This Summer In “The Era of Rauschenberg”

Everyone thought it was a joke, the gallery owner included, in it’s debut in Rome. Now, the respected reviewer of a show of work by a 28 year old Artist at it’s second stop at the Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy, called it a “psychological mess.” But, he wasn’t done. After continuing in biting terms, the reviewer concluded that the work should be “thrown into the Arno (River).” Shortly thereafter, the Artist sent the reviewer a note that read, “I took your advice.” Saving five or six works to bring home to NYC, he threw the rest, discreetly, into the Arno, finding a spot where he wouldn’t be caught in the act, and doing so in a manner to prevent their re-surfacing1.

The Artist’s photos of his hanging works called “Feticci personal,” or “Personal fetishes,” displayed in his shows in Rome & Florence. One, left, shown hung on a bust. 9 of them shown hanging in a park, right. They seem to have disappeared since. Click any photo to view it full size.

His story continued…as the esteemed Calvin Tomkins tells it…

So branded an “Enfant Terrible,” “he had come back with two wicker trunks and five dollars in cash, and for a while that spring and summer he lived on the far edge of poverty. He found a loft on Fulton Street, near the fish market, a big attic space with twenty-foot ceilings but no heat or running water; the rent was fifteen dollars a month, but he talked the landlord into letting him have it for ten. A hose and bucket in the backyard served as his basin, and he bathed at friend’s apartments, sometimes surreptitiously, asking to use the bathroom and taking a lightning shower at the same time. His food budget was 15 cents a day, usually spent at Riker’s cafeteria, and supplemented by bananas he picked up on the United Fruit Company’s docks. Living that far downtown, he saw few other artists. Most of the New York artists lived in Greenwich Village then, or further uptown, and he could rarely afford the subway fare (still only a dime) to socialize.2” Shortly after, his NYC Dealer was not overly enthused about his latest paintings, so she dropped him.

So…You say you wanna be an Artist? Somehow, as bad as things got, he persevered when few would have.

44 years later, in 1997, his work filled Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum Building, spilled over to fill the Guggenheim Soho (it’s final show ever), the Ace Gallery downtown, and numerous other satellite shows in galleries around town simultaneously, in what was to my eyes at the time, and my mind since, a monumental and utterly overwhelming Retrospective, an effect not unlike seeing the incomparable Picasso Retrospective, which filled all of  MoMA in 1980, or the Rothko show at the Whitney in 1998. 64 years A.A. (After Arno), as I type, his work fills MoMA’s 4th floor (until September 17). No less than Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s just happens to fill the 3rd floor. Be careful walking by MoMA. With that much American creativity on view, the building might just levitate.

The entrance on MoMA’s 4th Floor.

Speaking about his achievement, Artist, and former partner, Jasper Johns once said he “was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso3.” In the Catalog for that Guggenheim Retrospective, Charles F. Stuckey wrote-

“Globally speaking artists and their audiences have been living since around 1950 in what might well be called the Rauschenberg Era (his cap). As we look toward the culture of the next millennium, our vantage is from atop his shoulders4.”

Wait. Stop the march of time for one second. WHO has an “Era?”

Michelangelo and Leonardo share the Renaissance, with Raphael, Titian and a host of other “Old Masters.” Rembrandt & Vermeer are part of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century that includes literally hundreds of Artists still fondly considered almost 400 years on. The Impressionists were a group. So were the Surrealists and the first generation Abstract Expressionists (though Rothko had his own name for it). Perhaps Picasso (who, early on, shared Cubism with Braque and Juan Gris) comes closest, especially in recent times. Well, Picasso is Picasso.

How did Robert Rauschenberg get from being told to throw his work into the Arno, to having an “Era” that’s lasted 50 years (to 2000), and may well still be going on, even though he passed away in 2008? This, and other questions, were foremost on my mind, during the first of 17 visits to MoMA’s 250 work retrospective, “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” and half as many to the 4 satellite shows around town, in this “Summer of Rauschenberg,” as I saw a writer call it. The other questions included- Does the show finally make the “case” for his later work? Does it finally make one for him as a major Photographer? First, putting off a look at the other shows, let’s take a look at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Outside, on the entrance wall, Photos of Rauschenberg & his friends, seen above, reinforce the message that the show features his interactions, mutual influence and collaboration with his friends, many of who happened to be brilliantly talented Artists, themselves. This is the view immediately inside those Star Trekian automatic sliding glass doors. Beam me up, Bobby.

Partial installation view of the first gallery.”Untitled (Double Rauschenberg),” c.1950, Monoprint; Exposed blueprint paper, a collaboration with Sue Weil, center, “White Painting (Seven Panel),” 1951, left and “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, right, examples of the two bodies of work that were to come shortly after, once Rauschenberg had decided to become a Painter, not a Photographer. The “White Paintings” would inspire John Cage. Of the “Black Paintings, which had newspaper collaged on them, painted over with black paint, he said- “I was interested in getting complexity without their revealing much. In the fact that there is much to see but not much showing. I wanted to show that a painting could have the dignity of not calling attention to itself, that it could only be seen if you really looked at it5.”

“Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, Oil and newspaper on canvas, affixed to screen door.

The first room contains his earliest work (unlike the 1977 Rauschenberg Retrospective, which came to MoMA, and started with his newest work). On either side of the door, and facing it, are 3 of the Blueprint images he created with Artist, and future ex-wife, Sue Weil in 1950 & 51. They were as attention getting then as they are now, garnering the couple a 3 page spread in Life Magazine in April, 1951, in which they demonstrated their process. To the right, a wall of his early Photographs are collected, mostly done in his days at Black Mountain College, including two that were the first works by Rauschenberg to be acquired by MoMA, in 1952, six years before it would acquire anything else by the Artist.

To the right of the door, a wall of early Photographs, and the Blueprint, “Sue,” c.1950, make it easy to see why he had a hard time deciding whether to be a Photographer or a Painter. I’m not entirely sure he ever truly chose one.

To the left are his earliest non-photographic works, including his earliest surviving painting, “22 The Lily White,” c.1950, one of very few survivors from his very first show at Betty Parsons Gallery in May, 1951.

“22 The Lily White,” c.1950, Oil and graphite on canvas. The earliest surviving Rauschenberg Painting. The red star mimics those galleries put near sold items. This one didn’t sell. Perhaps viewers thought it had already been sold.

