical images like the sensual Venus at Her Mirror and the iconic symbol of the American eagle provide more universal connections that relate Texas and Rauschenberg's own past to a broader cultural context. The symbolic connections to the state of Texas in Skyway serve as an emblem of the entire United States, its story of fierce independence representing the essential character of the entire country.
Skyway epitomizes Rauschenberg's genius at arranging incongruent everyday images to create an iconic masterpiece that captures the very essence of a significant period of American history.
Abigail Hoover, “Robert Rauschenberg's Skyway,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 59.