Robert Rauschenberg - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 17, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Collector Spotlight: Rosa and Aaron Esman


    Rosa and Aaron Esman assembled an outstanding collection of Modern, Post-War, and Contemporary art over the course of their seventy-year marriage. The collection’s highlights mirror that of Rosa’s career as a gallerist and art publisher with the strong support of Aaron, a psychoanalyst and passionate collector, with interests in Modernism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, and American Pop Art taking center stage. Rosa began publishing portfolios of prints by contemporary artists in the 1960s. Editions such as the New York Ten Portfolio, 1965, Seven Objects In A Box, 1966, and Ten from Leo Castelli, 1968, which featured works by rising contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg, pioneered the field of artist’s editions. Her eponymous gallery exhibited in Manhattan for over twenty years, and she was a founding partner of Ubu Gallery, which is still in operation today.

    When asked about her wide artistic tastes in 2009, Rosa emphasized her love of drawing, “the
    quintessential bit of the art,” which can be seen across the Esman collection, regardless of genre.

    Art was one of several passions that Rosa and Aaron shared, even when they began dating in the early 1950s. In 1952, they bought their first artwork together, a drawing by Miró, initiating their shared pursuit of inspired collecting that would continue for the rest of their lives. Rosa recalled: “sometimes we look at something, and I say, ‘Oh, isn’t that marvelous?’ and Aaron would respond, ‘It’s for us.’” Founded in lifelong love, the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman gives a unique vision of the art movements of the 20th century that shaped New York’s art scene.


    Rosa and Aaron Esman in Madrid, 1963.


    Robert Rauschenberg, Bath, 1964


    Robert Rauschenberg’s Bath, 1964, is uniquely situated between two of the artist’s innovative midcentury forms: the Combine and the transfer drawing. Dating to the end of the artist’s prolific Combine period, c. 1954-1964, Bath takes on the multi-media, genre-pushing form of Rauschenberg’s Combines—works that combine elements of painting and sculpture through the use of found objects on a painted surface—as a work on two sheets of Plexiglas suspended by a metal clothes hanger, twists of wire, and string. The imagery of Bath, however, derives from Rauschenberg’s transfer drawing practice, begun in earnest in 1958. Originally auctioned to benefit the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), an African American Civil Rights organization, Bath represents a turning point in Rauschenberg’s career in the mid-1960s, as he transforms from a pioneer of Pop into an advocate for the social and political potential of art.


    The presence of the hanger, a found object, at the top of Bath firmly places this work in the context of Rauschenberg’s Combines. The Combine brings the pop-cultural integration of Pop art to a new level—literally—through the physical incorporation of everyday consumer objects, such as clothes hangers, or clocks, into the work. Paul Schimmel, who organized a comprehensive international exhibition of Combines in 2005, argues that Combines are autobiographical works, a sentiment that is particularly important to readings of Rauschenberg’s work in 1964.i The year before, he had his first major retrospective at the Jewish Museum, New York, and at the 1964 Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg became the third American artist to ever win the International Grand Prize in Painting.ii Bath presents an artist at an unprecedented peak in his career, navigating the adaptation of his practice to newfound fame.


    Robert Rauschenberg working on transfer drawings in his studio, photographed by Jasper Johns, 1958. Image: © 2023 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Rauschenberg began the transfer drawing process by sourcing images from glossy magazines such as LifeNewsweek, and Time, and text from The New York Times. He then soaked the printed originals in a solvent (either turpentine or lighter fluid), placed them face down on the paper (or, in the case of Bath, the Plexiglas), and then, using a pencil or dry pen nib, rubbed the back of the solvent-soaked paper, thus transferring the selected image or text onto the work, albeit in mirror-image. Each rubbing mark is visible, as well: as Lewis Kachur astutely notes, “thus not only the image, but also the process of drawing itself is transferred indirectly, and reversed.”iii


    The clear nature of the Plexiglas gives the viewer greater access to Rauschenberg’s order of operations with Bath; there’s a further inversion of process in that Rauschenberg had to apply the drawing to the Plexiglas before he painted the colored “background.” The stripes of yellow and orange paint at top right, for instance, had to be painted after the transfer drawings were complete; otherwise, the drawings would not be visible through the opaque paint. Rauschenberg was experimenting with Plexiglas more widely in 1964, as well; that same year, he produced his first artist book, Shades, which features five sheets of Plexiglass instead of paper pages, mounted in an aluminum frame, and illuminated from behind by an electric light.


