Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Robert Rauschenberg and the subversive language of junk.

I'd left it late to get along to Tate Modern's large Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. Back in December I'd invigilated at a small, complementary, show of Rauschenberg's works at the Offer Waterman gallery in Mayfair (which had the surprising side effect of making my parents actually watch a TV documentary about modern art). After 77 hours immersed in his art I thought it might be an idea to give it a break before attending the Tate show. I wondered if I'd become fed up. I needn't have. It was a joy from start to finish.

Rauschenberg famously said that he wanted to create "in the gap between art and life". That both explains his work and makes him sound a little pretentious but he was no moneyed dilettante born with a silver art shaped spoon in his mouth. Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925 to Fundamentalist Christians the young Rauschenberg, dyslexic and gay (if not openly for some years), seems to have been a disappointment to his father with the elder man, on his deathbed, informing the younger one just that.

Much like many who feel unloved and unappreciated Rauschenberg was forever striving, always changing, the cod psychologist in me would suggest he was seeking substitute love for the paternal affection that seems to have been in such short supply. It's hard to imagine his dad being particularly impressed with much of his son's work though. It's simply too avant-garde, too ahead of its time.

Automobile Tire Print (1953)
Port Arthur wasn't the sort of place where you became an artist and the young Rauschenberg never imagined he could become one. He didn't visit a gallery until his mid-twenties after he'd already been drafted into the navy. Navy life afforded him a chance to travel and in Paris he met Susan Weil whom he later married. Both of them enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There Rauschenberg studied under the Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers who encouraged his students to work with the everyday stuff they found around them. When Rauschenberg, some years later, got his friend John Cage to drive his Ford Model A across a canvas the lessons of Albers must've been on his mind, both as someone who'd inspired him and as someone he was reacting against. Rauschenberg, more so even than Pollock, had made an artwork that did not involve his own hand.
It was playful too and that seems to be a key, oft overlooked, element in Rauschenberg's work. Moving to a studio in downtown Manhattan Rauschenberg slowly, assiduously, erased an entire Willem De Kooning drawing. Despite still being wed to Weil he began a relationship with fellow artist Cy Twombly and as they travelled around Spain, Italy, Morocco, and Cuba Rauschenberg tested the limits of abstraction. Of patience too some might say. His White Painting of 1951 was said to be an inspiration for John Cage's 4'33 as well as a reaction to the earnest abstract expressionism of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. His gaze fell on his lover and he took lots of photos of Twombly descending staircases while, at the same time, making elemental sculptures of dirt, stone, glass, and string scavenged from Staten Island.

White Painting (1951)

Charlene (1954)
Rauschenberg wanted to bring the outside world into his work. Newspapers and comic strips were applied to canvas and reflectors, electric lights, mirrors, and umbrellas started to appear. Not renderings of them but the actual things. These were the foothills of his career preparing us for the mountains of his combines. Critics dismissed his work as 'funfair fodder' but Rauschenberg didn't let them hold him back. He forged forward with new, and brave, ideas. Always interested in the collaborative nature of art he worked with composer Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham (Cage's lover) on Minutiae, a dance piece inspired by people Rauschenberg had observed on the street.

Yoicks (Red Painting (1954)

Monogram (1955-1959)
This interest in real life as it was actually lived was expressed in a quote from Rauschenberg:- "A picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world". This helps us to understand why he made these combines. By 1954 he felt his paintings had become 'awkward physically' and sought to expand on his ideas. He noted that most artists who'd used collage and found materials aimed to represent something else. Rauschenberg was quite happy for the object to simply 'be itself'.
There was generosity in his work too, unless you're a goat of course. Short Circuit managed to sneak both Jasper Johns and now ex-wife Susan Weil, who'd both been rejected, in to the Stable Gallery behind specially created 'windows' that swung open to reveal his friend's art to now be part of his.

Short Circuit (1955)

Gift for Apollo (1959)
As his confidence grew so did the size of his works and the list of materials incorporated within them. Ladders, socks, calendars, alarm clocks, springs, electric fans etc; One work even contained radios that visitors could tune to radio stations of their own choice. In Bed he used a patchwork quilt as a base for his work because he claimed not to be able to afford a canvas. Some found it grotesque. Others suggested they'd like to get inside it for a nap.
When asked a question during a Japanese TV interview Rauschenberg, instead of answering in words, simply created a combine on the spot. It was suggested to gallery attendees that, if they wished, they could remove some of the components of the artwork but only if they replaced them with something else. This was Rauschenberg's collaborative nature, generosity, and frontier spirit gone nuclear. I'm not sure security at the Tate would've been happy if I'd decided to avail myself of a ladder or two.

