WOW – Work Of the Week – Robert Rauschenberg “Chow Bags Series”

Chow Bags - Monkey Chow Chow Bags - Rabbit Chow

Monkey Chow and Rabbit Chow, from Chow Bags Series
Screenprint with collage of string
48 1/8 x 36 3/8 in. each
Edition of 100

Pencil signed and numbered

About These Works:

Robert Rauschenberg’s Chow Bags portfolio (1977) consists of six screen prints with graphite and plastic thread, each featuring a different domesticated animal. The prints are based on paper collages that Rauschenberg created from actual bags of animal feed manufactured by Ralston Purina (now Purina Mills), a company best known for its Dog Chow and Cat Chow brands. He chose the packaging for the less common feeds, based on bags for a livestock feed.
They are: 
Mink Chow, Goat Chow, Monkey Chow, Hog Chow, Rabbit Chow, and  Calf Startena (based on a bag for a livestock feed supplemented with nutrients for early growth).

They all share the distinctive red-and-white checkered pattern (except Monkey Chow, which has the green and white checkered pattern), made famous by Purina’s more familiar products. By incorporating this pattern and other prominent design elements of the bags, Rauschenberg’s Chow Bags call attention to the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of Purina’s graphic identity.

Photographs of the finished collages were used as the basis for the screen prints. Although Rauschenberg selectively cut and partially flattened the paper feed bags to create his collages, he retained their rectangular shape and allowed this form to dictate the overall configuration of each print. The bold, graphic renderings of the animals at the center of these works are surrounded by various arrangements of fainter transfer images such as flowers and leaves, cars stuck in traffic, Coca-Cola bottles, and a woman’s glossy, manicured finger. The resulting compositions present the animals gazing out as in traditional portraiture, playfully framed by colorful graphics and strong geometric shapes. 

After the silkscreen process, additional collage elements were applied to each print, including small pieces of fabric and plastic stitching that mimics the pull-strings used to open feed bags. The Chow Bags series was printed by Styria Studio in New York, and issued in an edition of 100.

Rauschenberg was impressed by the history of Purina Mills. Founded by William Danforth in 1884, the company produced Purina Chow, a line of food for animals that prospered for well over a century. The name of the product has an explanation. The word Purina (from pure) was coined to describe the purity of the grain made by the Danforth mills, and Chow is the name that soldiers during World War I used to refer to food.
Purina Mills supported the United States’ war effort. It assisted farmers through various programs to produce better food for the troops; and during the Great Depression, the company increased the sale of its breakfast products by rewarding — with toys and trinkets — any youngster who returned box tops to the company. This exemplified the power of advertising in even a poor economy. The success and entrepreneurial spirit of the Purina Mills company stands as an example of capitalistic America at it best.

The Chow Bags series embraces the very essence of what Robert Rauschenberg has been trying to capture and convey in his art, and in the Pop Art movement in general.  
Pop Art’s introduction of identifiable imagery (drawn from mass media and popular culture) was a major shift from the direction of Modernism and Abstract Expressionism.   Pop artists celebrated commonplace objects and people of everyday life. By creating paintings or sculptures of mass culture objects and media stars, and incorporating  commercial images, the Pop Art movement aimed to blur the boundaries between “high” art and “low” culture, in this way seeking to elevate popular culture to the level of fine art. 

Rauschenberg’s Chow Bags series seemingly embraced the post World War II manufacturing and media boom. His choice of Purina Chow as imagery is an enthusiastic endorsement of the capitalist market and the goods it circulated, while at the same time denotes an element of cultural critique, playing on the concept of consumerism that was at an all time high after the war, and also elevating the everyday to high art: tying the commodity status of the goods represented to the status of the art objects themselves. Which is exactly what the Pop Art movement is about.