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A combine painting is an artwork that incorporates various objects into a painted canvas surface, creating a sort of hybrid between painting and sculpture. Items attached to paintings might include photographic images, clothing, newspaper clippings, ephemera or any number of three-dimensional objects. The term is most closely associated with the artwork of American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) who coined the phrase to describe his own creations. Rauschenberg’s Combines explored the blurry boundaries between art and the everyday world. In addition, his cross-medium creations challenged the doctrine of medium specificity mentioned by modernist art critic Clement Greenberg. Frank Stella created a large body of paintings that recall the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg by juxtaposing a wide variety of surface and material in each work ultimately leading to Stella's sculpture and architecture of the 21st century.
Rauschenberg and his artist friend/flat mate Jasper Johns used to design window displays together for upscale retailers such as Tiffany's and Bonwit Teller in Manhattan before they became better established as artists. They shared ideas about art as well as career strategies. Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art described Rauschenberg's Combine paintings as "some of the most influential, poetic and revolutionary works in the history of American art." But they've also been called "ramshackle hybrids between painting and sculpture, stage prop and three-dimensional scrap-book assemblage" according to Guardian critic Adrian Searle. Searle believed the "different elements of the Combines have been described as having no more relation than the different stories that vie for attention on a newspaper page." Jasper Johns, as well, used similar techniques; in at least one painting, Johns attached a paintbrush right inside his painting.
Examples of Rauschenberg's Combine paintings include Bed (1955), Canyon (1959), and the free-standing Monogram (1955–1959). Rauschenberg's works mostly incorporated two-dimensional materials held together with "splashes and drips of paint" with occasional 3-D objects. Critic John Perreault wrote "The Combines are both painting and sculpture–or, some purists would say, neither." Perreault liked them since they were memorable, photogenic, and "stick in the mind" as well as "surprise and keep on surprising." Rauschenberg added stuffed birds on his 1955 work Satellite, which featured a stuffed pheasant "patrolling its top edge." In another work, he added a ladder. His Combine Broadcast, three radios blaring at once which was a "melange of paint, grids, newspaper clips and fabric snippets." According to one source, his Broadcast had three radios playing simultaneously, which produced a sort of irritating static, so that one of the work's owners, at one point, replaced the "noise" with tapes of actual programs when guests visited. Rauschenberg's The Bed had a pillow attached to a patchwork quilt with paint splashed over it. The idea was to promote immediacy.
In the early 1960s, Rauschenberg's Combines sold from $400 to $7,500. But their value shot upwards. In 1999, the Museum of Modern Art, which had balked at buying Rauschenberg's work decades earlier, spent $12 million to buy his Factum II which the artist made in 1957. Rauschenberg's Rebus was valued in 1991 at $7.3 million. It's a three-panel work created in 1955 which takes its name from the Latin for a "puzzle of images and words;" it "builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements," according to The New York Times. MOMA bought Rebus in 2005. Rauschenberg reportedly said that the images in Rebus jostle with each other "like pedestrians on a street." Rauschenberg's Photograph, a Combine painting from 1959, was valued at $10.7 million by Sotheby's in 2008. His work Bantam sold for $2.6 million in 2009. In 2008, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who described Combines as "multimedia hybrids", wrote MOMA was "Rauschenberg Central" because it owned over 300 of his works. The Whitney owned 60 Rauschenbergs.