“Untitled,” 1952, Mirrors and objects in Coca-Cola box. The shape of things to come..Perhaps his first effort at blurring the lines between Painting & Sculpture he would revisit in his “Combines.” Believe it or not, at this point, he had not seen the boxes of Joseph Cornell.

Behind the pillar displaying “Double Rauschenberg,” is a Seven Panel White Painting, left, and 3 of the Black Paintings, one shown above, which came next. In the center of the space is a vitrine containing, among other artifacts, the original “score” for John Cage’s infamous “4’33,” which the “White Paintings,” which Cage was a vocal, and poetic, admirer of, were one of the inspirations for.

The most avant-garde piece of “music” ever “written”. The manuscript John Cage’s “4’33” 1952-53,, partly inspired by Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The cover is seen, left, and the actual “score,” right. Go ahead. Try it at home.

The first “performance” of Cage’s “4’33” consisted of pianist David Tudor walking on stage and sitting at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Then, he got up and walked off. It’s hard to imagine a more “avant-garde” piece of “music.” Rauschenberg’s exploration of the possibilities of materials, beyond painting, now took center stage in his work. “He thought of his work as a collaboration with materials, as he put it. He was not interested in expressing his own personality through art- ‘I feel it ought to be be much better than that,6‘”

“Dirt Painting (For John Cage),” 1953, Dirt and mold in wood box. “Painting” doesn’t get more avant-garde than this (or, his “White Paintings.”). More on this subject later.

More of the second gallery showing “Elemental Sculptures,” “Scatole Personali” 0r “Personal Boxes,” both on pedestals, the “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” right, another “White Painting,” “Tiznit,” 1953, Oil on canvas, by Cy Twombly, left corner, and the “Automobile Tire Print,” with John Cage,” 1953, in the back.

At this point, he went to Italy with Cy Twombly, culminating with the shows mentioned at the beginning, after which he returned to NYC. He decided to commence a series of Paintings using red, because white, and then black “impressed  a lot of people as aggressive, ugly, and full of the anger of negation. So, Rauschenberg “thought he had better find out whether there was any truth to these charges. He would test his own motives by turning from black and white to red, for him almost aggressive, the most difficult, the least austere color in the spectrum. [7, “Off the Wall,” P.78]” These are featured in the 3rd gallery, which includes some of his most well-known and influential works.

“Charlene,” 1954, a “Combine Painting,” and the last “Red Painting,” “Bed,” and “Rebus,” both 1955, left to right, with a column of 3 “Untitled drawings,” 1954 by Cy Twombly in between.

On the facing wall is “Minutiae,” 1954, a Combine, created as a set for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which Rauschenberg served as set, costume and lighting designer for at the time.

Something happened to Robert Rauschenberg in 1954. A number of writers have tried to explain exactly what it was. I’m not sure I understand. Whatever it was, it led to a breakthrough. He started adding more to his collages, anything was game, he said, as in “Bed,” 1955, which uses an old comforter since he had run out of canvas. Then, Red went out and was replaced with the the more neutral tones seen in “Rebus,” 1955. He had been including newspapers in his works going back to the Black Paintings, in 1951-2. At some point, around this time, he also began including photographs- found images from magazines and newspapers, etc.7 As time went on, however, he started incorporating large found objects, including an Angora goat and a Bald eagle, which, of course, grab your attention before you get to any of the details the works also include. “Among Friends,” is a very rare chance to see the two famous works that feature them, “Monogram” and “Canyon,” together. 8

Reinventing Painting, Sculpture & Drawing. “Monogram,” 1955/59 on loan from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, front, with “Gift for Apollo,” 1959, right, “Winter Pool,”left, both 1959, and “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, on the far wall. Some of the most revolutionary Art of the past 60 years.

“Canyon,” 1959, Combine. One of the masterpieces of post WW2 Art. Rauschenberg on the Ganymede myth, with a Bald Eagle standing in for Jupiter’s Eagle, and fascinating to compare with Rembrandt’s “Abduction of Ganymede,” 1635, down to the inclusion of Rauschenberg’s Photograph of his son Christopher, on the left.

“Canyon,” 1959, is my personal favorite among his Combines (the word denotes a work that is a “Combination” of Painting and Sculpture, or as Jasper Johns said, “It’s painting playing the game of sculpture9.”) The controversial American Bald eagle’s very strange “pose,” standing on the sides of an open cardboard box, notwithstanding. It audaciously revisits the Ganymede myth, as he was doing in the Dante Illustrations (bringing a contemporary interpretation to an ancient tale) and, creating something of his own mythology, enhanced by the presence of a Rauschenberg Photo of his young son, Christopher (now a Photographer and head of the Rauschenberg Foundation), and including the cardboard box, which would become a staple Rauschenberg material (from the days before acid-free papers, adding to the conservator’s nightmare this works is). It takes the concept he realized in his “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” one step further, into a 3-D Combine. 58 years later, it’s still a thrilling, unique experience, that’s every bit as audacious as it must have been in 1959.

As they hadn’t in Italy in 1953, a sizable amount of the viewing public still didn’t take Rauschenberg seriously by the late 1950’s, and the Combines actually served to reinforce that. Standing near “Monogram” for 15 minutes on 3 different occasions, I noted the immediate reaction of at least 75% of viewers were smiles, or outright laughs. I don’t know what they wound up thinking of it after taking a closer look. Increasingly “troubled10”  by this reaction 60 years ago, in 1958, he decided to illustrate Dante’s “Inferno.” To do so would require nearly 3 years. The resulting series of “34 Illustrations,” displayed at the Leo Castelli Gallery in December, 1960, finally served to alter the public, and critical, perception of Rauschenberg. The complete series lines the back wall of this gallery, where they loom as something of a “spiritual center.” For me, their Artistic importance in his entire oeuvre cannot be overstated- so much of what was to follow can be seen in them. Including his use of Photographs, now as independent elements, standing in for many of the characters in the “Inferno,” in Rauschenberg’s unique, contemporary imaging of the story. I take a closer look at them in the “Highlights” Post, following.

The Combines and Combine Paintings lead us to a “central” gallery containing his classic Silkscreen Paintings of 1962-64, and “Oracle,” a five-part found object assemblage integrated with technology that he created with engineer Billy Klüver and 4 others between 1962-5. Rauschenberg discovered silkscreening during a 1962 visit to the studio of Andy Warhol, who had been working with the technique since 1961. Silkscreening provided the answer he had long sought- how to transfer images to canvas in good resolution. His Transfer drawing technique only taking him part of the way (though he would continue to use it when he felt it was needed through the years).

