Robert Rauschenberg - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation or control." 
    —Robert Rauschenberg
    Presenting a small boulder within a labyrinth of spikes on a wooden plank, Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) is a rare example of Robert Rauschenberg’s celebrated series of Elemental Sculptures created in 1953. The artist conceived the series at a pivotal and fruitful moment in his career, when he installed his Fulton Street studio upon returning to New York from an eight-month sojourn in Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly. Along with his White and Black Paintings, Rauschenberg’s Elemental Sculptures were the subject of his 1953 show with Twombly at the Stable Gallery, New York. One of the artist’s first forays into three-dimensional assemblage and incorporating materials of everyday life, Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) anticipates his famous Combines and exemplifies sensitivity to the sensual possibilities of materials. Among the ten extant examples of the nineteen in the series, the present work was gifted to Elizabeth Stokes by Rauschenberg two years after its creation and is now the second Elemental Sculpture to ever come to auction.


    "What interests me is a contact; it is not to express the message."
    —Robert Rauschenberg

    The collaborative nature cooking in Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street studio translated into the Elemental Sculptures, which invite viewers to create their own interpretations by rearranging the movable elements of the works. At his Stable Gallery show, Rauschenberg asked visitors to reposition them “in ways that appeared ‘uninteresting,’ that is as an exploration beyond constraints of taste.”i Presenting optical and tactile potentiality, the present work showcases an oblong rock that can be variously placed in the spaces between the steel nails, which causes movement in the nails themselves. “Rauschenberg invented a series of objects that do not simply exist as compositions but also imply a sense of performance,” Hopps articulated.ii “Though these compositions can be viewed statically, the mind’s eye presumes their mutability, their potential for change.”iii

  • Rauschenberg’s Elemental Sculptures in Notable Collections

  • With the Elemental Sculptures, Rauschenberg took his sculpture practice into a new direction by using raw, found objects, exemplifying his growing sensitivity to the sensual possibilities of materials. Scavenging construction sites around his studio for abandoned materials and detritus, Rauschenberg then assembled them in seemingly simple yet powerful aesthetic arrangements. As Walter Hopps observed, “Rauschenberg used materials in purely natural configurations, without overt fabrication, carving, decoration, or embellishment. The objects arrange themselves as the caprices of display allowed, conveying only the drama of their gravity and suspense.”iv Rauschenberg viewed the process as “renourishing something that’s been abandoned,” dignifying materials of labor with a sculptural presence in a straightforward approach.v  In this way, his Elemental Sculptures embody at once a respect of the proletarian history of the materials through minimal intervention and a dramatization of the fundamentals of sculpture. As Hal Foster expressed, “The Elemental Sculptures thus present nature and geometry, on the one hand, and history and culture, on the other, in very basic forms: the raw and the cooked.”vi

    "[The Elemental Sculptures] highlighted the drama of basic physical phenomena: gravity, constraint, suspension. These works in their way are not merely visual configurations but clearly imply potential process. Point and line, curved and rectilinear geometries, all invoke the paradigms of natural order." 
    —Walter Hopps

    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1953. Collection Robert Rauschenberg, Captiva Island, Florida, Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation

    Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street period, between the spring of 1953 and the end of 1954, “was one of reduction and redirection.”vii His travels to Italy and Morocco with Twombly—who also made his sculptures from found materials and objects in his studio—proved to be particularly influential, as they increasingly empathized with the raw yet auratic materials found in the native countryside and local marketplaces. Upon settling in his Fulton Street studio in New York, Rauschenberg embarked on a more reductive approach that departed from his primitivistic and fetishistic assemblages made abroad, while Twombly began creating sculptures that evoked objects unearthed from archaeological digs. Foster observed the Fulton Street studio “as a space-time for artistic exchange....[where] he developed ideas of artistic practice as a matrix of interaction—of definition through immediate connection with others.”viii At this time, Rauschenberg nurtured dialogical relationships with Twombly, John Cage, and Jasper Johns, and it was his Elemental Sculptures that “pushed Johns to explore the use of fragmentary extensions and enigmatic analogues of the human body, [who] made these devices his own.”ix


    i Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 1991, p. 157.
    ii Ibid., p. 24.
    ii Ibid.
    iv Ibid., p. 26.
    v Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in Julia Brown Turrell, “Talking to Robert Rauschenberg,” in Rauschenberg Sculpture, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1995, p. 52.
    vi Hal Foster, “‘Made out of the Real World’: Lessons from the Fulton Street Studio,” in Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016, p. 92.
    vii Hal Foster, “At Tate Modern,” London Review of Books, vol. 38, no. 23, December 1, 2016, online.
    viii Hal Foster, “‘Made out of the Real World’: Lessons from the Fulton Street Studio,” in Robert ix Rauschenberg, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016, p. 94.
     Ibid., p. 96.

    • Provenance

      Gifted by the artist to the present owner in 1955

    • Exhibited

      Washington, D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art; Houston, Menil Collection; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New York, Guggenheim Museum SoHo, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, June 15, 1991 - January 24, 1993, no. 96, p. 38
      London, Tate Modern, Robert Rauschenberg, December 1, 2016 - April 2, 2017; then traveled as New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, May 21 - September 17, 2017; then traveled as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules, November 17, 2017 – March 25, 2018, no. 76, p. 114 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Houston, 1991, no. 107, p. 180 (illustrated)

Property from the Collection of Elizabeth Stokes


Untitled (Elemental Sculpture)

painted wood with masonry nails and stone
2 3/8 x 10 x 1 5/8 in. (6 x 25.4 x 4.1 cm)
Executed in 1953.

Full Cataloguing

$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $315,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021