”A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.”
The Start Was Anti-Art
Robert Rauschenberg is an artist who can be hard to place. Arriving in New York in the Fifties - after, and in vivid contrast to, Abstract Expressionism - he’s often associated with it’s successor Pop Art. And he can seem to match Pop’s philosophy, as expressed in my recent review of the Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show: “You didn’t make art by contemplating the depths of your soul, but by taking surface features of the world around you and recombining them.”
And this is emphasised by his bold use of colour. Eschewing any intricate tonal qualities he usually picks the bright primary and secondary colours a child would choose – bright reds, full blacks and whites, bold greens, solid oranges.
Yet Pop, particularly American Pop, is cool, neat, smooth – and ultimately detached. Warhol’s silkscreens are like the mass produced products lined up neatly in a shop window, whereas Rauschenberg’s paint-spattered assemblages resemble the broken-down stuff slung out the back. A look normally achieved by his making art from objects thrown out in the trash. (Notably, though the Tate’s mailing called him “a Pop Art pioneer”, the show itself stays away from the term.)
Certainly, this singularity is part of his appeal. He was not just a contemporary to Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly but had romantic relationships with both. Yet neither of those artists appeals much to me. But he’s not quite the one-off he appears. And in fact the start of this show does much to reveal his secret origin. His roots lay in what, at least in my mind, was the most important Modernist movement of them all. In a word, it’s Dada.
In 1947 he enrolled in Black Mountain College, described in the indicia with rather English understatement as “an unconventional institution”. With John Cage and Merce Cunningham as tutors, it was effectively Hogwarts for anti-artists. (It even has that numinous Lynchian name, making it seem still more the stuff of fable.) And, like a story which began in legend even then, Cage and Cunningham, were themselves disciples of Marcel Duchamp. (Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg all featured in the Barbican’s ‘Bride and the Bachelors’ exhibition of 2013, on Duchamp and his successors).
Two things to note: though Rauschenberg was officially a student of Cage and Cunningham’s, it seems they soon embarked on collaborations. And the fairly self explanatory ’White Painting’ (1951) is believed to have been an influence on Cage’s ‘silent composition’ ’4’33’’’ (1952). Plus the provocative refutation of Ab Ex sometimes seems openly intentional. ’Automobile Tyre Print’ (1953) was made from tyre tracks as Cage drove over lined-up pieces of paper. It seems a wilful parody of the Ab Ex notion that artworks were about capturing the gesture made by the artist.
More notorious was ’Erased De Kooning Drawing’ (1953) in which he… well, the title gives the punch line away. This could be seen as an antagonistic gesture, literally rubbing out the opposition, as a Dada prizing of negativity over creativity, plus a Modernist desire to be forever in the moment and starting from scratch. (Though the history of the piece is strangely complex. De Kooning had given him the drawing, precisely for that purpose, but later objected to the exercise being publicised.)
But possibly more important for his subsequent development are the Personal Boxes and Elemental Sculptures. (See for example, ’Untitled’, 1952, above). These were made from found materials, a practice Rauschenberg cheerily admitted was due to his straightened financial circumstances at the time. (On moving to New York in 1949, he subsided in a condemned building with no hot water.) But what’s significant is his uninterest in disguising their origins or even their weatherbeaten appearances.
Unlike the hermetic spaces of Joseph Cornell, packed with secret chambers, Rauschenberg’s assert their materiality. Cornell magically transforms, takes twigs and suggests mighty forests. With Rauschenberg twigs remain twigs, thorns stay thorns and dirt is just dirt. There’s anti-art here, but also a back-to-basics assertiveness. And it may be Rauschenberg was also channelling another Black Mountain current. For his tutors also included ex-Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, who emphasised the “natural properties of everyday materials”.
Duchamp is not stuff which washes out, and and his provocative conceptualism recurs through Rauschenberg’s career. ’Shades’ (1964), for example comprised six prints on plexiglass arranged before a bulb, re-slottable into any order. When having agreed a commission for a portrait of Iris Clert then promptly forgetting about it, he sent the show a telegram with the message ’This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So’ (1961).
But from this point on he stops making art purely to illustrate points and instead hits on aesthetics. There’s still a heady dose of anti-art, as if he’s defying us to take his output as finalised works. But they are, if you follow, anti-art art. Cage’s commitment to conceptualism, his fixation with the process and indifference to how the finished work turns out, all that is left behind.
