Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, 75 1/4” x 31 1/2 x 8”, MoMA, NYC

A fantastical take on a fantastical work: in the following riff on Robert Rauschenberg’s bold, brilliant Bed there’s far less analysis and direct eyeballing than in my previous articles for Painters on Paintings. It’s mostly story here, the tale focusing on a pillowcase and a woman named Gwen.   

She‘s an invention. In her there’s a very little bit of Gwen John, a bit more of some unnamed, unspectacular but substantial young women, and a lot of literary license. She is no one in particular. Rather, she’s a combination of someones that Rauschenberg’s Bed conjured in me.

Facts (for context): Gwen John (1876-1939) was a representational painter born in Wales, who had a ten-year affair with Auguste Rodin in Paris. Rodin sculpted Monument to Balzac. Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was born in Port Arthur, Texas. In the 1950s, he coined the term “combine,” a form of expression that makes the world strange — one of the functions of art — by merging painting, sculpture, collage, and photography with commonplace objects. 

When John died, Rauschenberg was fourteen years old, so she didn’t know his work, and I doubt he ever knew hers. Their sensibilities could hardly be further apart. Nonetheless, they are linked in my storied imagination.

 

Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room, 1907-09, oil on canvas, 12.3 x 9.8 inches, National Museum, Wales

The clean, well-lighted dwelling within a medieval Welsh village beckoned. Gwen entered to find it was thin on bedclothes and linens, and there were no towels at all. The new renter of the cottage used a shining white pillowcase to dry off after bathing. It also served to cover Gwen’s torso in bed and sometimes, crumpled, it cushioned her head. Who says chivalry is dead?  

Lacking dreams of its own, the pillowcase eavesdropped on the dreams of others and kept them safe. The dream capturer rose up from Gwen’s bed to curtain dawn and let its present sleeper drift longer within her airborne castles. She dreamt of whales, seas, and skies that floated from the bliss of a Cézanne blue and the fierceness of a Moby Dick white to the elegant grey of a seagull’s egg. She dreamt she was a parasol imagining itself a wicker chair, and she dreamt of a sculpted literary hero looking decidedly unheroic in his bathrobe.

One night, rousing from a dream, Gwen turned and licked the ear of the sculptor who created that bathrobed Balzac, but it was only her pillow. Drifting back to sleep, she pictured the quixotic works of a yet-unborn Texan, an artist from Port Arthur, who made his name in New York. The imagined fabrications were combines: a bald eagle soaring above a pillow filled with dreams, and an actual bed spilled with war paint. Absurd nightmares, she thought, trying to rid her mind of what she had just sort of seen. 

Besides dreaming, Gwen kept house. She bought shutters, a real, cushy pillow, towels, and other linens. Her prized purchase was a square-patterned quilt, the borders of each salmon-colored  square alike . . . and not. The quilt was too wide for Gwen’s bed, so she cut its width. 

She washed the comforter, along with the discarded section, but when she hung them outside to dry an eagle swooped down and, unobserved, stole the extra quilted material. Gwen wondered what happened to the cloth fragment, but she soon forgot all about it.

She also forgot about her former body-warming, drying, dream-peeping, dream-thieving, curtainer-against-the-wake up rainbow-rays of a dawning-sun companion. After months of performing with honor, it was replaced. If you asked the pillowcase, it would have said betrayed.

Melancholy and then depression wound up seizing the fabric, sadness turning it into a thing of yellowed stains and wrinkles. The cloth felt as useless as a mattress hanging on a wall.

Just as actors need roles, chivalry needs deeds. Deedless — think worthless, think hopeless— the pillowcase languished. Its world languished with it. No, much more than that. The out-of-sight bed imploded and it did, too; decked-out horses took part in nightmarish parades, each horse now marked in the pretty colors of bruises. Dripping with crud and blood, pageants of boogeymen galloped on their loyal Rocinantes attacking windmills, slaying dragons, chasing a daring, trailblazing Texan making his way east. There were pits of filth, fits of pique, and the stench of estrangement. To Gwen, the bed looked as fine and folksy as it always had. But not to the pillowcase. To it, all looked pleasant enough near the foot, but, like a dramatic plot twist, everything closer to the bed’s head looked war-torn, tortured.

Gone was its role of gallant service in Gwen’s life. After it had been stored in the dresser drawer, its memory of the lady’s scent survived in its very fibers, each day distinct, like the quilt’s stitched-together squares. But memories grow dim, and, in time, the pillowcase couldn’t tell the difference between her coldest March smells and her hottest June’s.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, Traces of ink and crayon on paper, with mat and hand-lettered label in ink, in gold-leafed frame, 25 1/4 x 21 3/4 x 1/2 inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Gwen’s absence stole the cloth’s valiance, which not so long before had been awakened as if by a kiss. The pillowcase missed not doing what it most liked to do: come to the rescue. It needed to be needed.

One day there was no Gwen. Craving freedom and adventure, she had set off to see the world. No damsel in distress, she didn’t need to be saved. Some knights did. Some dragons, too. As did the cloth dream thief, which longed once again to steal into the imaginings of others. Of course, it longed even more to be freed from the hell of its imprisoning drawer.   

That happened years later when a bald eagle flew over the Welsh cottage. The bird clutched in its talons a pillow packed with odd, sleep-filled stories. Strangely, the eagle and its pillow looked remarkably similar to what Gwen had once envisioned. However, this time the pillow filled with stories was clothed in a quilted pattern decorated with salmon-colored squares.         

The eagle circling overhead caused a stir in a drawer within the cottage. The dwelling’s tenant responded. Having completed her travels outside Wales, Gwen had recently returned. Crumpled into a corner of the dresser, she found what she had stored there years ago, its stained and yellowed spirit plagued now more than ever by the emptiness of a profound, unrequited yearning to protect.    

  Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959, 81 3/4 x 70 x 24″, MoMA, NYC, New York

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955–59, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

As if in shining armor, the chivalric lady stole into the nightmares of the cloth dream thief. Our heroine stroked the fabric smooth and she tenderly draped it around a pillow, tired and gray, that needed a cover. Covered, the pillow suddenly saw the world strangely, innocently, as if for the first time. Images came and went in oddball pairings: socks and cockeyed clocks, a goat with a tire, a drawing erased. Above, a bald eagle fanned its wings, setting a rainbow on delicious, delirious fire. The rainbow’s blaze poured onto the bed and pillowcase below, which were immersed in the refreshing insanity of fantastical dreams.     

 

Barry Nemett, Portraits, 2018, pen and pencil on paper, 11 x 166 inches; Center right: Balzac Busts, 2018, pen on paper, 84 x 5 inches; Bottom: Songs Barking to the Sun, 2018, pen and pencil on paper, 11 x 166 inches, Photo by David Lieberman

Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and Japan.