“Oracle,” 1962-65,a five-part assemblage, with wireless microphone system, concealed radios & speakers, washtub with running water, surrounded by 10 of his groundbreaking Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64

His silkscreens look nothing like Warhol’s, as can be seen below. Especially early on, Warhol took a single image and replicates it and/or varies it, using a grid. While Rauschenberg may repeat the same image up to 4 times in a work (usually varying it), he never allows it to become the central “point” of the work.

Warhol’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family),” 1962, Silkscreen on canvas, along side Rauschenberg’s early Silkscreen Painting, “Crocus,” 1962

Rauschenberg’s insatiable creativity led him to move forward, so the period he made these Silkscreen Paintings lasted only from 1962-64. Though he used Abstract Expressionist techniques (his work is characterized by his use of everything & all techniques), they complete his moving beyond the style of Abstract Expressionism, something he began working towards doing in the early 1950’s, to Painting wholly in his own style, and along the way, freeing Art to move on. While these works include some of his own Photographs, the featured images are, primarily still found images. As such, as great as they are, they are another step, an important one, to what his work would eventually become.

“Persimmon,” 1964, Oil and silkscreen on canvas. There’s much to say about this revolutionary work, but notice the mirror in Ruben’s Venus, which I’ll get to. Interestingly, Ruben’s Venus appears in a number of the silkscreen paintings, and curator Roni Feinstein noted they seem to be a female counterpart to JFK, who appears many times.

After becoming the first American to ever win the grand prize in Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, he would soon largely stop painting and turn his focus to performances, and the marrying of Art & Technology.

Scaling the heights of Art. Rauschenberg performing in his “Elgin Tie,” in 1964 in Stockholm. From the Hardcover edition of the show’s excellent catalog.

The latter took place in both stand alone works, and in performances, particularly “9 Evenings,” which is marvelously explored here11, and includes Rauschenberg’s contribution, “Open Score.” The massive “Mud Muse,” which I’ve seen described as an experience akin to a visit to Yellowstone, is one stand alone work that is certainly popular with younger viewers. A monumental feat of installation considering the work holds 8,000 pounds of “listening” Bentonite mud,  with embedded sensors that cause the mud to react with the music being played on the control unit nearby. On loan from the Moderna Museet, Sweden, it’s one of the most ambitious and technologically complex works Rauschenberg ever made, and is making it’s first NYC appearance since Rauschenberg completed it here in 1971.

Now, I’ve seen everything. “Mud Muse,” 1968-71, 8,000 pounds of Bentonite mixed with water, in action.

From there, the show moves through his “Cardboards” (sculptures made from found cardboard boxes), the famous “Son Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, with it’s water filled bathtub, and works inspired by trips to India, before getting to the penultimate, large gallery of later works.

“Sor Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, Water-filled bathtub, rope, metal, wood and glass jug. Rauschenberg continued to use found objects, like these, his entire career, even after he could afford traditional supplies. “Gifts from the Street,” he called them. After a while of looking at this, it hit me- There’s no drain in the bathtub. Maybe that’s why it’s owner threw it out, to become a Rauschenberg found object. A guard told me he called the metal on wood structure above, “The Angel.”

The large gallery of later works includes”Hiccups,” 1978, the horizontal rows, left & right, joined by zippers,”Glacial Decoy,” the collaboration with Trisha Brown (black and white photos, left), “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” the color painting, left of center, the latest work here, and “For A Friend And Crazy Kat (Spread),” 1976, along with a few examples from his “Gluts” series of found metal objects & signs. I will long wonder about what was omitted from this gallery.

The large gallery of later work, above, includes a very wide range of pieces that attest to some of the incredibly wide range of materials and styles Rauschenberg worked in. It highlights the fact that he continued to use found materials even when he could well afford art store materials. This was one of his ways of bringing “life” into his work, which he felt was essential in Art. Though not nearly as well known as the earlier periods of his work, there are a number of major works on view here, too. To my eyes, “Mirthday Man,” from his “Anagrams” series, Inkjet dye and pigment transfer on polylaminate (center, on the wall in the photo below), created on the Artist’s 72nd Birthday, in 1997, is one. “Booster,” a print from 1967, to it’s right, is as well.

“Urban Katydid, (Glut),” 1987, Riveted street signs on stainless steel,, front, “Mirthday Man,” 1997, Inkjet dye & pigment transfer created on his 72nd Birthday, center, and “Booster,” 1967, Lithograph & screen print, right, end the gallery of late works. The latter two feature almost life size X-rays of Rauschenberg. Both are among his major works in my opinion.

Partially seen in the last gallery photo, on the back wall to the left, and below, are black & white photos that form the backdrop for Rauschenberg’s collaboration with the late Trisha Brown called “Glacial Decoy,” 1979, in an installation by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg. The piece comes closest to showing Rauschenberg’s later Photography, cleverly getting 620 examples of it in the show, though the images move one space from left to right every 4 seconds. The smaller color screen hanging in front shows video of a performance of the work from 2009 at BAM. All the way around, this is a terrific work, though if you want to focus on the Photos, you have 16 seconds to ponder each one before it disappears. The performance is, also, amazing. The installation? I’m not so sure. Sitting directly in front of the transparent hanging color screen, it’s a bit hard to make out everything that’s going on onstage since the large black and white photos on the back wall shine through. Though they are in the same sequence as they  are in the background of the performance, they’re in a different scale and so it serves to make it hard to see the screen. The resulting effect is somewhat strange. I found it better to see, standing quite a bit off to the side, as below.

“Glacial Decoy,” 1979, with 620 Photographs that scroll from left to right in 4 second segments & costumes by Rauschenberg, choreography by Trisha Brown. Interestingly installed by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg.

The view directly in front of “Glacial Decoy.” The background of the on-screen performance is synched to the large Photos on the back wall, but they’re in a different scale, and they are both moving to the right every 4 seconds.

As with his fondness for found objects and Photography, Rauschenberg continued to refine and develop his techniques from the beginning to the end, as we see in “Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, a captivating work, which has a look that seems to harken back to his “Black Paintings” (like “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, shown near the beginning), bringing them full-circle, with black images layered under black paint requiring a very close look to make them out.

“Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, Screenprint chemical-resistant varnish, water and Aluma-Black

Also noteworthy, among the “Gluts,” works made of found street signs and other metal objects, “Mercury Zero Summer (Glut),” 1987, an electric fan with metal “wing,” an ecology-themed work, stood out. Finally, “Triathlon (Scenario)” 2005, Inkjet pigment transfer on polylaminate, from one of his final series, “Scenarios,” immediately “looks different,” than all that’s come before, with each of it’s Photos given their own place, and not being layered as earlier, with added prominence intriguingly given to white space, the overall effect is striking. Finally, Photos, in stunning clarity, stand to speak on their own as “characters” in the whole. The three images of the hand with the sphere, left, remind me of the repeated/slightly altered birds in “Overdrive,” and other Silkscreen Paintings, and masterfully unify the composition horizontally. Interestingly, since his right (Painting & Photographing) hand had been paralyzed in a stroke a few years earlier, and he could no longer take Photos, he had to, again, use the Photos of others (possibly under his direction at times), as he had done when he first started to use Photos, in the 1950’s.

“Triathlon (Scenarios),” 2005, from 3 years before his passing is the latest work in the show.

The show concludes with a room dedicated to R.O.C.I., the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, “a tangible expression of Rauschenberg’s long-term commitment to human rights and to the freedom of artistic expression,12,” a self-funded collaboration with Artists in 10 countries that Rauschenberg was extremely dedicated to, even mortgaging his homes, and selling his vaunted Art collection to fund. Rauschenberg took the term “action painting,” first coined to describe the technique of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, and others, literally. For him, it meant ethical action, as well. Thist took many forms during his career. As Barbara Rose said about him, he was “among the last artists to believe that art can change the world.13

The final gallery contains 12 Posters for R.O.C.I.- the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, 1985-91, along with 3 videos shot in Mexico, Cuba and China. 10 countries are represented here.

Though work by Rauschenberg has been in 152 shows at the Museum, only ONCE before has MoMA presented a retrospective of his work- FORTY years ago, in 1977. That show originated at the National Collection of Fine Arts (associated with the Smithsonian) and was curated by it’s Walter Hopps. “Among Friends,” is co-produced by MoMA and the Tate Modern, London, where it appeared under the title “Robert Rauschenberg.” So, this is the FIRST large show devoted to Rauschenberg that MoMA has been credited with creating. In fact, of those 152 shows I mentioned, only 4 had his name in the title- this is number five14. For someone so important and influential, I find this most puzzling. In fact, it’s only been fairly recently that MoMA has begun to fill in some of the substantial gaps in their Rauschenberg holdings, acquiring “Rebus,” one of his most important Combine Paintings, “Canyon,” in 2012, one of the most important Combines, and the now classic Silkscreen Painting, “Overdrive,” 1963, (seen in far left in the photo of the Silkscreen Paintings with “Oracle,” above) in 2013.

“Rebus,” 1955, Combine painting. The info label says it’s a “promised gift,” but Calvin Tomkins says MoMA paid 30 million dollars for it. (“Off the Wall,” P.282) This would be most interesting as MoMA’s Alfred Barr was offered “Rebus” in 1963 but he declined. (ibid.).

My reaction to “Among Friends” was tinged with a bit of disappointment- Though the early galleries, up through the “Mud Muse”/’9 Evenings,” 1965, are extraordinary. Stories abounded of curators bringing in “people who were there” to recreate how works had been originally displayed, complimenting major loans, like “Charlene,” “Monogram,” among many more. After 1965, I felt the show “thinned out.” The huge, penultimate gallery of his late works (a period I believe is very under-appreciated), left me wondering why it had so much empty space. In fact, I can’t quite recall seeing anything like it in a major show. Part of the reason is “Among Friends” attempts to integrate larger videos of performances right in the show, as opposed to having separate rooms for them (as MoMA did with “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” last year). The spot chosen for “Glacial Decoy’s” installation left a large corner completely dark and empty. As nice as it is to see all of “Hiccups,” 1978, a beautiful work consisting of 97 solvent transfers (an “update of his “Transfer Technique”) on paper panels held together by zippers, so it can be endlessly rearranged. (Rauschenberg may have employed his monter, Dora, to attach the zippers, David White told me.) Taking up the better part of 2 long walls, I was left feeling that space could have been put to better use, and “Hiccups” displayed in another manner, as it has been in the past.

Another view of the later works gallery shows a lot of open floor space, and on the middle right, behind Charles Atlas hanging video screen for “Glacial Decoy,” which is in the center of the room, a dark, empty corner. An interesting installation, I’m not sure was entirely successful, but should it have been mounted elsewhere?

Rauschenberg, perhaps more than any other Artist, established what it was to be an American Artist around the world, continually going seemingly everywhere, beginning in the early 1950’s, but his travel during his later years is not mentioned in the later works gallery, including his trip to China in 1982, where he collaborated with local paper makers, and others, the trip resulting in a typically large creative output, entirely absent here. That’s one example. The travel thread is picked up in the next, and final, R.O.C.I. gallery.

Whereas the show to this point had been chronological, this room is a bit all over the map, with works ranging from 1967-2005 on view. With the only large placard, the show uses to give context, next to “Mirthday Man,” one of the last works in the show all the way on the other side of the gallery, visitors here were left a bit hanging about what was going on in Rauschenberg’s Art and the path it’s development was taking, which it’s non-chronological display didn’t help. It’s a bit of a shame. While what’s included in this gallery may serve to pique the interest of viewers to investigate it further, the overall result, I feel, is a “sketch” of what the Artist created, achieved and accomplished in this period. The result is the show feels like it progressively winds down in the later galleries, and ends on somewhat “quiet” notes. A chance to shine new light on Rauschenberg’s late period was, I feel, missed. It should be noted that, not unlike Picasso, Rauschenberg’s later works have been largely overlooked by the Art world to this point, save for a few gallery shows (including this one I wrote about in 2015)15. (Though, they have not been overlooked by Artists.) So, the other possibility is, of course, that the show’s curators do not feel the rest of his later work is important enough to be here.

