Doubting Thomas “Combine” by Robert Rauschenberg

Modern American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) is probably best known for his “Combines,” a term he invented to describe a series of works that present found objects on canvas and therefore combine aspects of painting and sculpture. Art critic Jonathan A. Anderson and theologian William A. Dyrness address the religious references that proliferate through his oeuvre, and that of many other late nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, in their book Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism* (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2016), part of IVP’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series. The following excerpt is taken from pages 308–9.

Untitled by Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008), Untitled, ca. 1955. Oil, paper, fabric, and newspaper on canvas with string, nail, funnel, and wood, 31 1/2 × 25 1/8 × 9 in. (80 × 63.8 × 22.9 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Rauschenberg’s Untitled black painting with a funnel (c. 1955) is presented as a kind of figure: the open circular collar of a t-shirt positions a head relatively high in the field, and the fragment of a sleeve on the right-hand edge indicates a lifted hand. Nearly all of the collaged scraps of cloth and paper on the surface are painted over in flat black paint—one of the few portions that is not is a prayer card just to the right of the center of the painting that displays a reproduction of Carl Bloch’s Doubting Thomas (1881). Flurries of red, yellow, green and white paint have been slashed across the surface immediately below this image (the only place such color appears in the painting), which within the figure suggested by the cloth fragments correspond to the position of the wound in Christ’s side, as depicted in the prayer card. The painting’s surface subtly stands in for the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus, and as such the ball of twine placed in the funnel on the left side of the panel becomes doubly suggestive of incarnation (descending downward into the funnel) and ascension (being pulled upward out of the funnel). But if Rauschenberg is allegorizing the surface of the painting with the resurrected body of Christ, then he is also placing himself (and the viewer) in the position of the incredulous Thomas. It is a painting that powerfully articulates both a longing to touch and see (Lk 24:39; cf. Lk 6:19) and the persistence and seeming ineluctability of doubt in the age of modernity (including doubt that images, much less paintings, can any longer serve as vehicles for the kind of religious touching and seeing that we long for). Like much modern art, this is not a work of unbelief as much as it is of fragilized belief, one that is caught oscillating (or struggling) between doubt and belief.

For a recent interview with Anderson, conducted by Rev. Jonathan Evens, visit Artlyst. See also the conference talk Anderson gave in 2012 on “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism.”


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Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism

Jonathan A. Anderson is an associate professor of art at Biola University, an interdenominational Christian university in southern California. In addition to being a practicing artist, he researches and writes on modern and contemporary art criticism, especially its relationship to theology. Along with William Dyrness, he has written the first book in InterVarsity Press’s new Studies in Theology and the Arts series: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism.

Below is a video of Anderson presenting a paper titled “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism” at the 2012 conference Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils, sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought. In it he examines the problematic absence of theologically informed criticism from contemporary art discourse and posits what is (and is not) needed to redress the problem. He very clearly articulates some of my frustrations with the contemporary art world, giving lots of examples and helpful breakdowns as well as advice for Christians writing about art.

On this blog I write primarily for nonscholars, as well as for the church, not the art world (though I’m thrilled if the art world wants to listen in!). So while I do very much approach art theologically, I know I’m not exactly the voice Anderson is looking for; furthermore, I cover a limited range of art here, restricting myself, for the most part, to Anderson’s first category of “religious” art, below.

Still, I share Anderson’s desire to see a new method of criticism develop, one that takes religious belief seriously instead of sweeping it under the rug. And I try, from my own little corner, to model said method—to “work productively in the rift.”

Here’s the presentation, followed by some highlights.

His starting point is October founder Rosalind Krauss’s pronouncement, in 1979, of an “absolute rift” between art and religion. He elaborates:

The textbooks of twentieth-century art history, theory, and criticism, as well as major museum collections, readily testify to the fact that the institutional art world regards Christianity as having made negligible contributions to the fine arts during the twentieth century, and unfortunately that’s a judgment I largely agree with. But the reverse is also true: for the most part, the church has little regard for the canon of twentieth-century art as having made contributions to the development and deepening of Christian thought. For most of the last century, the worlds of contemporary art theory and Christian theology developed into distinct cultural configurations that have been remarkably disengaged from each other, often to the point of mutual unintelligibility.

The twenty-first century has seen a return of religion to art, Anderson says, but it has been a return riddled with problems. His agenda here is to (1) articulate where the primary problem in the rift lies, (2) offer an argument for how we might think of the return of religion to the art discourse, and (3) suggest ways in which Christians can work productively in the rift.

[03:13] Where does the rift between art and religion lie?

[04:28] In his landmark book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins says the rift exists not in the art itself but in the academic writing about art.

[05:43] Art Since 1900 identifies and articulates the four primary critical methods that have framed the modern and contemporary art discourse: psychoanalysis, social art history, formalism and structuralism, and poststructuralism and deconstruction. (“Theology” is not one of them.)

[18:48] Summarizing Elkins: “Religious content is unable to survive the suspicious interpretative operations of avant-garde theory and criticism, which relentlessly reads behind and beneath the subject matter and pictorial composition of an artwork.”   Continue reading “Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism”