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Flip Flopping Art History

Alli Burness - Robert Rauschenberg Cy Tombly - Aracoeli Steps Stairs - June 2013

I often feel held at a distance when viewing objects in museums. I want to step into a painting and experience a space or the company of an interesting person, but can only stand transfixed, trying to get inside by looking and imagining. In Rome, I was relieved to step into an artwork, experience it, participate by standing in the artist’s shoes.

At the suggestion of art historian Chad Weinard, I re-imagined Robert Rauschenberg’s Cy + Roman Steps (1952) using Vine. I went on a journey, documented in Chad’s Storify, C + Roman Steps: Making Art and Art History on Vine which details our search for the location of the original photographs.

CY_98.297.A-E - Cy + Roman Steps - Rauschenberg - 1953 - SFMOMAIn the lead up, I’d been enjoying the series of posts Why Art History? written and coordinated by Hasan Niyazi. In each piece, an art historian describes “a formative or memorable art experience, which prompted them to seek information about a work’s history and meaning, or the artist(s) behind it.” Underlying the series is Hasan’s statement that “this impulse to ‘find out more’ is the essence of art historical thinking.” By focusing on this impulse, art history is accessible to anyone. It can be pursued by any of us who appreciate art and doesn’t necessarily require an academic level of investigation.

This impulse may explain why I was so determined to find the location where Rauschenberg took Cy + Roman Steps and echo his and Cy Twombly’s actions. It drove me to queue for 40 minutes, arranging a later train out of Rome, giving me time to create a Vine in the right place. This chance felt akin to touching an artwork, seeing how it was constructed or how it works from the inside out. I felt like I could step through a surface and look out from the eyes of the artist or his subject. It was a chance to find out more.

Before making the Vine, I only managed to inspect Rauschenberg’s Cy + Roman Steps on the SFMOMA online collection via my iPhone. I’m not familiar with the photographs “hung side by side in a tight row as they are meant to be seen and displayed,” as Nicholas Cullinan describes. I can either view one photograph at a time on my phone or laptop, or view all five in a tiny line, obscuring detail. I don’t know how the physical distance between each image impacts the rhythm of horizontals and verticals, the sense of movement. I can only imagine the size of the images or the role of the white space around each when on display in a gallery. It’s an artwork I’m now hungry to visit.

My research into the background of the work was also cursory. I managed to skim read Cullinan’s Double Exposure (pay walled), detailing the European travels of Rauschenberg and Twombly, with the sole purpose of finding the location of the work. Cullinan’s essay on Cy + Roman Steps for the SFMOMA Rauschenberg Research Project was a week or two from online publication.

Armed with my limited understanding, I danced the flip flop, re-enacting the work on the stairs of Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Of course Vine transforms Rauschenberg’s work, displaying one frame at a time and removing space from between each image, somewhat akin to how I see it online. While the movement down the stairs comes to life, the images have lost their breathing room. The pace feels hurried. It’s taken me time to accept these new features; this is Vine meets Rauschenberg after all.

Further research casts my Vine in a new light. I now know Cullinan has been through the re-enactment process before. He describes how the images were staged with Twombly walking down the stairs, even the exact steps he stood on. But I found it easiest to replicate by walking up the stairs towards C, my partner. I was caught in the role of the re-creator, restricted as one who tries to walk in the footsteps of another. This was complicated by how differently my iPhone saw those steps in contrast to Rauschenberg’s camera. Most obviously, I didn’t fully appreciate the centrality of time. Despite seeing how Rauschenberg paced “it out spatially and temporally through a medium-specific process of seriality,” I didn’t note the watch Twombly wore. The watch we had sat forgotten in the early morning rush to find the steps before departing Rome.

Now, I’m applying my insight into Rauschenberg’s practice to read into his other works. I’m also freely experimenting and recreating Cy + Roman Steps in all sorts of locations. It will be reinvented on the stage of every appealing set of stairs across Europe and South America for the rest of the year.


For some of us, it only takes the barest suggestion to jump over the ledge, following the art historical impulse to find out more. How can museums similarly nudge visitors to feel and follow that impulse? What is the power of cameras and smartphones when used to capture a visitor connecting with an artwork, grasping the transformative moment of an interaction? How can museums use that visitor experience and push it further? What other non-tech ways might be effective at sparking an investigative impulse in museum visitors, pushing them beyond passive viewing and enabling them to step into an object?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I came upon Jean duBuffet’s ‘Jardin d’hiver’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on Friday and I was so shocked I nearly fell over! I didn’t realise it was going to be there, and I was so excited to be able to actually step inside such an awesome piece of art! Stepping inside something, literally in this case, is thrilling. Something only modern art can give really, I feel anyway. Unless you’re prepared to recreate as you have and enter the essence of it.

    8 October 2013
    • Hi Helen – thanks for your comment. Yes, I think modern (and contemporary) art does let visitors in more easily/frequently (I’m still waiting for the day I get to experience a Yayoi Kusama space for example!). But it’s worth thinking about ways we can step into more traditional works. The task would be different for each type of medium, even each work. I saw Las Meninas by Velazquez in Madrid earlier this year – it’s a work I always feel I’ve stepped into as Velazquez so strongly references the space in which his painting is hung, and his audience – as long as you have the information to let you read this. It’s a challenge for museum educators and those invested in visitor engagement to help visitors get inside more traditional works – one that’s so worthy of pursuing for its transformative potential.

      9 October 2013

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