The two great artists who always come to mind my mind when I have to think of examples of those rare artists who reinvent what they do more than twice are Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis, but now I must add Robert Rauschenberg to my short list. Lin and I were both sufficiently impressed with creative energy in the magnificent Tate retrospective of his work that we immediately bought the doorstep of a catalogue, which is always a good sign.
The exhibition is well curated and is structured around the many different media Rauschenberg used. Born in 1925 he studied at the famous Black Mountain College where his classes included painting, drawing, textiles, dance, music appreciation, and photography. This set the pattern of his creative life which lasted six decades and included painting, sculpture, photography, performance, electronics, and digital printing.
The first room was “colour” with some splendid colourful paintings, but even here he was including objects–socks, ties, newspapers–in what were essentially paintings. But then he moved on to what he called “combines,” including all sorts of objects in paintings that became almost sculptures. I spotted chairs, umbrellas, electric fans, clocks, a china dog, boots, bottles, metal clipboards, and much else. The sheep with a tire around its middle standing on a painting that included many pages from Sports Illustrated was perhaps more sculpture than painting. Crucially all of his creations were visually appealing.
At this stage in his work Rauschenberg painted a picture live on stage. The picture included an alarm clock, and when I went off he stopped. (Knowing when to stop can b a problem for painters, and certainly is for Lin.) That picture is included in the exhibition and is strong.
Rauschenberg next moved to “transfer drawings,” where “by applying lighter fluid to a magazine clipping and rubbing the back of it with an empty ballpoint pen he could transfer the image onto another sheet of paper.” He used this technique to produce drawings of the 34 cantos if Dante’s Inferno. They were understated, evocative, and beautiful, especially all together–the whole being more than the sum of the parts, although I’d be happy with just one part.
It is silkscreens for which Rauschenberg is most famous, and he began using them at the same time as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the early 60s. Warhol and Lichtenstein used mostly pictures from the mass media, but Rauschenberg went broader, including images from politics, science, and sport.
From his time at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg had always been interested in performance, working for many years with Merce Cunningham and ballet. In 1963 he was falsely credited with having choreographed a ballet, but this mistake gave him the idea that he could do just that. His ballet had a dancer on roller skates with a parachute.
Just as he worked with dancers he also worked with technologists, and one of the fun things in the exhibition was a sculpture of many, independent large parts built from scrap metal. I remember something like a funnel pouring water into what looked like a pram. The components of the sculpture–like the members of a dance troop–can be arranged in different formations.
In the next room he’d again worked with technologists to create Mud Muse, a tank containing 1000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with water that bubbles and spurts as air is forced through it. The exhibit made me think of the huge tank of oil in the basement of the Saatchi Gallery. Rauschenberg did a lot of things first, freeing up artists who followed him to do many extraordinary things. I wondered if his exuberant, uninhibited creativity wouldn’t free us all up to be artists–and perhaps that was his intention. But his objects were beautiful; he had, as Lin put it simply, “an eye.” Most of us lack that.
In 1971 Rauschenberg moved from New York to an island off the coast of Florida and entered a new phase–using not metal and technology but coloured silk and other lightweight fabrics from Ahmedabad in India. He called these Jammers, and at the same time he created highly effective pieces from commercial cardboard boxes.
Travel was always important to Rauschenberg, and between 1984 and 1990 he led the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Exchange: this meant travelling to a series of countries; creating and exhibiting work there; donating one work to a local museum; and then travelling on with the rest of the work. The programme culminated with an exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and was seen by two million people. He visited Mexico, Chile, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, and the USSR, and the Tate exhibition, included a number of works, mostly from Cuba. (I wondered irreverently if the whole thing might have been funded by the CIA.)
At this time Rauschenberg also travelled back to Texas, where he was born, for the first time in many years and created some stunning sculptures from discarded and twisted metal signs. Lin and I tried to identify how much he had manipulated them by adding things and bending the metal. “Not much” seemed to be the answer. It was his “eye” again.
A room near the end has four huge screens side by side on which black and white photographs are projected. They change every few seconds, moving from left to right across the four screens, disappearing, and then reappearing later on the left hand side. These screens originally formed the backcloth for four dancers who also appeared individually at different times, dancing across the set, and leaving the audience wondering how many dancers there were. We could watch a video of the performance.
Rauschenberg suffered two strokes in the early noughties but continued to work, mostly working with assistants to create large scale works from a bank of photographs using Iris inkjet printers and digital image storing. All his life he responded to new methods, and the last picture in the exhibition came from only year before he died in 2008.
This is a “once-in-lifetime-must-see-exhibition,” just like the Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy last year. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/painting-tragedy-ecstasy-and-doom/ I didn’t make it back to that exhibition for a second time, but I will revisit this one.