With the catalog for the 1997 Guggenheim Retrospective, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, listing 480 items, almost double the amount here, I prefer to think of this show as an “overview,” being as it wonderfully selects key works from key periods through 1965. With an Artist as prolific as Rauschenberg was (Calvin Tomkins says he created over 6,000 works by 2005, not counting multiples), it’s probably not likely a full retrospective is even possible. But? I would LOVE for someone to try!

Still, “Among Friends” is, caveats aside, important in it’s own right because it does include so many works created at key moments in his career, and because it shines a light on the importance to his work, and accomplishment, of collaboration- with other Artists, Engineers & Performers, and with the materials he was working with16 It also allows a very rare chance to see, and experience, rarely seen works involving technology (collaborations with engineers), putting “Oracle,” “Mud Muse,” and “9 Evenings” front and center, each one a major feat of museum installation. Alas, it, also leaves, until another day, a complete assessment of both his late period and his Photography (i.e. the body of Photographs he created). Regardless of what isn’t here, a careful examination of what does comprise the 250 works in “Among Friends” reveals there is no doubt whatsoever that this is an important show, a major event in Rauschenberg scholarship and appreciation, and one of the best shows of 2017.

In the early 2000’s, Rauschenberg suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right (Painting & Photography) arm. Nonetheless, he continued creating, having others take the photos, and signing his works, with difficulty, with his left hand, as here, on “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” one of his last series.

Speaking of friends and collaborators, another question lingers with me- As “Among Friends” beautifully details, Rauschenberg was friends early on with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Morton Feldman, among others, who were among the most avant-garde creators of the 20th Century. HOW was it possible that Robert Rauschenberg, alone among them, escaped the “avant-garde ghetto” to achieve both fame and fortune, while holding on to his integrity? I well remember when avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez was named Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic, succeeding no less than Leonard Bernstein, and how audiences voted with their feet and voices in displeasure when he performed a modern & contemporary work, as you can plainly hear on recordings of the Philharmonic broadcasts at the time. Rauschenberg, as I mentioned earlier, was actually an inspiration for the most avant-garde work of music ever “written”- John Cage’s “4’33,” 65 years later, Cage is highly respected, but, still his music is sparsely performed. Among his other friends, Morton Feldman (a major composer who remains under-known, and who Rauschenberg gave his first public performance at one of his early shows), is a cult figure who shows signs of becoming more. Even Pierre Boulez, who passed last year, is, mostly, remembered for creating the most “definitive” body of recordings of 20th Century music we have thus far, while his own music is still sparsely performed. Meanwhile…during all of this, Robert Rauschenberg had, or has, an “Era,” and had a long career that was marked with a good deal of success, however you’d care to define it, including financial. Given the “edginess” of much of his work, a fair percentage of it’s components coming from the trash, and not art supply stores, I find it absolutely remarkable.

How was Rauschenberg able to avoid the “Avant-garde ghetto?” Walking through the show, I think it is possible to “experience” the answer. As “Among Friends” highlights, collaboration may well have been key to his success. Beyond collaborating with so many gifted Artists, across realms, and collaborating with his materials, as Calvin Tomkins said- “All his work, Rauschenberg increasingly felt, was a form of collaboration with materials. He wanted to work with them, rather than to have them work for him17.”

There is more. One of his most famous quotes is “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two)18.” That gap also includes life being lived now…i.e. the viewer’s experience.

Have a seat. (No, Don’t!) Rauschenberg understood that his ultimate collaboration was with his viewers. He continually strove to bring them in to his works. “Pilgrim,” 1960, Combine Painting.

Rauschenberg’s most important collaboration may be with his viewers. He never forgot the experience of the viewer, something, it seems to me, most other avant-gardists of the period seemed to ignore, if not take a polar opposite approach to. Therein may lie the key. As one of them, John Cage, himself, wrote in “Silence,” “The real purpose of art was not the creation of masterpieces for the delectation of an elite class, but rather a perpetual process of discovery, which everyone could participate19.” It seems to me that this, as much as anything else, was at the heart of Rauschenberg’s approach during his entire career. As he said, “I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality. I feel it ought to be much better than that20.” What’s “better than that?” He said that he wanted to create a situation  “in which there was as much room for the viewer as for the artist21.” This collaboration  takes an exceedingly wide range of forms. The “White Paintings” were intended to allow the shadows of viewers, and the atmosphere of the room to be “reflected” on their surfaces. Numerous other works, from  “Charlene,” in 1954, right through the late “Gluts” have reflective mirrors or surfaces that reflect whatever is in front to it, even the viewer themselves. This goes way back to the mirrors in the upper left corner of “Untitled,” 1952, pictured early on. And, in “Persimmon,” Ruben’s Venus holds a mirror so she can look out at us, though her back is turned.  Once you look for ways that Rauschenberg includes the viewer in his work, you’ll see it more and more- throughout his career. Like that welcoming chair in “Pilgrim,” 1960, above. But, don’t really sit in it. You know…

Another thing that becomes apparent- The more work of Robert Rauschenberg’s I look at, one thing strikes me above all others- While I loathe comparisons of anyone creative, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Artist with a better “eye” than Robert Rauschenberg. “I have a peculiar kind of focus,” he once told an interviewer. “I tend to see everything in sight22.” He was, also, one of the most creative people I’ve ever  come across. He broke all the rules, and used that eye to create his own world out of ours.

Collaboration with his viewers, itself, led to more. Some of those viewers became Artists, themselves. From what I see in the shows I attend, and have attended, particularly over the past 15 years, I would say we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era.” His influence is all around. “Bob is the wind, blowing through the art world for almost a century now, pollinating everything,” Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery said in the BBC Documentary “Robert Rauschenberg: Pop Art Pioneer.”

Regardless whether you think we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era,” or not, one thing strikes me as undeniable- Nearly 10 years after his 2008 passing, the full assessment of the achievement of Robert Rauschenberg is no where near finished. “Among Friends” is another piece, one that will be long rememeberd, towards that end.

*- The soundtrack for this Post is “Moon Rocks,” by Talking Heads, from “Speaking in Tongues,” 1983, which Robert Rauschenberg did the artwork for the limited edition release of, seen below. Another classic collaboration. NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness the launch of Apollo 11, in July, 1969.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Cover for the limited edition of Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues.” No, it wasn’t in “Among Friends,” but it is in my collection.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is my NoteWorthy Show for August. 

