Robert Rauschenberg @ Tate Modern

This exhibition is a gas, I can’t remember laughing so much at a show for ages. It’s a big one, the biggest retrospective of Rauschenberg’s art for a generation, and he worked for six decades – from the 1940s to the 2000s (his dates are 1925 – 2008) – covering a lot of ground, producing a huge body of work.

I’ve recently read history books about the Second World War in the Pacific, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The major theme which emerges from all of them is the incredible, overwhelming power and wealth of America as it emerged from WW2 to be the first superpower in world history, capable of projecting bottomless economic aid and phenomenal military force right around the world, from Korea to Greece and Turkey.

Seen against this historical backdrop, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg’s generation, and then the Pop artists, represent three waves reflecting the unstoppable economic and military power of their country. As the recent show at the Royal Academy showed, the Abstract Expressionists were very interior, psychological artists, traumatised by the war, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, stuck in their new York lofts painting huge blocks of rough-edged colour or splattering the surface of the canvas with flickering expressions of existentialist angst. The Pop artists from the very end of the 1950s/dawn of the 1960s conveyed the sense of a society drowning in its own consumer products, sometimes with unironic adulation (Warhol), comic book fandom (Lichtenstein) or ironic questioning (Hamilton).

Rauschenberg falls in middle. His works are more fun, open-ended and disruptive than the serious AEs, but deliberately lack the sheen and finish of Pop. They include ready-made objects and junk found in the streets, magazine articles, random objects, and a randomised, carefree approach to cutting and combining materials and objects together. He wanted to bring the outside world into the artist’s studio.

The exhibition is in 11 big rooms which take his career chronologically introducing us to key themes and sets of works in different forms and media.

Photographer

Rauschenberg had an excellent eye as a photographer and at first considered photography as a professional career. An early set of works used photographic images and X-rays to produce experimental images of the human body.

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Beginnings

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 and grew up in Port Arthur Texas, surrounded by big open spaces and the oil industry. Enrolled in the US Navy he saw his first art gallery in California, used his G.I. Bill money to travel to Paris where he studied art and met his wife-to-be, Susan Weil. Back in the States she enrolled in the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Rauschenberg quickly became a major player.

Hundreds of books have been written about the college, founded by exiles from the Bauhaus in Germany, who taught a complete integration of all the arts, with no gap between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’. Experimental poets, playwrights, artists, painters, sculptors, composers and choreographers worked together and exchanged ideas. It was the setting for the first ‘happenings’ and multi-media experiments which were to become so widespread in the 1960s.

Here he met the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Rauschenberg created sets and backdrops for performances of avant-garde dance to Cage’s avant-garde scores, and was to remain involved in dance for decades. He painted a set of pure white canvases, using industrial paint and rollers to achieve no surface texture. The idea was that the art was the change of light and shadow, the drift of motes of dust, across the surface. Apparently this helped inspire Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”, in which the performer comes on stage, opens the piano and sits there without moving. The ‘art’ is in the audience being forced to pay attention, not to the silence (for there is never silence) but to the ambient sounds around them. It creates a Buddhist-style act of attention and focus.

‘The world around him’ could have been Rauschenberg’s motto. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists for the most part stayed inside their New York loft studios, Rauschenberg opened the windows and doors to let in the big dirty world, and went out a-walking through it to see what he could see, and then to create works which brought the ‘outside’ into art.

Hence Automobile Tire print (1951) in which he got twenty or so bits of common or garden typewriter paper, glued them together, then rang up Cage and asked him to come round in his Model A Ford. They applied black paint to the car’s tyre then Cage drove very slowly and carefully along the paper. Voilà!

The audiocommentary for this show is brilliant and nods to Rauschenberg’s love of collage, cutting up and mixing and matching, by having voices of the various curators interrupting each other, contributing questions and answers chopped up and sampled, alongside snippets of Rauschenberg himself from old interviews.

What comes over most is the laughter. Like Cage, Rauschenberg seems to have hugely enjoyed life and saw ‘art’ as a way of extending and exploring that enjoyment. He tells us it was a rainy day, and it was damn hard to get the paper to stay glued together.

The sense of humour comes over in what came to be known as the ‘Combines’ series, paintings made ‘awkward’ by the addition of objects. An example is Bed, a duvet and pillow stuck to a canvas and then spurted with oil paint, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish. Rauschenberg gets a laugh on an interview snippet on the commentary by saying that up till then the quilt had been used to put over the radiator of his knackered car to keep it warm in the New York winter.

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Junk and Arte Povera

The artist’s poverty is a running thread. The small set of boxes containing found objects, nails, insects, in room one are really the function of extreme poverty. The ‘Combines’ include works which have electric light bulbs, radios, fans, and alarm clocks embedded in them or tacked on them.

Her worked with what came to hand, what was outside on the streets, junk, wood, the cardboard boxes which are the material for a whole set of works later, in the 1990s, wood, tyres – the detritus of America’s booming consumer society.

