The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Getting Into “Bed”
(With Robert Rauschenberg)
The longer I make my way through the story of the quilt in the United States, the more humble I become. It’s not just that I’m humbled by the beauty of it all. It’s that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and I see how in the dark or flat-out wrong I’ve been about any number of things along the way. I try not to get too down on myself about it. The whole point of research is to learn more about a thing. If you know everything already, what’s the point?
Strolling through the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern wing recently, I saw a work by 20th century artist Robert Rauschenberg. It was one of Rauschenberg’s “combines,” and as soon as I saw it, I remembered Bed. If you know the piece, you’ll know why we’re going to explore it today; if you don’t know it, welcome to summer school art history class!
And he was a snappy dresser, too! Image: Wikipedia.Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) is considered a VIP 20th century American artist. He was prolific, inventive, and he did it all: painting, sculpture, performance art pieces, drawings, etc. Now, as with all of art history, there were surely artists that came before Rauschenberg, or who were working contemporaneously, who were doing groundbreaking work in the same vein, but these names are eclipsed most of the time. (Remember: The folks who write art history books shape art history, and establishment artists like Rauschenberg get written about a lot more than other important artists, which is just something one ought to keep in mind when looking at these things.)
The work Rauschenberg is probably best known for — and the genre that concerns us at the moment — were his “combines.” Combines were simply were artworks that combined mediums, e.g., a painted shoebox, nailed to the wall, with small, sculptural or found objects inside of it. Was it a painting? A sculpture? Rather than call it a “paculture” or something equally dreadful, Rauschenberg went with “combine” and these works put him on the map forever.
The famous Bed, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1955. Image courtesy the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.In 1955, Rauschenberg made a now-world famous work called Bed. The dimensions of the piece are roughly 30” x 70” and it currently hangs on a gallery wall at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The piece is built within a wood frame and involves paint on a stretched surface, but Bed isn’t a painting, exactly; the textiles and other materials that make up Bed make the piece a combine. In the description of the work, MOMA says Bed is “oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports.”
Indeed, there is a real-life Log Cabin quilt in this Rauschenberg piece. It’s the quilt that forms the base of the whole thing, stretched like a canvas on those wood supports. On top of the quilt, a sheet and pillow were attached, and the whole thing was then attacked by Rauschenberg with paint, toothpaste, and probably other gooey materials. There are drips, splatters, and what look like stains, and the whole thing is just sort of wonderful, if you ask me.
Obviously, a fine art piece that has a quilt in it is going to win me over, but it’s more than that: Bed mashes up the intimate space of the all-important bed with the very public world of “high art.” It captures something about the wildness—and often the violence—of dreams that come from what ought to be a safe, warm, cozy place. I like Bed for reasons I can’t quite explain, which is a good sign that what I’m looking at really is Art with a capital A.
The point in sharing all this with you, aside from possibly introducing you to Rauschenberg’s famous quilt-y work, is to say that when I remembered it, I had one of my “humbled-by-history” moments. See, for a long time, I thought the famous Whitney show in 1971 was the first time quilts showed up on the walls of a major art museum. Then I learned of a groundbreaking show in the 1960s that pre-dated it. But here you have Rauschenberg’s piece, which was made in 1955!
Quilters know a Log Cabin block is a work of art all by itself, no paint required. Image: Wikipedia.
To be fair, Bed was not part of a larger, quilt-based body of work; it didn’t start a wave of quilt combines; and no critic who saw Bed said the lovely Log Cabin was the best part of it. (In fact, one article I read about it actually said how the artist elevated a “knitted blanket” into fine art and referred to Rauschenberg’s clever use of “junk” in his work. Thanks!) Nevertheless, in the story of quilts showing up in fancy-pants museums in America, you have to include Bed.
Looking more closely at this piece and then into the famous art that was made in the 1950s overall, I realized yet again how much I don’t know; how much I assume; and how wrong I often am about what happened, when, and who made it happen in the first place. Add to that all the work cut out for me to find those underrepresented artists I mentioned above, and you’ll understand why this Scout is wiped out at the end of the day.
But the pursuit is worth it. Active curiosity means life is never boring, and if you’re willing to admit you’ve got more to learn than you’ll ever have time for, you can rest easy at night, under a quilt, in your own, hopefully be-quilted, Bed.