How an Eight-Month Trip Shifted the Course of Art History

In the early ’50s, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly traveled together through Italy and Morocco, transforming more than just their own careers.

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WHEN ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG and Cy Twombly met in New York at the Art Students League in the spring of 1951, the two had an instant kinship. Both were transplants from the South: Rauschenbergfrom a Christian fundamentalist family in Port Arthur, Tex., Twombly the son of a former pitcher for the Chicago White Sox (from whom the artist, born Edwin Parker Twombly Jr., inherited both his name and his nickname), who had settled in the small town of Lexington, Va., after getting a job as the athletic director of Washington and Lee University. Rauschenberg had spent two semesters at Black Mountain College, the Bauhaus-inspired experimental art school in North Carolina where he studied under Josef Albers. He was on the verge of his first solo show in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery, the dealer who represented Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, and he had recently married, at the age of 24, the painter Susan Weil, who enrolled with him for his first semester at Black Mountain.

But when Rauschenberg returned to school in the summer of 1951, it was with Twombly, not Weil. A few weeks later, his wife came to visit with their newborn child only to discover that he was having an affair with Twombly. Rauschenberg followed her back to New York to try to sort things out, but he soon returned to Twombly and Black Mountain. (Rauschenberg and Weil would divorce in 1952.)

Twombly and Rauschenberg’s relationship came at a crucial transitional period for both men. They were still finding their voices, not only in their work but in their lives as well. Rauschenberg’s career in particular has often been read in retrospect through his collaborations with romantic partners. His early endeavors with Weil — the husband and wife exposed blueprint paper to light in order to create drawings without having to make a physical mark — would prefigure the subsequent experiments that would define his work. His later relationship with Jasper Johns, from 1954 through the end of that decade, would lead to perhaps the most famous collaboration in the history of American art, as Johns and Rauschenberg gradually dismantled the conventions of painting, sculpture and everything in between, incorporating into their work abstraction, pop culture iconography and found objects.

But Rauschenberg’s work with Twombly remains the most unexplored of his partnerships. The two collaborated on many projects, including Rauschenberg’s “Night Blooming” paintings, on which the artists covered a canvas with tarry asphaltum paint, and then threw gravel on it, egged on, according to Fielding Dawson’s “The Black Mountain Book,” by their instructor Robert Motherwell. The richly textured surfaces of these black paintings contrast sharply with their next collaboration, Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings.” In this body of work, Rauschenberg went to the opposite extreme, asking first Twombly and then a series of other painters to cover canvases with white house paint, erasing any trace of texture or an artist’s hand: an erasure of Abstract Expressionism and the creation of a literal blank slate.

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