And perhaps that’s what you need to do with Cage – make him your tutor, but remain aware at some point you need to graduate. The composer John Adams has remarked how he initially found Cage’s all-embracing theories of music liberating, but after a while those strictures came to be confining and he had to break from them. Cage is like the Grand Master in those kung-fu films, who the hero goes back to after some setback to reorient himself. You take on as much Cage as you can, but from there you need to clear your own path.
The Splatters That Matter (Going Red)
Once in New York, Rauschenberg embarked upon the Red paintings. ’Yoicks’ (1954, above) is built around a contrast between regular patterning (the stripes and green dots) and the random (the roughly applied, dripping paint.) It could be read as art (form) and anti-art (formlessness) set against one another in some ceaseless, Manichean struggle. Each trying to overcome the other, while being reliant upon it’s existence.
And much of the idea here comes from the understanding that art is not merely the realisation of your intention. Even as you paint the brush will always take its own direction, and that should be acknowledged and made part of the work. This juxtaposition recurs frequently, for example in ’Bed’ (1955) when he daubed and trickled paint over the patterned squares of his own quilt and pillow.
’Charlene’ (also 1954, above) incorporates photos (including of other artworks), newspaper clippings and found objects – including reflectors and an umbrella. Some of these are visible, others semi-buried under great occlusions of paint. Yet at the same time the division of the work into panels, and the incorporation of a flickering light in a frame, is almost a reference to Renaissance art.
It was this incorporation of objects into paintings which would soon develop into his best-known works, the combines. He would walk the streets of downtown New York, finding and utilising discarded objects. He rarely needed to go further than a couple of blocks. Findings included a door, a handle, a metal bucket, brackets and what look like pram wheels, all of which summarily show up in ’Gift For Apollo’ (1959, above).
But it’s ’Monogram’ (1955/9) which is one of his best-known works, and a crowd-puller for the show. The tyre, a perfect man-made object, is placed around the goat with horns and painted face. This combination would seem to make up the monogram of the title. The combines often add physical objects to a flat painted surface, but unusually with ’Monogram’ this is placed on the floor. A shoe heel planted in the board (to the goat’s left in the illo), emphasises this.
What to make of it all? While Rauschenberg was gay, Robert Hughes’ theory that it’s all a metaphor for anal sex is now pretty much rejected. It seems a trivial biographical detail shoehorned onto a work, and besides in the piece’s long gestation the tyre was added late. The wildly painted goat’s head recalls to me both the phrase “painted savage” and the donkey’s head atop a piano from Dali and Bunel’s surrealist film ’Un Chien Andalou’ (1929, illo above). Above the dead painting rises the savage spirit of art, untrammelled and ready to inhabit pastures new. And those pastures are things society has thrown out, like the return of the repressed.
Or something like that. But really, I’ve no idea. Like much anti-art, the work is volatile and inchoate. It seems to simply shrug off analysis. You’re never even sure of its tone, whether to find it compelling or mischievous. And that’s probably the point. As Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian, “Rauschenberg kept definitions at bay throughout his career, allowing himself less the task of understanding than that of making. Sometimes it must have seemed as if his art almost made itself. He never tried to sew things up.” Art is often about trying to bring order to the world, through the manipulation of symbols. Rauschenberg reminds us we can’t even bring order to art.
And that’s inimical to his lineage. Anti-artists are often accused by smart-arse know-nothings of failing to recognise a basic contradiction. But what dim bulbs perceive as a weakness is the very point, the contradiction is precisely the thing you want to raise – artworks which clearly exist, but your brain doesn’t know what to do with them. His combines contain objects, recognisable things, bits of the world. And yet for all that they’re ultimately inexplicable.
Radical and innovative artists are often said to have divided the critics. Rauschenberg united his, and they were united against him. With the heady, metaphysical world of Abstract Expressionism all the rage this out-of-towner, hauling bits of trash into galleries, ran counter to ever fashion. (His comments at the time seemed to even invite this polarity: “I want my painting to look like what’s going on outside my window, rather than what’s inside my studio”.) But perhaps his indefinability had something to do with this too. Unlike Rothko’s colour fields, there were no metaphysics to float off into. His metal buckets and painted goats left critics without a role, something unlikely to go down well.
Images Rub Off On You
I earlier compared Rauschenberg’s combines to Warhol’s silkscreens. Yet of course he not only turned to screen-prints himself but at roughly the same time as Warhol – in 1962. Though there’s debate over who influenced who, this show contains transfer drawings of his going back to ‘58. (Transferring magazine images by oil rubbing, the way the ink from a wet newspaper will come off.)
