Robert Rauschenberg is typically described as a “protean” artist, and for good reason. Diversity, versatility, and inventiveness have defined his art. “Rauschenberg has created in a range of mediums, materials, and techniques probably wider and more varied than any other artist of this century.”(1) This breadth is embodied in Whistle Stop (Spread), 1977, with its inclusion of fabric, painting, drawing, transfer-prints, and real objects. In its juxtaposition and fusion of various forms, Whistle Stop relates to the “Combines” that Rauschenberg developed in 1954. These works combined painting and sculpture, abstraction and representation, in order to bridge art and life so that the artist could, as he famously said, “act in the gap between the two.”(2) The array of images and objects comprising a Combine often suggest, but rarely support, a sustained narrative reading. Instead, the elements in Rauschenberg’s art trigger associational meanings for each viewer. Still, the will to uncover and decipher an underlying and unifying story is powerful. This is true of Whistle Stop, especially because the artist dedicated the piece to his father.
Whistle Stop contains approximately fifty reproductions of photographs and illustrations clipped from books, magazines, and newspapers. The images range from Abraham Lincoln to a lunar landscape. Arrowheads, birds, comic strips, diagrams of a house and a car, and a Neoclassical painting of a young woman drawing are among the reproductions that have been affixed to three of the five panels by a solvent transfer-printing technique. The process involves laying the images on a flat-bed press, spraying them with solvent, and pressing them onto fabric, which is then laminated to the panels.(3) The technique reverses the images and gives them a uniform smoothness and blurriness. Besides numerous images, Whistle Stop includes a blinking red light and two doors (normally, the left door remains closed, while the right one is wide open). The doors give the piece an architectural quality, although the work is installed like a painting and hung at least eight inches off the floor.(4) The images behind the doors are contained within boxes, lightly delineated in graphite, which parallel the spaces created by the slats and frame of each door. . . . Rauschenberg, however, plays with all his images not only by reversing them but also by placing some on their sides and inverting others. This leads to a dynamic slippage between representation and abstraction.
Whistle Stop was the second of two pieces the Museum commissioned from Rauschenberg in 1975–76. For the Museum’s Great American Rodeo exhibition, Rauschenberg created Rodeo Palace, 1976. The multitude of images and forms that make up Rodeo Palace marked a departure from the more austere works Rauschenberg had been producing since 1970, and initiated a series called Spreads. Over the next five years, the artist produced fifty-two Spreads. The series’ name carries several connotations for the artist: “‘Spread” means as far as I can make it stretch, and land (like a farmer’s ‘spread’), and also the stuff you put on toast.”(5) The range of diverse meanings Rauschenberg attached to the term is evident in Whistle Stop, an early Spread.
The very title of the work is open-ended. A “whistle-stop” (a word that, coincidentally, first appeared around 1925, the year of Rauschenberg’s birth) signifies a small station at which trains only stop on signal. It can also refer to a small community, or a brief personal appearance, as by a politician on tour.(6) The artist may also be linking the word’s meaning of “brief appearance” to his feelings toward his hometown, an isolated place that he could not wait to leave (and, then, not return to for forty years). “There’s a lot of sadness about Port Arthur. And I had a terrible time in school. I didn’t have a particularly celebrated childhood there.”(7) These early years were fundamentally marked by his adverse relationship with his father, Ernest. The younger Rauschenberg felt he continually disappointed his father, who told him on his deathbed, “I never did like you, you son of a bitch.”(8)
Of all the images in Whistle Stop, the most intriguing in regard to the father-son relationship is the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that appears behind the left door. A heroic and tragic figure, Lincoln was “father” to a house divided against itself. Art historically, the Lincoln portrait recalls the American painter John Peto’s wistful trompe l’oeil compositions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, with their multiple, random images and references to doors, anticipate Whistle Stop.(9) The Lincoln portrait also conjures up the biblical Abraham, who was called upon, and was prepared, to sacrifice his son.
Ernest Rauschenberg suffered a fatal heart attack in October 1963, and the artist felt that he had “died before I could make him proud of me.”(10) In 1976, when he began work on Whistle Stop, Robert Rauschenberg was honored by the National Collection of American Art (now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art) as the artist of the American Bicentennial. The same year, he appeared on a self-designed cover of Time magazine as “The Most Living Artist.” In dedicating Whistle Stop to his father, the artist was perhaps seeking to secure a measure of paternal approval by opening, and closing, doors to his past.
— Mark Thistlethwaite
(1) Walter Hopps, “Introduction: Rauschenberg’s Art of Fusion,” in Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997): 20.
(2) Quoted in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Sixteen Americans (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1959): 58.
(3) Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990): 214.
(4) Undated typescript, “Installation Instructions for Whistle Stop by Robert Rauschenberg,” Registrar’s Files, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
(5) Quoted in Thomas B. Hess, “Replenishing Rauschenberg,” New York (16 May 1977): 79.
(6) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed
(7) Quoted in “The Boy from Port Arthur,” Art and Antiques (January 1986): 60. The artist suffered in school because of dyslexia, which was undiagnosed at the time.
(9) See, for example, Rack Painting with Jack of Hearts, 1902, in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center.
(10) Quoted in Jill Johnston, “The World Outside His Window,” Art in America 80 (April 1992): 118.