Bed (1955)

Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974)
The Offer Waterman show I had very minor involvement with focused on Rauschenberg's transfer drawings. In comparison to the combines they're a very low key, sotto voce, aspect of his career but they help you to see the wider picture. To see how the man valued the small gesture as much as the large one. Using lighter fluid and empty ballpoint pens he was able to transfer images from one sheet to another. Sports stars and politicians of the day were incorporated alongside confusingly coded messages and historical works like Dante's Inferno.
By the early sixties some of the ideas behind the transfers had found their way into his larger silkscreen work. Helicopters, eagles, JFK, street signs, space hardware, and the Statue of Liberty were among the American icons that populated his work at that time. The silkscreens proved to be Rauschenberg's breakthrough and, in 1963, he was given his first major survey, held at the Jewish Museum in New York. There followed a show at the Whitechapel in London which broke attendance records. A year later, while on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he became the first American to win the painting prize at the Venice Biennale. Many were shocked and outraged but, seemingly, none as much as Rauschenberg himself who, the very next day, asked his assistant to destroy any silkscreens that were left in his studio!

Scanning (1963)

Retroactive II (1964)
Rauschenberg's relationship with Cage and Cunningham temporarily broke down and, now living with the dancer Steve Paxton, he helped found the Judson Dance Theater. An organisation which embraced process, collaboration, and 'everyday action'. Three of Rauschenberg's favourite things.
Certainly how he interpreted that remit was pretty odd. There were turtles wandering around with torches strapped to their backs, tap dancing, people ripping pages out of phone books, a shopping trolley full of alarm clocks, 'brides' with clocks stuffed down their bras, and Rauschenberg himself parading around on stilts like a demented ringmaster.
Participants, in a nod to Dada, read newspapers backwards loudly and a woman in a burlap sack was placed on stage to sing an old Spanish folk song during the middle of a tennis match. If this sounds like Rauschenberg had let the fame go to his head it's as nothing compared to his Portrait of Iris Clert. It's as arrogant as it is genius and it's as small as Oracle (started just a year later) is grand. The Clert portrait seems to show us who Rauschenberg has become while the sculpture seems to hark back to who he once was, where he came from. There's something of the ol' Texan farmhand about it. 

This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I say so (1961)

Oracle (1962-1965)
Now a big name Rauschenberg was commissioned to create a Time magazine cover. Signs (from 1970) was ultimately rejected but it's good to see that Rauschenberg was paying respect to fellow Port Athurian Janis Joplin who would go on to die of an overdose just one month later.
This room is dominated by Mud Muse, a large metal tank that contains 1000 gallons of clay mixed with water. It bubbles and spurts as air is released and I felt a strong desire to throw a coin in and make a wish. A wish for something 'dirty' and not for the first time. Around the same time Rauschenberg, and this illustrates how famous he'd become, was asked to create a drawing for a microchip to be sent to the moon. Along with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg Rauschenberg's art would be the first to go, literally, lunar.

Signs (1970)

Mud Muse (1968-1971)
It was as if space travel and fame were all becoming a bit much and in the seventies he scaled back his work in some ways. He moved to Captiva Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida, and set about making cardboard sculptures. They're a bit drab after the combines and if the series of 'windjammers' he made after visiting the textile city of Ahmedabad in India were more abundant in colour they still seemed to represent Rauschenberg wandering too far astray of his comfort zone. Something that normally worked for him but not really this time.

Volon (Cardboard) (1971)

Quarterhorse (Jammer) (1976)
He got his mojo back in the eighties when he visited the oldest paper mill in the world in Anhui Province, China. On becoming aware of the crippling restrictions enforced on the Chinese people (which still didn't stop him putting Deng Xiaoping on the cover of Time magazine in 1986) he decided to create a series of artistic dialogues with countries around the world including those with regressive governments. The Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) ran from 1984 to 1990 and took in the USSR, China, Japan, Malaysia, East Germany, Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Venezuela, and Tibet. One work from the series would be donated to a museum in whichever nation was hosting and the rest would travel on to the next exhibition culminating with a presentation at the National Gallery in Washington DC in 1991. Eventually over 2,000,000 people saw the show.
Whilst one eye was out on the wider world Rauschenberg kept another on events at home. On a rare visit back to his home state of Texas he was taken by the effect the oil crisis had had on the landscape of a once prosperous state. In acknowledgement of this he made the elegiac Glut series from discarded gas station signs, oil cans, and automobile parts. Around the same time as all this he somehow found time to design the artwork for the Talking Heads 'Speaking in Tongues' album.

Glut Data (1986)

Stop Side Early Winter Glut (1987)

Yellow Ranch (Rancho Amarillo), Roci Cuba (1988)

Untitled (Spread) (1986)

Holiday Ruse (Night Shade (1991)
Towards the end of his life (Rauschenberg died in 2008) photography became an important part of his work. Working with a team of assistants he made large scale work using inkjet printers and digital image storing. Even in his dotage Rauschenberg was embracing the new. Even when a stroke paralysed his right hand in 2002 he simply got his friends to take photographs for him so he could mix them in with his own bank of images.
It's this restlessness, and desire to create, that marks Rauschenberg out as one of the heroes of 20th century art. In the Offer Waterman gallery I'd hear them repeat the line, attributed to Jasper Johns, that Rauschenberg was the American Picasso. It seemed fanciful at the time but in the breadth of his work, his ability to be influenced by everything and, in turn, influence everything, and in his questing and exploratory nature I think that they, and Jasper Johns, might just have been on to something.

Triathlon (Scenario) (2005)

Untitled (Scenario) (2006)

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