    Shades, 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    While Rauschenberg’s library of imagery is as diverse as his wide-reaching taste in pop culture, the images of Bath group around some of Rauschenberg’s major professional concerns in the early 1960s, and 1964 in particular. The figure touching their toes with a dancer’s precision from Life magazine, for instance, recalls Rauschenberg’s sustained collaborations with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Judson Dance Theater, two overlapping, avant-garde groups whose performances often included found objects (like Rauschenberg’s Combines), and investigated the relationship between time and movement in space.iv


    [Left] Merce Cunningham dancing, in a costume designed by Rauschenberg for “Antic Meet” (1958). Image: Photographed by Richard Rutledge, Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust.
    ​​[Right] Detail of the present work, with a figure from an advertisement in the Apr. 10, 1964 issue of Life magazine.

    Similarly, the clocks and watch faces in Bath, pulled from Life advertisements, relate to Rauschenberg’s incorporation of timepieces into Combines such as Reservoir, 1961, The Smithsonian American Art Museum. The inclusion of textual additions, particularly, the iconic script “The” of The New York Times, records the increasing political awareness of Rauschenberg’s work, visible in works created around the election and assassination of Democratic President John F. Kennedy, such as Retroactive II, 1963, Art Institute of Chicago, and anticipating the headlines of civil rights news stories that would feature in transfer drawings in the late 1960s.


    Reservoir, 1961. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC. Artwork: © 2023 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    In addition to these words and images, other visual aspects of Bath speak to Rauschenberg’s identity as an artist in the mid-1960s.Not only does the work record the process of drawing via image transfers, but it also preserves the literal index of Rauschenberg’s work: his fingerprints are visible in red, extending from a stroke of red along the edge of the yellow rectangle. These fingerprints—seemingly intentional, and evenly placed—recall the self portrait Rauschenberg submitted for a profile in The New Yorker in 1964: a single fingerprint, signed with the same “RR” as the initials etched in the bottom right corner of Bath.


    [Left] Self-Portrait, 1964. Artwork: © 2023 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    [Right] Detail of the present work.

    Rauschenberg’s association with Pop Art lies in his adamant desire that his work stay as grounded in its contemporary moment as possible, and in the turbulent cultural landscape of America in the 1960s, Rauschenberg did not shy away from difficult political topics. Bath represents the increasing political engagement of Rauschenberg’s art practice. The work was originally sold at a fundraising benefit for CORE on May 6, 1964, an organization that played an essential role in the fight for civil rights, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The New York Times clippings in Bath, dating from the May 3 edition, imply that the work was specially made for this benefit. Rauschenberg also created a poster for the 1965 CORE benefit, which featured an image of John F. Kennedy, who represented liberal democratic ideals. In the coming decades, Rauschenberg would become even more socially-minded in his artmaking, culminating in the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative, 1984-1990, an international traveling exhibition to promote world peace.


    Poster for CORE, 1965. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Artwork: © 2023 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    “The one thing that has been consistent about my work is that there has been an attempt to use the very last minutes of my life and the particular location as the source of energy and inspiration, rather than retiring to some kind of other time, or dream, or idealism.”
    —Robert Rauschenberg

    Synthesizing the innovations of his Combines and transfer drawings between two compact panes of Plexiglas, Bath is a consummate example of Rauschenberg’s deep visual engagement with the world around him. Bath presents autobiography and popular culture as intertwined forces, leveraging the experience of the individual and the collective together towards formal, artistic innovation.



    See Paul Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in Schimmel, et al., Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum, New York, et al., 2005, p. 211-230.

    ii Joan Young, Susan Davidson, Kara Vander Weg, Amanda Sroka, et al., “Chronology,” Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, accessed Mar. 2023, online.

    iii Lewis Kachur, “Paraphrase: on Robert Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings of the 1960s,” in Robert Rauschenberg: Transfer Drawings from the 1960s, exh. cat., Jonathan O’Hara Gallery, New York, 2007, p. 8.

    iv Young, et al.


    • Provenance

      The artist (via Leo Castelli, New York)
      Congress on Racial Equality at the Ethical Culture Society Benefit Auction, New York, May 6–16, 1964 (donated by the artist)
      Rosa and Aaron Esman (acquired at the above sale)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Exhibited

      Easton, The Gallery, Morris R. Williams Center for the Arts, Lafayette College, The Esman Collection: Paintings, sculptures and prints from the 1960s, ‘70s, March 21–April 15, 1984, n.p.
      Santiago de Compostela, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, As palabras da pintura, October 8–December 12, 2004

    • Literature

      Robert Rauschenberg Combines, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2005, pl. 168, p. 308 (illustrated, p. 194)

Property from the Collection of Rosa and Aaron Esman



stamped with the artist's initials "RR" lower right; signed, titled and dated “BATH RAUSCHENBERG 1964” on the reverse
oil and solvent transfer on Plexiglas with wire, string and metal clothes hanger
18 3/4 x 15 x 1 in. (47.6 x 38.1 x 2.5 cm)
Executed in 1964.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $444,500

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2023