Ostensibly easier to read than the combines, it was these screen-prints which cemented Rauschenberg’s popularity. And they do look very Sixties in their immediacy, their ‘fastness’, compared with the multi-layered works of earlier. But is that look misleading? Does it confuse our propensity to scan images with our ability to read them? Are they not less challenging but more beguiling?
And in fact Rauschenberg handily proves what they’re not by providing one standard photo-collage - ’Signs’ (1970, above). We’ve all seen such works, images from magazine covers distilled into one frame. And indeed it was originally intended as a magazine cover, for ’Time’. (Though rejected due to the incorporation of a bloodied civil rights protestor.) We don’t question why Kennedy and Joplin are adjacent any more than we question who they are. The medium naturalises their association, because it’s expected to act as a précis of its times.
The screen-print ’Retroactive II’ (1964, above) even incorporates some of the same elements, such as Kennedy and an astronaut. But with this medium we cannot help but be more aware we are looking at a reproduced image of Kennedy. The image being less perfected makes everything looks so much more in flux. (These images, remember, stem from the still more ghostly transfer drawings.)
And what about those points where Rauschenberg has directly applied paint? The show comments how he’d “unite disparate printed imagery with gestural brushwork”. While David Anfam, in his book on Abstract Expressionism, describes the two styles as “colliding sign systems”. In a way they’re the reiteration of the stripes and splodges of earlier. One we associate with mass production, with disseminated information, and the other with personal expression. It’s like reading a letter which shifts between an official-looking font and spidery handwriting.
The prints are placed in an adjacent room to ’Oracle’ (1962/5) a multi-part sculpture of scrap metal parts and wireless mikes. This includes a detuned analogue radio, switching continually between static and snatches of stations, providing a companion in sound for what the prints are doing.
Rauschenberg would also reuse images from print to print (trucks, military helicopters) in different contexts and combinations, as if turning the images of the mass media into personalised motifs. Sometimes he would employ his own photos among the media images, such as ’Scanning’ (1963) which incorporates an snapshot of the Cunningham Dance Company.
Ultimately the screen-prints seem less to do with Duchamp or even Cage, and more an analogue of William Burroughs’ cut-ups. The everyday reality we experience is not just used as source material for the artist, as it is with Schwitters' bus tickets. There’s also the sense that it’s an obscuring fiction which, when cut up and reassembled, will start to tell the truth.
The prints were so popular that Rauschenberg won the Grand Prix at the 1964 Venice Biennale. In a story now well-know, he called his assistant the very next day with instructions to destroy all his remaining silkscreens, resolving it was time for something new.
Creating A Performance
The Surrealists liked to see mistakes as “sacred”, providence in action. And, appealingly, it was a mistake which led Rauschenberg into his next endeavour. A 1963 programme had accidentally credited him as a choreographer, which suggested to him he take up performance.
Except that chess move, however appealing a story, isn’t quite true. As ever, finding out about an artist undermines their myth. And the reality cannot help but feel a little disappointing by comparison. Rauschenberg had always built on what had gone before. He had made giddying leaps, yes, but had always leapt from where he was. And even burning the screen-prints, though the biggest leap yet, didn’t take him back to square one.
He had often provided sets and backdrops for Cage and Cunningham, often of such a speedy and extemporised nature that they were essentially part of the performance. Plus he’d at times worked performance into his art. ’First Time Painting’ (1961) had been painted on stage with microphones to pick up his brush strokes. When an alarm embedded in the canvas rang, the work was declared finished. While this description might sound gimmicky, a performance disguised as painting, the resulting work is one of his best.
Performances included ’Elgin Tie’ (1964, still above) where he descended from a skylight on a rope, finding and responding to objects tied along it as he went. Finally he climbed into a barrel of water and was led off by a cow. Except the cow flunked it on the night, and just shat on the floor. Or ’Spring Training’ (1965) which included turtles being unleashed with torches on their backs while Rauschenberg wheeled a shopping trolley through the audience filled with ticking alarm clocks. The group set up to perform these, the Judson Dance Theatre included Tricia Brown, providing a direct link to the Seventies Downtown scene.
Generally the performances are situational, about setting something up then seeing what happens, so are less parametered, more free-form and anarchic than the chance scores of Cage and Cunningham. Yet they’re also too clear-cut a ‘performance’, with defined roles before a set audience, to be Fluxus happenings. They’re mid-range crazy.
Playing With the Box (Flat-Pack Art)
To reinvent himself Rauschenberg clearly needed to burn things down. Yet every time he does it a little of him gets lost. The show peaks early, with the combines, and from there declines. At first very slowly, and the enticement of the new prevents you noticing. But from this point on the seams are starting to show.
