Bed is one of Robert Rauschenberg's first Combines, works in which he affixed cast-off items, such as tires or old furniture, to a traditional support. Here he framed a well-worn pillow, sheet, and quilt, scribbled on them with pencil, and splashed them with paint in a style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. These bedclothes, legend has it, were Rauschenberg’s own, and the work is thus as personal as a self-portrait, or more so. "Painting relates to both art and life," Rauschenberg said. "(I try to act in that gap between the two.)"
Gallery label from 2011.
Bed is one of Rauschenberg's first Combines, his own term for his technique of attaching cast–off items, such as rubber tires or old furniture, to a traditional support. In this case he framed a well–worn pillow, sheet, and quilt, scribbled them with pencil, and splashed them with paint, in a style derived from Abstract Expressionism. In mocking the seriousness of that ambitious art, Rauschenberg predicted an attitude more widespread among later generations of artists—the Pop artists, for example, who also appreciated Rauschenberg's relish for everyday objects.
Legend has it that the bedclothes in Bed are Rauschenberg's own, pressed into use when he lacked the money to buy a canvas. Since the artist himself probably slept under this very sheet and quilt, Bed is as personal as a self-portrait, or more so—a quality consistent with Rauschenberg's statement, "Painting relates to both art and life. . . . (I try to act in that gap between the two)." Although the materials here come from a bed, and are arranged like one, Rauschenberg has hung them on the wall, like a work of art. So the bed loses its function, but not its associations with sleep, dreams, illness, sex—the most intimate moments in life. Critics have also projected onto the fluid-drenched fabric connotations of violence and morbidity.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 207.