restricted access Robert Rauschenberg’s “Red Show”: Theater, Painting, and Queerness in 1950s Modernism
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Robert Rauschenberg’s “Red Show”:
Theater, Painting, and Queerness in 1950s Modernism

Deep and dark is the abyss of the theatre.

—Henry James, 18951

During the early fall of 1954, Robert Rauschenberg invited a group of friends, including musician John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and dancer Carolyn Brown, to his Fulton Street studio in lower Manhattan. Brown, who was with the newly formed Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the time, remembers viewing a series of large paintings, mostly red in color, leaning against the wall. “We were thunderstruck,” she recalls. “The new work was garish, giddy, Gypsy caravan-esque. There was an audible, almost communal intake of breath. No one said a word. What an eyeful!”2 How far from the staid abstractions of postwar New York School painters these works seemed to be! Attached to the surfaces of the paintings, and in some cases even providing the framing support, was an array of collaged objects and fabrics, garish in a bright palette of reds and pinks. These would become known as the “Red Paintings”; the exhibition that opened in December 1954 at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York was soon dubbed the “Red Show.” For many art historians, this series of paintings also mark the beginnings of the “Combines,” a hybrid form of painted, sculptural assemblages with which Rauschenberg’s name has become synonymous. Brown’s remarks invoke the raced and classed category of the Roma or “gypsy,” long a charged symbol of flamboyant otherness in Euro-American culture. But I want to suggest that Brown perceived early on a theatrical sensibility in the Combines that [End Page 87] would emerge full-blown in the 1960s when Rauschenberg created experimental, multi-media theater works such as Homage to David Tudor (1961), Pelican (1963), or Map Room II (1965). It is not unusual, of course, to broach the topic of theater in connection to these works or even the Combines proper. Art historians have routinely cited a theatrical impulse in the artist’s work, due in part to his association with Cage, Cunningham, and choreographer Paul Taylor, with whom he began working around 1954. In many cases it has been seen as part of Rauschenberg’s involvement with the neo-avant-garde, which mounted anew in the 1950s an assault upon modernism. The thread of theatricality in Rauschenberg’s work, where the “aesthetic of the Combines was extended to the interaction of performance and props,” as Branden Joseph describes it, has generally been understood through the logic of Michael Fried’s infamous essay, “Art and Objecthood.”3 Fried argued that the viewer-oriented and durational nature of theater exerted a dangerous influence upon modernist art in that it constituted an abrogation of medium specificity: “What lies between the arts is theatre.”4

Fried’s argument, which is largely a formalist one, is so well known that “Art and Objecthood” has had the effect of defining theatricality for generations of scholars of modernist and postmodernist art. The bulk of the literature that describes a theatrical impulse in Rauschenberg’s art, whether tendered in defense or attack, thus relies on a definition that occludes a social dimension—what Henry James long ago described as theater’s “deep and dark” abyss.5 Theater has often been regarded as a rather debased form of imitation in Western culture, to be sure. As theater historian Jonas Barish recounts in his book The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice, “terms borrowed from the theater—theatrical, operatic, melodramatic, stagey, etc.—are hostile or belittling.”6 Within modernism, theatricality came to stand for an ineffectual mimesis—an inhospitable position in a culture that increasingly privileged the laying bare of the processes of representational form. Most relevant to my argument here is that the theater also has a specifically queer timbre betraying a long-standing bias in modernism towards nonnormative constructions of masculine identity (which would include both femininity and male homosexuality). Art historian Amelia Jones has argued that the “alignment of theatricality . . . with a feminized inauthenticity has been a strategy of long standing durability within modernism, and it reveals much about the assumptions built into the formalist mode of modernist criticism.”7 Can this trope of...