This is the first part of my 3 Part Series that looks at the NYC Shows during this “Summer of Rauschenberg.” Part Two features highlights from MoMA’s show, and is below this one, here. Part Three looks at the 4 “satellite” shows around town, and follows Part Two, here.

A second Post, which follows below, looks at highlights from “Among Friends.” Between the satellite shows- “Robert Rauschenberg: Rookery Mounds,” and “Selected Series from the 60s & 70s,” at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl Gallery, “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects, “Robert Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and “Susan Weil” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, there were, also, many highlights.  The third Post, further below, focuses on them. 

“On The Fence, #10, The Rausch-and-Bird Edition.” (Sorry, Bob.)

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.

  1. The story in this section is excerpted and paraphrased from Robert Rauschenberg’s work, “Autobiography,” and from Calvin Tomkins’ excellent biography of Robert Rauschenberg, “Off The Wall,” 2005, P. 72-4.
  2. “Off the Wall,” P.76
  3. Paul Schimmel “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” P.9
  4. Charles F. Stuckey in “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective,” Guggenheim Museum, 1997, P. 31
  5. Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P.65
  6. Calvin Tomkins- “Master of Invention,” New Yorker Oct 13, 1997 P.92
  7. the Combine, “Untitled,” ca.1954, not in the show is the earliest work I’ve seen this in so far.
  8. MoMA had a chance to acquire “Monogram” early on, but Alfred Barr passed, fearing it might harbor vermin, among other reasons. “Off the Wall,” P. 282.
  9.  Everything In Sight,” Calvin Tomkins New Yorker May 23, 2005
  10. “Off the Wall,” P.143
  11. and it’s also wonderfully displayed in “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects
  12. raushcenbergfoundation.org
  13. Barbara Rose “Rauschenberg,” P.4
  14. Two of the those featured the “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” as a set, in 1966 and 1988, the other featured his work “Soundings,” in 1969.
  15. To this point, the best overview of the later period works I’ve seen is in the Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, one of the greatest exhibition catalogs- for any show, ever produced. The caveat to that is that when it was published in 1997, he would still work for a further 11 years.
  16. Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, P.36-7.
  17. Tomkins in “Off The Wall,” P.79
  18. Rauschenberg’s statement in “16 Americans,” MoMA Exhibition Catalog, 1959
  19. “Off The Wall,” P.62
  20. “Off The Wall,” P.66
  21. “Off the Wall,” P.xv
  22. “Dore Ashton, Art News, Summer, 1958, quoted in “Off The Wall,” P.8

Highlights From Rauschenberg At MoMA

They flew in from all over for this one. Click any image for full size.

With upwards of 300 works by Robert Rauschenberg on view over 4 shows of his work, and a show of work by early collaborator and ex-wife, Susan Weil, there was too much that lingers in the mind to fit into one Post. My overview of MoMA’s “Among Friends” is above (here). Part 3, below (or here), looks at the 4 “satellite” shows going on around town. This Post will feature some works that struck me as important, both in terms of Art, and in terms of Rauschenberg’s Art, at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” at MoMA.

“Helado Negro,” with Roberto Carlos Lange, and…? outside in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden on August 31 are hoping there’s no lightning. No, Rauschenberg didn’t design those costumes. I headed upstairs to see what he did create after taking this.

Even on my 17th trip to the show, as with most great Art, I saw something new, and wondered how I missed it before. I’ll explain below. Apparently, I’m not the only one this happens to. In 1961, John Cage wrote this about looking at Rauschenberg. “Over and over again I’ve found it impossible to memorize Rauschenberg’s paintings. I keep asking, “Have you changed it?’ And then noticing while I’m looking it changes1.” His friend, Marcel Duchamp, once said about Paintings- “A painting had an active life of about 30 years; after that it died- visually, emotionally and spiritually2.” Try as I might, I don’t see that at all in Rauschenberg’s work. While I do see an evolution of styles, over the years,  a good deal of it looks like it could have been made this past month. Also, Mr. Rauschenberg’s career not only lasted over 60 years, he was one of the most prolific Artists of our time. Not having seen everything he did, it’s a given that some/many works I previously hadn’t known will seem revelatory. I can’t remember ever feeling, “That’s dated.” Discovery was the joy of these 5 shows for me (and, in looking at Art, in general). And, it was also a very rare chance to see works housed in distant collections, galleries and museums. Still, it was very hard to narrow down the works to those in this Post.

“Sue.”

“Sue,” ca.1950, with Susan Weil, Exposed blueprint paper. The first work in the show, it continuously captivated viewers, as it has for over 65 years. Created with his first collaborator, later his wife and mother of his son, Christopher, and eventually his ex-wife. Early on, they used blueprint paper to create one of a kind works, where the subject would lie on the paper, while the Artist moved over them with a lamp exposing the paper and recording the image. The pair then moved to the bathroom they shared with others to fix the image in the shower. Unique and beautiful, it’s an early example of Rauschenberg’s love of found objects, as they got the paper for free because it came from rolls that had been partially exposed. The works quickly found an audience, being the subject of a 1951 Life magazine photo spread detailing their process, and even resulting in their inclusion in a 1951 MoMA show called “Abstraction in Photography.” Rauschenberg went on to passionately explore Photography, and Painting, before deciding to be a Painter. Susan Weil is still creating and her show at Sundaram Tagore Gallery this summer will be part of the next Post.

“Monogram.” Fascinating. From any angle.

“Monogram,” 1955-59, seen at MoMA, from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Ok. It’s famous. Everyone’s seen Photos of it. Seeing it in person is an entirely different animal. An animal that’s rarely seen on this side of the pond. It was last seen here 12 years ago at The Met’s excellent 2005 “Rauschenberg Combines” show. What made it even more special was it being displayed at MoMA near two survivors of the earlier “states” of the work, as Rauschenberg tried to find the ideal composition in which to incorporate the Angora goat he bought from a second hand store for 35 dollars. He put 15 dollars down on it, and according to Calvin Tomkins, intended “to go back and pay the balance, one day3.” The chance to imagine “Rhyme,” 1956, and the central panel of “Summerstorm,” 1959, as part of the work shows he made the right choice, though both are interesting on their own- particularly the inclusion of an image of animals at pasture near the top of that center panel of “Summerstorm.”

“Rhyme,” 1956, Combine Painting. In the first state of “Monogram,” the goat was mounted right above the red circle. At that point, there was another part of it that extended higher from there.

