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The family of Ileana Sonnabend donates Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon to The Museum of Modern Art
Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959. © 2012 Museum of Modern Art. Photo by John Wronn.

NEW YORK, NY.- Glenn D. Lowry, Director of The Museum of Modern Art announces the gift of Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959) to MoMA by the family of legendary gallerist Ileana Sonnabend. Canyon is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s best-known Combines—a term the artist invented to describe works that combine art materials and a rich variety of other elements. It had been in Sonnabend’s collection from the year of its creation until the dealer’s death in 2007.

“Canyon is a glorious landmark of 20th-century art,” said Mr. Lowry. “We are profoundly grateful to the family of Ileana Sonnabend for this extraordinarily important addition to MoMA’s collection, which will be enjoyed by generations of visitors to the Museum.”

“We and our families are delighted with the agreement with MoMA and the fact that this important work of art, which meant a great deal to our mother, will be on display for the general public,” said Sonnabend’s children Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem.

Canyon joins five other Combines in MoMA’s collection that form an in-depth context for this key area of Rauschenberg’s work: Bed (1955), a gift from Leo Castelli in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in 1989; Rebus (1955); Rhyme (1956); Factum II (1957); and First Landing Jump (1961).

"The arrival of Canyon in the company of such fellow masterpieces as Bed and Rebus instantly makes this collection a center for the study of this key moment in Rauschenberg's career, and in the history of 20th-century art,” said Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA.

It was in 1959, in the catalogue to the exhibition Sixteen Americans at The Museum of Modern Art, that Rauschenberg published his now famous statement, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)” With that point of departure, virtually anything was fair game for Rauschenberg’s creations, and the Combines achieve their ends through the entirely unexpected deployment of the selected components.

Canyon is believed to have been inspired in part by Rembrandt’s painting The Rape of Ganymede (1635, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), which takes as its subject the Greek myth of Zeus’ abduction of a small boy to Mount Olympus to serve as his cupbearer. Whereas Rembrandt painted the eagle that carried the boy away, Rauschenberg used a stuffed bald eagle that he had received from his friend the artist Sari Dienes. The eagle balances upon a wood plank, from which a pillow (the young captive) is suspended by a heavy string.

The medium description for Canyon reads: “oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas, with oil on bald eagle, string and pillow.” The various found materials are organized within a relatively orderly vertical structure in a surface united by vividly brushed and splashed passages of paint that show the impact of Abstract Expressionist predecessors such as Willem de Kooning.

Rauschenberg had begun to make Combine paintings late in 1954, and over the following years their contents became more and more unusual. Perhaps most notorious are the Combines that involve taxidermy, such as Canyon; Odalisk (1955/58, Museum Ludwig, Cologne), which incorporates a Plymouth Rock rooster; and Monogram (1955-59, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), incorporating an Angora goat.

Canyon was exhibited for the first time in Rauschenberg’s March-April 1960 solo exhibition at the Castelli Gallery in New York. In 1964, it was exhibited as part of the United States’ presentation at the Venice Biennale, at which Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting.

Canyon is now on view in The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries for painting and sculpture on the fourth floor. A special exhibition saluting the remarkable legacy of Ileana Sonnabend as a gallerist and collector will be presented at the Museum in 2013.

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