Our 10th Anniversary Farewell: John Perreault on Robert Rauschenberg’s Glass Tires

by John Perreault December 25, 2011


“Untitled (Glass Tires),” 1997, blown glass and silver plated brass

Back in 2001, our founder Rainey Knudson named this site in honor of Robert Rauschenberg’s cast glass tire sculptures. The glass tires were made at UrbanGlass, a nonprofit glass center in Brooklyn, where critic, curator, poet and artist John Perreault was the Executive Director. He has graciously let Glasstire reprint his 1998 article,”Don’t Tread on Me: The Meanings of Rauschenberg’s Glass Tires.” The exhibition referenced in the article, Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective, traveled to the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Menil Collection, where Knudson saw the glass tires that would inspire the name of this site. As a farewell to 2011, the year of Glasstire‘s tenth anniversary, we offer this insight on the sculptures that started it all.

Perreault gave us a bit of background for the article in an email:

“A footnote explained:

‘The glass tires were made at UrbanGlass in May 1995. They were blown in a mold designed and made by Mat Porzorski by a team of five glassblowers headed by gaffer Dan Spitzer. Later, coldworking was done by Pat Patenaude. The project was partially funded by a grant from John McEnroe.’

It was actually more complicated than I let on. I knew Rauschenberg and, in fact, had visited him in Captiva Island in the early eighties for an article I was writing about him for GEO magazine. (Robert Mapplethorpe was the photographer. It was his first color shoot.) I am not sure when he came up with the idea of a glass tire, but years later his studio manager called me at UrbanGlass wanting to know who could make such a thing and I suggested that maybe we could tackle it at UrbanGlass. We actually handled the blowing of the glass into the mold. The mold was done elsewhere and the coldworking as well. The coldworking was particularly difficult and required handheld sanding devices and other specialized equipment and specialized skills.

The deal was that we would make three and keep one for ourselves, which we did, in order to cover our expenses, which were mainly an enormous amount of studio time we traded with the glassblowers and the cost of our furnaces and so forth. I think a year later we put our tire in our annual fundraiser auction and a board member bought it and eventually donated it to the Corning Museum where there is a well-known glass collection.”


“Don’t Tread on Me: The Meanings of Rauschenberg’s Glass Tires”
Reprinted from GLASS Quarterly, no. 70, Spring 1998.

Robert Rauschenberg’s retrospective at the two Guggenheim Museums and the Ace Gallery in New York gave a full view of his art, covering nearly fifty years.[1] The Guggenheim uptown held acknowledged masterpieces of the combine and silk-screen periods; the downtown branch explored Rauschenberg and technology, dances and performances, and the more recent works. The museum-like Ace Gallery west of Soho displayed the multipaneled The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece begun in 1983. For many, the surprise was not the relatively new watercolor transfers on paper or the transfer frescos, but the cluster of three new works in glass in the uptown museum. The glass tires in particular, I aim to show, are firmly embedded in Rauschenberg’s complex oeuvre. Glass tires by Rauschenberg have a different meaning than if these tires were produced by an artist who worked exclusively in glass or, in fact, by any other artist. The context is different; that difference is instructive. Message, although complex and subtle, outweighs medium. By all accounts, save those of dire formalists, Rauschenberg is a key figure in contemporary art. He was called a neo-cubist (bad), a novelty artist (bad), and, privately, an angel of destruction. His use of popular imagery was thought to have encouraged Pop Art and thus signaled the end of action painting—or rather the market for same and the power of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. But Rauschenberg was only taking his cues from Willem de Kooning, who, after all, did some rather famous paintings in homage to Marilyn Monroe. Rauschenberg’s famous erased de Kooning drawing was done with de Kooning’s permission.

Rauschenberg not only survived, he has prevailed. On the evidence of the art, from the combines of the ’50s, through the silk-screen paintings, up to the tarnish paintings and the most recent efforts, Rauschenberg obviously gives Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting a second, more generous, more inclusive life; we shouldn’t let the popular imagery get in the way of structure, gesture, touch. His work has an expansiveness that rivals Jackson Pollock.