In 1971 he relocated to Captura, an island off Florida. Though the show slides over it, this was a virtually enforced move - to overcome his escalating alcoholism. Yet what was good for his health was not so invigorating for his art. You get the idea that to Rauschenberg the trash of New York was simultaneously poison and fuel. His art was a response to how he found the city, both literally and metaphorically.
In fact his new practice became to display the used cardboard from the mailing packages he received. It’s like he was in exile on Captura, and all he could do from there was fetishise his connection to the outside world. These displays get us to focus on something we would normally see as incidental, and often employ the distressed nature of the boxes. But overall the main thing in their favour is comparison to the bypassable textiles from the same period. Ideally the show would not devote so large a room to these when the highly productive early years are run through so quickly. But you can’t win ‘em all.
Art of Our Ruins
Happily, exile was temporary and Rauschenberg’s fetishisation of the outside world became interaction. He founded ROCI, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (1984/9), where he’d visit a country, stage a responsive exhibition, donate the work to a native museum and move on to his next stop. There is at times something slightly worthy about all this, betraying its roots in the Live Aid era. But it’s a Rocky comeback compared to the cardboard boxes.
Notably the best work from this era came from a place he had more of a personal connection to. In 1985 Rauschenberg returned to his home state of Texas, to find it impoverished by the end of the oil boom. This inspired his Gluts series. “Greed is rampant”, he commented, “I want to present people with their ruins”. Though this included latter-day combines, incorporating rusting highway and gas station signs, the best of the work is photographic.
And the strongest of these is ’Glacial Decoy’ (1979, above), a series originally intended as a backdrop for a Trisha Brown dance piece. Most are anonymised, de-contextualised close-ups - a broken window in a dilapidated frame, a stone on the ground. Some have moments of movement to them, such as water spurting or a solitarily American flag fluttering. But they’re eerily de-habituated, as though only traces of humanity now remain. We see the odd figure, one with their back to us as they paint a sign, but birds and animals are more common.
But most effective is the format. Four images are adjacent on a slideshow. But they are less juxtaposed than accumulated, running right to left across the screen. And this gives them a quiet inevitability. A panorama of desolation, however vast and huge, must by necessity have an edge. And then the ever-hopeful human brain soon goes to that edge, and tries to imagine things are better beyond it. Wastelands are barren, but have parameters. Whereas there's no edge to this slide show. Pick a card, any card. It doesn't matter which, there's no winning hand to be found here. Just endless reshufflings of the same bum hand in a card game you can't win.
Rauschenberg’s earlier screen-prints had been largely reliant on the mass images of the media. Many of his later works look back to them, but advances in photographic and print technology meant he could make more use of his own photos.
’Duet [Anagram (A Pun)]’ (1988, above), particularly with its title, seems to invite comparison between it’s elements. And unlike the photos or the screen-prints they’re signs and symbols, designed expressly to be read. Yet while meaning tantalisingly looks like it should be within reach, it never quite yields up. The musical bell could be said to be like the telephone and the telephone like the musical notation, itself comparable to the measuring rod. But the notation seems to also morph into contour maps and diagrams, while a chicken also cheerily appears. Rauschenberg remained cheerily inexplicable until the end.
Despite what some who practice it fondly want to believe, art does not emerge from the furrowed brow of the artist. It may be instanced through individual creators, but it’s always a social product. So it follows that the high point of Twentieth century art was when the conditions for creating art were the most promising. Effectively, this loads everything onto that century’s first half. Check how many blog posts I’ve written about the era before 1945, and how many after.
But neither is the story schematic, and Rauschenberg was not only one of the finest American artists - he came up with his best work in the supposedly staid Fifties. He kept the Dada tradition going, picking up the baton from Duchamp, Cage and Cunningham, then passing it on to Trisha Brown and the Downtown scene of the Seventies. What’s more he passed a magic shapeshifting baton, which transferred the anarchic spirit to it’s holder without ever degenerating into an orthodoxy.
It’s true, he peaked early with the red painting and combines. Though that peak was so high that his next wave of works, the screen-prints and performances, still stood tall. Admittedly with subsequent offerings the trajectory was noticeably downward. To the point you could claim his burning of his remaining screen-prints was more brave than smart. But a decline in quality is the career curve of the majority of artists. While Rauschenberg was back on the incline in later years. In word and deed, he was exemplary. If we were to think of the greatest post-war American artist, there is only Pollock to rival him.
Coming soon! Well I still seem to be seeing art exhibitions faster than I can write about them, so I guess what’s coming soon is more art and more belatedness...