This post represents one of several research projects I am conducting on Robert Rauschenberg as a WUDPAC Graduate Fellow partnering with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF) and Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA).

Robert Rauschenberg, Street Song (Borealis), 1990

The focus of this research is to investigate the materials and methods employed by American visual and performing artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) in the Borealis metal paintings series (1988-92). Street Song (Borealis) (1990) will be used as a case study for analytical investigation to confirm archival evidence on Rauschenberg’s methods to induce artificial patination and his use of synthetic coatings (e.g. as resist layers before patination). The research is being supported by a multi-year partnership between the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF), and Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA).

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Rauschenberg used metal alloys as substrates for paintings or assemblages creating the pictorial space with a combination of screenprinted acrylics and artificially-induced patination layers called “tarnishes.” He began the Borealis series in 1988 after first encountering the aurora borealis on a trip to Sweden. Rauschenberg writes that his approach was to “draw or paint in a resist so that the metal carries the image instead of the opposite way around, where the paint is the image on the surface.” According to his studio assistants, this was achieved by applying proprietary chemical patination solutions over a resist layer of polyurethane varnish thickened with a silicone-containing gelling agent. Some Borealis metal paintings appear to be produced in this manner. Others, including Street Song (Borealis) seem to have been produced with different methods: Street Song (Borealis) has more traditional red-brown and green-blue copper corrosion products and the exposed metal substrate does not carry the image layer. The inconsistency seen within this series mimics an underlying trend in Rauschenberg’s sixty-plus years as a successful practicing artist: unconventionality.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bible Bike (Borealis), 1991

A multi-analytical approach is being conducted at the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library to confirm findings from archival research. Analytical goals include identifying the materials present on Street Song (Borealis) and determining if the artist-induced patination layers are changing as a result of being in contact with adjacent synthetic coatings (e.g. resist, paint, varnish). Results from analysis will be considered in the framework of Rauschenberg’s view of conservation-restoration and contemporary art conservation practices. Conclusions will be drawn about the how the stability of the materials may change under different environmental conditions. Recommendations will be provided to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF) on the preventive measures that can be taken to promote long-term stability of the Borealis metal paintings.

A copy of the research proposal can be downloaded here.


Natalya Swanson