The real scandal was that in 1963 Rauschenberg had an unprecedented museum exhibition. He was only 38! De Kooning had not yet had a museum show.[2] AIan Solomon, who curated the exhibition for the suddenly avant-garde Jewish Museum, now looks very aggressive and up-to-date. His catalogue essay laid a solid groundwork for future discussions of Rauschenberg’s art. Although giving Rauschenberg credit for the new use of common objects in art, Solomon claimed that the artist “… stands as a major link between the new art and the preceding generation of Abstract Expressionists, as well as with the more remote roots of the contemporary style in certain aspects of Picasso’s cubism, of 1912-14.[3]

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram,” 1955-59, Angora goat, rubber tire and mixed media, 42 x 63 x 64 1/2 inches.Moderna Museet, Stockholm

For the abstract expressionists, Rauschenberg was not abstract enough or expressionist enough. For the minimalists his work was too expressionist, too messy. Later, for the conceptualists, he was not conceptual enough—in spite of his portrait telegram: This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is. Did he come too close to revealing the roots of conceptual art in Dada and Surrealism? In poetry rather than in pure abstraction or philosophy?

For the record, Rauschenberg appears not to “get” poetry. His artworks are some of the most poetic—i.e. emotional and metaphoric—works of the 20th century but he once revealed this strange lack: “I used to think of that line in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, about ‘the sad cup of coffee.’ I’ve had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee, but I’ve never had a sad cup of coffee.”

Perhaps what he meant is that he did not understand bad metaphors or clichés. For everywhere he states and certainly demonstrates that he wants open interpretations and multiple rather than restricted meanings.

And there is the question of the picture plane. Does he or doesn’t he violate the once purportedly inviolate modernist picture plane? Although most thought his work did indeed commit that now nearly irrelevant sin, revisionism holds that his work takes place on the platform of the picture plane and is thus properly, modernistically anti-illusionist. You see, if you create the illusion of depth behind the picture plane—although even abstract art cannot avoid this according to Greenberg—you verge upon sculpture. You are not pure.

Critic Rosalind Krauss seems to agree with Brian O’Doherty’s notion that “for all his apparent clowning, he [Rauschenberg] believes in profoundly the integrity of the picture plane.”[4] Barbara Rose, on the other hand, decided: “His forms shift and fade from view; chiaroscuro is used, as is color interaction, to create an illusionary space. This distinctly pictorial space is unlike that of recent American art, which is as flat as a pancake. On the contrary, it resembles the ambiguous shifting space of the old masters to whom Rauschenberg pays homage in his paintings.[5]If there is one thing that can be said about Rauschenberg’s art, it is that it is not pure. It is messy, social, layered, but never lazy.

Image upon image is thrown at you. And meaning? The meaning is in the energetic juxtapositions of scale, time, source, texture more than in iconography. As in the chance compositions of John Cage, the processes rather than the specifics of nature are on display; beauty is unveiled rather than constructed. Nevertheless, since Rauschenberg uses real objects and silk-screened photos, one cannot entirely avoid the image question. The hunt is on. Several scholars have now detected covert sexual imagery. Well, of course, there is sex in Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings based on Dante’s Inferno. There is sex in the Inferno. There is sex in the media; there is sex in life. What does a Coke bottle or a light bulb mean in a Rauschenberg artwork? One could answer that it means whatever it means in real life. Except, except. There are always exceptions. Except that the context is different. On one level, a Coke bottle in a Rauschenberg combine is no different than the image of a wine bottle in a Picasso or Braque; it is a recognizable shape from everyday life in American. A light bulb, however, is always a bright idea.

Certain images in Rauschenberg resonate through repetition; they become motifs within his oeuvre. Take tires. Monogram, 1955-59 is one of the artist’s best known works. The head of a stuffed angora goat pokes through a tire. One commentator remarks that “Rauschenberg’s attachment to certain images and materials makes them something like trademark props: his tire is analogous to Charlie Chaplin’s cane.”[6]

What does a tire mean? A tire may symbolized mobility, but I suspect that the interplay of the signifiers rather than the signified is the deeper meaning. The repeated use of a chair, a pillow, a tire is like an artist’s preference for the color red or a musician’s signature chord. Monogram is not an anagram or a rebus. Artworks may have meanings artists do not intend; meaning can be deduced, derived, seduced. One can see the goat as nature and the tire as culture. The goat interrupts the tire.[7]Freudians will have no difficulty seeing the goat as male and the tire as female. But at no point does one have the feeling that the puzzle is solved. There is no right answer; there are multiple questions that have multiple answers.