“Summerstorm,” 1959. Originally, in the second state of Monogram, it’s centerl panel stood in back of the Goat. Later, it was reworked and became a part of this. Yes, that’s a zipper in the middle of the right side.

On my 17th visit I finally noticed this! Near the top of “Summerstorm’s” central panel, there’s a small image of animals grazing. Rauschenberg went from grazing animals in the second state of “Monogram,” to his Angora goat “grazing” on Art in the final work.

Then, I used this rare opportunity to study the Combine Painting the goat is mounted on, which is hard to do from photos of it in most books. Each angle of the base reveals new details- the sleeve of a white shirt, to the left of the Goat’s head, a heel from a shoe, part of signs that just can’t quite be pieced together into a word, images of a man looking up, astronauts (a new thing in the world beyond science fiction in 1959), and three small human footprints.

So, how does it feel to be an icon of Modern & Contemporary art? Rauschenberg added the paint on the face to cover damage.

Rolling down his sleeves and walking the high wire of Art. The view of the left front corner as seen from the left side.

View of the center back. Interesting placement of that tennis ball, right under the rump of the Goat, where it can be “read” as leaving a comment on Art. Also notice the two helmeted figures to the right that could possibly be astronauts.

Another thing about seeing “Monogram” in MoMA- It’s hard not to wonder about the possible influence Picasso’s famous “She-Goat” may have had on it. Created in 1950, out of found materials, it appeared in the May, 1953 Magazine of Art, which makes it possible Rauschenberg could have seen it. Also coincidentally, one of the two bronze casts Picasso subsequently made of it were acquired by MoMA in 1959, the year Rauschenberg decided to mount his on top of the Combine Painting it rests on to this day.

Pregnant with possibilities. Picasso’s (expectant) “She-Goat,” 1950, cast 1952 as seen outside in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Picasso’s original, coincidentally, was made of found objects, and now grazes in the Musee Picasso.

Ok. What does it “mean?” The goat was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians, where the horns represented Gods & Goddesses, while also symbolizing fertility. In mythology the he-goat was Pan. The goat became the symbol of satanism. Take your pick there. “Animal energy” people say that the goat represents independence, stubbornness, a wild nature, and sexuality4. This last resonates with me. While I don’t know what was on Rauschenberg’s mind when he created it, reading what I have about his personality, journey and perseverance, the “independence” and “stubbornness” parts fit. The “wild nature” fits Rauschenberg’s work to this point as he broke every law of Painting, Sculpture, and Art he could. Beyond that, the best comments on “Monogram” I’ve seen thus far comes from critic Jerry Saltz who said, “Allegorically, Rauschenberg is a bull in the china shop of art history, a satyr squeezing through the eye of an esthetic/erotic needle. In early Christian art goats symbolized the damned. This is exactly what Rauschenberg was as a gay/bisexual man and an artist, at the time. “Monogram” is Rauschenberg’s credo, a line drawn in the psychic sands of American sexual and cultural values. It is a love letter, a death threat, and a ransom note. It is Rauschenberg carving his monogram into art history5.” As for that “eye of the needle,” the famous tire, Mary Lynn Kotz, a Rauschenberg biographer, points out that the tire is made of rubber, which is made from crude oil, which Port Arthur, Texas, where Rauschenberg was born and raised, was known for6. (If you’re wondering about Rauschenberg’s use of taxidermied animals in his work, he speaks about it here.) Finally, on page 17 of Rauschenberg’s book “Photos In +  Out City Limits New York C.” there’s a photo of what could be an East Village, or Lower East Side bar (given the beer sign in the window). Gina Guy of the Rauschenberg Foundation told me that “Bob didn’t title Photographs, he simply located them,” so this one is “titled”  “New York City,” and was taken in 1981. Intriguingly, it includes a fire hydrant with a tire wrapped around it.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, seen at MoMA. For me, these are the key works in his Artistic evolution. Besides the new ground they break on their own, I believe it’s possible to see in them much of what came after in his work. Though Dante’s “Divine Comedy” has been illustrated by many Artists down through the centuries (including Gustave Dore, Botticelli and Salvador Dali), Rauschenberg was the first to stage the 14th century classic in modern times. Here, he begins to incorporate Photographs culled from magazines and newspapers, not in collage, but by using the “Transfer Drawing” technique he had developed a few years earlier on a trip to Cuba. It’s a technique where an image is soaked with lighter fluid, placed face down on a piece of Strathmore 14.5 x 11.5 inch Drawing paper, and then rubbed with an empty ballpoint pen, which enabled him to get a shadowy copy of the Photo on to his paper, that he then enhanced using a variety of techniques. Rauschenberg described the end results as “Combine Drawings7.”He created them because he was feeling “increasingly troubled by those who saw his work as a joke8.” “The problem when I started the Dante illustrations was to see if I was working abstractly (previously) because I couldn’t work any other way or whether I was doing it by choice,” the artist explained to Dorothy Gees Seckler. “So I insisted on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject where it meant that I’ve have to be involved in symbolism… Well, I spent 2 1/2 years deciding that, yes, I could do that9.”

Rauschenberg’s “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, Transfer drawing on paper, foreshadow much of what was to come. They are rarely seen as a group.

What he created was a way of bringing Dante’s tale of a man “midway in the journey of our life,” into the 20th century, using images he found in newspapers and magazines. They include contemporary figures, (including JFK and Adlai Stevenson), current events, and possibly, gay love. Rauschenberg cloistered himself for the better part of 3 years studying John Ciardi’s “Inferno” translation, communing with the muse, and crafting his remarkable, unique “Illustrations.” The entire set being on view was a highlight of “Among Friends10.” In the gallery where they were displayed, as I showed in the last Post, they were accompanied by other works with mythological references, including “Canyon.”

The narrator, Dante himself, is represented by a man with just a towel wrapped around his waist, which Rauschenberg found in an ad in Sports Illustrated for golf clubs. The narrator was 35. Rauschenberg turned 35 on October 22, 1960.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, Canto II: The Descent, 1958, Transfer drawing on paper. Our hero, Dante, is at the top, slightly to the right, with a towel around his waist. Interestingly, many of the Illustrations are done in three sections, giving a feeling of being on a journey, and a reminder of the three levels of the afterlife, each given a volume in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” “The Inferno,” being Volume 1..