A standout work from the period is Monogram. He came across a stuffed angora goat in a local junk shop and persuaded the owner to sell it to him, though he couldn’t afford the full $30 cost. Back in the studio he knew he had to do something to make it into ‘art’, and so tried painting its face. wedging it against a combine painting backdrop, or on a combine painting, but none of it really worked. In fact it was only a few years later when he had the idea of using a tyre which was lying around in the studio, slipping it round the goat’s belly that, he says, the thing was finally finished and – as he says on the audioguide, to appreciative laughter – the various elements of the work ‘lived happily ever after’.

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Performance

Mention has been made of his involvement in ballet productions, and he went on a world tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating sets and backdrops, often spontaneously from objects found near the theatres. In the later 1950s Rauschenberg staged performances, especially in the creation of ‘combines’. We are told about one which he created in front of a gallery audience using paint and all sorts of objects, including an alarm clock which he set at the start. When the alarm clock rang, the work was finished.

Silk screens

In the late 1950s Rauschenberg discovered that if you apply lighter fluid to the images in glossy magazines, place the page on blank paper and rub it, the image transfers to the white paper, often distressed. Do it with multiple images and you have a collage. Using this technique he created a set of drawings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Inferno, and 20 or so are on display here. They look a bit scrappy at first, but if you look carefully, images begin to emerge, of police, weightlifters, American street scenes, which have a strange appropriateness to Dante’s visions of hell. (Compare and contrast the recent exhibition of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante. Of course, contemporary references and events is precisely the point of the Divine Comedy)

In 1962, at the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with making paintings using silk screens, a technique previously restricted to commercial printing. Whereas Warhol’s silks tend to be of one iconic image (Botticelli’s Venus, Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Elvis) Rauschenberg’s are always collages of multiple images and use a far wider range of imagery, including political and social imagery. To the casual viewer (like myself) these are probably his best-known works and the image chosen as poster for the show, the best-known.

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Having a roomful of these works all together allows us to see how snippets or individual images are re-used: for example, the classical painting of a woman looking at her own reflection is repositioned as the main feature of Persimmon, the Army truck at the top reappears in other images, and several works feature the same image of mosquitoes, recast, recoloured, with different croppings.

It’s difficult to pin down what makes these works so arresting. First and foremost they are already acute and carefully chosen images, themselves the result of other people’s professional labours – for example, of the photographer who took the Kennedy image and then the newspaper or magazine designers who cropped and positioned it – and many of the other magazine images – just so.

But the assembly of these already-burnished images together creates strange emotions – in one mood they can be experienced as vibrant and exciting depictions of America Superpower, with its go-ahead young president, its space-age technology and so on. But the same montage can also be deeply poignant, recalling a vanished era, with its vanished hopes, assassinated presidents and failed technology.

Performance

In 1964 Rauschenberg broke with the Cunningham Dance Company and formed a new company with his partner, dancer Steve Paxton. Initially he created the sets, as usual, but then experimented with choreography and even performing himself. A video here shows an entrancing work called Pelican where Rauschenberg and another performer move around the stage on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs. It looks wonderful.

A big space is devoted to the installation titled Oracle (1962-65), ‘a multi-part sculpture made from scrap metal which contained wireless microphone systems, which could be moved around and choreographed in any configuration’. The showerhead in the middle actually spouts pouring water, and concealed loudspeakers play noises and snippets of radio music. This reminded me a lot of John Cage’s hilarious Water Walk as performed live on American TV in 1960.

You get the idea. The richness and power of America isn’t represented by diamonds and tall buildings: the opposite; a lot of this stuff is ramshackle and jimmy-rigged in the extreme. It’s the confidence of these artists, that they can now do whatever they want to, having completely thrown off the chains of the European tradition. If Cage says sitting at a piano without doing a thing is art – then it is, dammit! In another room in the show, if Rauschenberg builds a big metal tank containing 1,000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with mud, through which pipes blow air which spurts and erupts as geyser-like bubbles on the muddy surface and calls it ‘art’ – then, why not?

After the 60s

Like a lot of artists of the time, Rauschenberg was exhausted by the end of the 1960s. In pop music I think of the famous performers who all managed to die in and around 1970 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison). The whole culture seemed to have become too frenetic and cluttered. Bob Dylan and John Lennon who in their different ways had contributed to the sense of clutter, of psychedelic lyrics packed with references and images, both eventually rejected the whole thing, rolling back to simple folk in Dylan’s case, or a man dressed in white in an empty room playing a white piano, as in Lennon’s Imagine.

In art music, the impenetrably complex mathematically-derived music of serialism began to give way to the repetitive rhythms and simple harmonics of New York pals Philip Glass and Steve Reich which would become known as minimalism. In American art, an art movement also known as minimalism, led by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, represented a wish to declutter and simplify.

In tune with the mood of the times, Rauschenberg left New York City, his home and inspiration for 20 years, to resettle in Captiva of the coast of Florida, in what looks like an amazing house built on stilts in the ocean.