Now that we can survey a vast output of art, what happens if we pull together the various tire images in Rauschenberg? Another famous work is Automobile Tire Print of 1953. Technically this is a monoprint, but it was produced by driving a car over twenty attached sheets of paper. Rauschenberg used tires in his performance/happening/dance Map Room II of 1965. Dancer Trisha Brown wedged herself inside of a tire and was rolled around the stage; Alex Hay, also wedged inside a tire, used his outstretched arms to propel himself; Steve Paxton moved about with his feet in two tires.[8]

Monogram could not be included in the retrospective, but there were four sculptures that use tire treads as a major component. Untitled (Venetian), 1973; Hound (Tracks), 1976; The Interloper Tries His Disguises (Kabal American Zephyr Series), 1982; and the very recent Untitled (Glass Tires).[9] Because they were created by Rauschenberg, the glass tires have a different set of meanings than if they were created by any other artist. They refer to all the other tires, tire treads and tire prints in his art and to all his previous uses of glass: mostly Coca-Cola bottles, shards, two Venetians that use glass jugs and a neon emblazoned bicycle. At a certain point cross-referencing has to take place. The glass pillow runs a close second, for there is a string of associations possible: pillow, bed, pillow with rooster. But the broom stands alone.

Rauschenberg is not dedicated to one particular medium the way a crafts artist might be. Although he has often stated that his work is a collaboration between himself and various media, his art is idea-driven or emotion-driven or even form-driven, rather than media-driven. A goat is a goat. A tire is a tire. Put them together and add a little paint and you get an unexpected emotion. If you are doing the tire alone, make it of glass. A tire is inflated; the glass tire is made by inflating a hot glass bubble inside of a mold. Air equals air. A tire with treads to prevent it from skidding on ice is itself ice.

Perhaps there is a secret code in Rauschenberg; one that he himself is unaware of. Just because an artist puts together images at random or because of likes and dislikes, moods and compositional needs does not mean that meanings cannot be created afterwards. Meanings are also in the mind of the beholder; the art is a mirror. Rauschenberg, the supreme democrat, has always wanted to include the viewer. Is that why mirrors and reflecting surfaces figure so much in Rauschenberg’s work? Do mirrors count as glass?


[1] Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective was curated by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson and was in New York City from September 19,1997 to January 7, 1998. It will be on view at the Menil Collection. Contemporary Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from Feb.13 to May 17. It wiIl then travel to Cologne and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

[2] The Rauschenberg exhibition was followed by JasperJohns, Larry Rivers, and Ad Reinhardt exhibitions—all very daring for their time. These solo exhibitions set the precedent for mid-career surveys which became the norm. Matthew Barney, who is referred to elsewhere in this issue, is reported to be scheduled for an exhibition utilizing the entire space of the uptown Guggenheim in the year 2000.

[3] Alan R. Solomon, Robert Rauschenberg, The Jewish Museum, New York. 1963. Unpaginated.

[4] Quoted by Rosalind Krauss in “PerpetuaI Invention,” from Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective from Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, Doubleday, New York, p.89.

[5] Krauss; Op.cit. from Brian O’Doherty: American Masters, Random House, 1989, p.204. Krauss’s “Perpetual Invention,” It shouId be noted, is one of the more serious essays of those in the Rauschenberg catalog. However, since media saturation was much more complete in the U.S. in the early ’60s than in France, I’m not convinced that there is any connection between Rauschenberg’s use of photos and Roland Barthes interest in same.

[6] Barbara Rose: Rauschenberg, Vintage Books, New York, 1987, p.5.

[7] Charles F Stuckey. “Rauschenberg’s Everything, Everywhere Era,” Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective. Guggenheim Museum/Harry N.Abrams, Inc. New York, p.33.

[8] John Perreault, Rauschenberg: The World Is His Studio, GEO, Nov, 1983, VoI.5, New York, p. 8. “Interruptions, up to a point, are part of his aesthetic. He likes the comings and goings …. To insinuate oneself from interruptions would result in weakness: ‘Maybe you just happen to be having a lousy idea that moment, and then you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life. There’s no feedback and no interchange’.”

[9] Steve Paxton, “Rauschenberg for Cunningham and Three of His Own,” Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective, op.sit. p.265. The glass tires were made at UrbanGlass in May 1995. They were blown in a mold designed and made by Mat Porzorski by a team of five glassblowers headed by gaffer Dan Spitzer. Later, coldworking was done by Pat Patenaude. The project was partially funded by a grant from John McEnroe.


John Perreault is an artist, poet, and art critic. He wrote regularly for the Village Voice in the late ’60s, then for the Soho News in the ’70s. He has also written numerous articles for art magazines, ranging from ArtNews and Artforum to Domus. Currently he writes regularly for artsjournal.com  in his blog Artopia. He is also the creator of the world’s first and only art criticism cartoon. His own art can be sampled on johnperreault.info.


[Editor’s Note: Fun Fact for those of you who saw “Alice Neel: Painted Truths” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston last year. Neel’s impressive and groundbreaking 1972 reclining male nude John Perreault is a portrait of the author. You can read some of his writing and recollections about Ms. Neel here and here.]

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