In October of 1971, Robert Rauschenberg exhibited Cardboards, his first presentation of works that take cardboard boxes as their medium. Boxes were placed in large arrangements, some split open and laid flat, others intact and taped with their lids splayed. Logos and descriptions of content are printed on the cardboard surfaces, and the boxes are dented and deeply creased from use. Occasionally, the paperboard has been skinned to its corrugation.
Rauschenberg began this body of work after leaving New York to make the island town of Captiva, Florida, his permanent residence in 1970. Upon their debut, critics made much of Rauschenberg’s shift in material and corresponded the shift with his departure from New York. While the artist’s change of location impacted what materials he used, the critical reception failed to notice how the Cardboards connected the specificity of place to an emerging global marketplace and how Rauschenberg was implicated himself in the process.
One such Cardboard, National Spinning / Red / Spring (Cardboard), 1970, acquired by the Menil Collection in 2005, is made up of three large flattened boxes, just over eight feet by eight feet when pieced together. Four smaller boxes are appended towards the bottom of the central box. The title derives from text printed on the boxes; “National Spinning” is a printed corporate logo, “Red” and “Spring” are scribbled elsewhere.
National Spinning bears the marks of shipment and transportation; its cardboard base showing signs of movement and wear. In short, it evinces the global movement of goods. It was perhaps for this reason—the receptiveness of the medium—that Rauschenberg turned to cardboard boxes upon his arrival in Captiva. Captiva Island is principally a nature reserve, with a year-round population of under 1,000 people. Rauschenberg found the island to be the “source and reserve of [his] energies,” but the relative isolation simply did not provide an abundance of found materials.(1) In a 1991 interview, Rauschenberg stated that his use of cardboard boxes stemmed from his attempts to find in Florida a material akin to the treasures he found on the streets of New York City. For him, using cardboard was a “practical, rational decision,” and he was quoted as saying that he “still hasn’t been any place that there weren’t cardboard boxes… even up the Amazon.”(2)
These particular boxes, however, did not come from “up the Amazon.” They were not sourced in a way that reflected the abundance of cardboard spread across the transnational marketplace. For National Spinning, Rauschenberg likely found the boxes only blocks from his Manhattan apartment, as indicated by the shipping labels. Other Cardboards incorporate supply boxes from a glass fabrication company, packaging for a television set, and shipments from his gallerist Leo Castelli. The boxes and their implied but missing contents are materials leftover from the practical substance of Rauschenberg’s life. They reaffirm his ongoing connection to New York and underscore Rauschenberg as an active participant in the movement of goods.
National Spinning was included in the exhibition The Precarious (December 2016–May 2016), an exhibition about collage and its metaphors drawn. Building on philosopher Judith Butler’s argument that precariousness is integral to community, the exhibition linked the physical instability of collage with the vulnerability of our lives always being in the hands of others.
Rauschenberg identified in cardboard a precarity similar to what Butler would propose over 30 years later. He was drawn to cardboard’s susceptibility, to how it assumes marks of use, and to its inevitable deterioration. Shortly after completing his series of Cardboards, Rauschenberg reflected that in their making:
A desire built up in me to work in a material of waste and softness. Something yielding with its only message a collection of lives imprinted like a friendly joke. A silent discussion of their history exposed by their new shapes.(3)