Deprived of the endless bric-a-brac to be found in New York Rauschenberg chose his materials more carefully and used them to create large, spare, simpler works. One series became known as the Cardboards, for the way they are made of cardboard boxes reworked into large shapes and patterns. Didn’t do much for me. On the other hand, I really like the series known as ‘Jammers’, inspired by the colours and fabrics he encountered on a trip to India in 1975.

Untitled (Venetian) could be a work by one of the Italian Arte Povera artists, which feature elsewhere in Tate Modern, made from large-scale industrial cast-offs and waste material.

One of my favourite works form the show was Albino (Jammer) – four bamboo posts leaning against the wall. On the wall is a rectangle of white fabric and each of the posts is wrapped in the same white fabric. Simple as that. It obviously relates back to the white canvas squares from early in his career, but now more mature, deeper. For me the quietness, dignity, simplicity of the rectangle is beautifully dramatised and energised by the leaning posts.

Abroad

The pop culture I grew up with was all played out by the early 1980s: prog rock, heavy metal, glam rock, disco gave way to punk then post-punk, industrial, Goth and so on. I was struck by how John Peel’s successor Andy Kershaw left the European tradition altogether and, along with other intelligent rock lovers of the period, began to explore world music, and anybody who turned on Radio 1 late at night was likely to hear music from Burundi and Mali. The trend was crystallised by Paul Simon’s best-selling album Graceland, for which he went to South Africa to find inspiration beyond the American tradition and work with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Room nine in the exhibition tells us that Rauschenberg undertook a campaign of travel to exotic countries as part of a project he titled the ‘Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange’. Between 1982 and 1990 he visited China, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, Russia, East Germany and Malaysia, collaborating with local artists in exploring their materials and traditions, one work from each stop donated to local museums, the rest accumulating to form a travelling show. The products of this project included in this exhibition are mostly collages featuring images from local magazines.

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Much more striking is the ‘Gluts’ series. Rauschenberg revisited his hometown in Texas in 1985 and was shocked by the extent of deindustrialisation, abandoned oil wells, derelict gas stations.

The automobile was a potent symbol of American economic power, and the shameless creativity of industrial design in the 1940s and 1950s and as such is a recurrent motif in his work (think of the Tyre work from back in New York City). After two oil crises in the 1970s, those days of boundless prosperity and cheap cruising along endless highways were gone. And so was the happy-go-lucky liberalism of the 1950s and 60s. It is the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan. Rauschenberg is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant.’ While  crooks on Wall street made undreamed-of fortunes, lots of industrial America fell into terminal decline.

The ‘Glut’ works use scrap metal, gas station signs, decayed car and industrial parts to create a series of wall reliefs and freestanding assemblages. I grew up in a petrol station, with the smell of petrol in my nose all day long, the oily sheen on the puddles out front, piles of knackered tyres out back of the tyre change bay, the sound of compressed air pumps which inflate the inner tubes and the machines which derimmed old tyres. I’ve always liked art made from the wreck of our ruinous industrial civilisation. The Glut series do this in excelsis, and are all the more poignant for hearkening back to Rauschenberg’s earliest inspirational use of the junk he found in the streets around his New York base.

Glacial Decoy and Photography

In 1979 Rauschenberg embarked on a 16-year collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown. In one example of their work, Glacial Decoy, four performers dance in front of an enormous screen onto which are projected four large black-and-white stills of photographs taken by Rauschenberg. New slides appear every few seconds with a very audible click from the projector.

A whole darkened room is devoted to this slide show, each photo projected onto the wall ten or twelve feet tall. There were 620 slides and they are a revelation. They show that Rauschenberg was an extraordinarily talented photographer. All the images are very good and a lot of them are brilliantly evocative – poignant black-and-white images of brick walls, wooden steps, abandoned tyres, lilies, freight trains, roadside flagpoles, on and on, a wonderfully rich and haunting cornucopia of images of American life.

For me these slides revealed the bedrock of Rauschenberg’s artistry, which is his extraordinary ‘eye’ for composition, for imagery, for finding and combining beauty in the everyday, in magazine pictures, found objects, industrial bric-a-brac, cardboard boxes, car speedometers, the readymade junk of our civilisation.

Scenarios and Runts

Rauschenberg’s perfect judgement of how to combine, crop, place, position and work images is still very much in evidence in the final works in the last room, in which photography in fact became more central and prominent in his practice. Using newly developed water-soluble printing techniques, he mounted prints onto polylaminate supports before transferring them to the very large final works – enormous digital photograph montages.

Right up to these final paintings you have the sense of an artist who really did experiment, push the boundaries, try out new things, determined to bring the whole world into modern art and, whenever you hear snippets of him being interviewed, laughing and joking and enjoying himself hugely in the process.

This is a wonderful, eye-opening, life-affirming exhibition.

P.S.

60 years of art and not a single naked body, no tits or bums anywhere: human faces or human bodies are only included in works as semi-abstract shapes, as elements of composition. This near absence of the human face or figure emphasises Rauschenberg’s focus on the man-made, 20th century, industrialised world around us, a really genuinely modern art of the world we step out our front door and start tripping over.


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