Halfway through, he began to struggle with certain aspects of Dante’s narration. He decided he needed to work away from the distractions of NYC in the isolation he found in a storage room on Treasure Island, Florida, where he spent 6 months completing the set. “I was so irritated by his morality-the self-righteousness, the self-appointed conscience imposing guilt on old friends. He was the hero and the author….I wanted to show Dante the character in the story, and that forced me into isolation11.” Particularly troublesome for the Artist was reading Cantos XIV and XV, where Dante and his guide, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, encounter the Sodomites in Hell. Among them was an old teacher of Virgil. Virgil responds by taking it personally. “His (Dante’s) morality I treat objectively- the self-righteousness, the self appointed conscience imposing guilt on old friends. He was the author, the hero, and the man who made the world described. He ran into his teacher, and couldn’t imagine what he was doing in hell: It might not have bothered Dante, but it bothered me12.” Rauschenberg found a powerful way of expressing his feelings about this in his Illustration for Canto XIV.

“34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, Canto XIV That’s Rauschenberg’s foot traced in red, possibly indicating solidarity with the Sodomites who are condemned to wander hell eternally on burning sands.

In December, 1960, the set debuted at Leo Castelli Gallery, and their reaction served to, finally, establish Rauschenberg’s reputation as a serious Artist. Subsequently, Alfred Barr steered their acquisition by MoMA through an “anonymous” donation, that Calvin Tomkins says came from an architect undergoing a divorce in 1963. Seeing them now, their effect is akin to looking at glimpses of events unfolding through a misty glass, which perfectly fits the distance of 600+ years from the original. Rauschenberg makes the story contemporary, and it’s hard not to think that he might have identified with the central character being “midway in the journey of our life,” though the search for “autobiographical references” in it would be, it seems to me, largely conjecture. Subsequently, he continued to search for new and better ways to get these Photographs, and then his own Photographs, on to canvas, beginning with his Silkscreen Paintings in 1962, and through much of his subsequent career, eventually leading to his use of digital processing of images with computers in his series, “Anagrams,” through his final works.

“Ace,” 1962, Combine Painting. There are some objects attached to the painting, but, unlike in the Combines,  they don’t dominate it.

“Ace,” 1962, Combine painting. After doing Combines for 8 years, Rauschenberg, not surprisingly, felt the urge to move on. As Calvin Tomkins put it, “his methods had become too familiar to him13.” On loan from Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, “Ace” may be his Painted masterpiece. It’s certainly his most painterly work in the show, it also stands apart, first, for it’s size (108 x 240 inches, or 20 feet long), and because it was done right before the Silkscreen Paintings took him in a completely different direction. It, apparently, relates to the dancer Steve Paxton, his partner at the time, “Ace” being Mr. Paxton’s nickname. Though, it also includes some collaged elements, most notably cardboard, here he largely leaves the elements of Combine Painting behind.

The far left panel feels all about motion, told with Abstract Expressionistic/action brushstrokes and drips. That “R” on the bottom is a long way from the “auschenberg,” the rest of his “signature,” in the far right panel.

Still, almost all of the left-hand 4 panels have the feel of motion, yes, like a dancer in any one of a variety of movements, before we reach the 5th and right hand panel, which seems entirely without motion. Interestingly, it does feature a torso-like cardboard box, a material that would become more prominent in his work. That’s one interpretation. Take from it, as with everything else he created, what you will. In spite of the fact that as Roy Lichtenstein said, “the Combines marked the end of Abstract Expressionism and the return to the subject14,” Rauschenberg continued to use AbEx techniques throughout his career, consistent with his physical, “action” based manner of working.

“Mirthday Man, (Anagram, A Pun), 1997, features an x-ray of Rauschenberg done 30 years before, which he called a “self-portrait of inner man.”

“I was the ‘charlatan’ of the art world. Then, when I had enough work amassed,
I became a ‘satirist’ – a tricky word – of the art world, then ‘fine artist’,
but who could live with it? And now, ‘We like your old things better’.”  Robert Rauschenberg, 197215

Not me.

“Mirthday Man [Anagram (A Pun)],” 1997, Inkjet dye and pigment transfer on polylaminate. (There’s that “transfer” word, again.) Rauschenberg’s later works are the most overlooked part of his career, in my opinion. Maybe it’s because he was so prolific (Calvin Tomkins estimated he had created 6,000 works by 2005, not including multiples16), or maybe it’s because some critics seemed to feel he ran out of ideas earlier on and stopped paying attention. Whatever the reason, the feeling seems to reach into Museums. In New York, it’s rare to see a later Rauschenberg on view in a museum. I think this will all change. To my eyes, his later works are among his most beautiful. While he still loves to finesse an image, and modify it in countless ways, he’s finally perfected getting Photographs into his works in excellent color & resolution-when he wants them that way. He began using Apple Macintosh computers circa 1991 or 1992, back in the day when they were still called “Macintosh.” He was an early adaptor of using digital technology with photographs, though the results of his earlier processes shows that he was getting some of the same layering and modification effects that many Artists now achieve in Photoshop, etc. back in the late 1950’s. In fact, what many Artists do today in Photoshop, etc. looks to me like what Rauschenberg was doing years before digital Photo manipulation. It’s interesting that in his very late work (like the series “Scenarios,”(an example from which I showed last time, and “Runts,” 2005-08) the photos are left entirely on their own to dialogue with each other. “Mirthday Man,” from his “Anagram, A Pun series, (which I wrote about here), is a masterpiece of his later period. Created on a single day, the Artist’s 72 birthday in 1997, it’s images occupy their own spaces and are not layered. While he “modifies” them, the clarity of the base image still shines through. Because they seem scraped or cut up and used in sections, they have a collaged look. Slightly to the left of center is a full x-ray of Rauschenberg’s body from 30 years earlier. (It’s the common denominator with “Booster,” 1967, which hangs adjacent to it in the large later works gallery.) The images seem impossibly random, and white space is also beginning to come in. The front of an NYC Firetruck (taken near his studio on Lafayette Street), a spoked wheel and an umbrellas (images he’s used frequently), sports jerseys (with a lot of 9’s, 2’s, and 1’s. I looked long and hard, but I couldn’t make out his birthday out of these numbers- 10/22), Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (near the upper right corner. Strangely faded here, it’s an image he also used in “Rebus,” 1955. The Botticelli is as close as I got to a “birth day” reference…so far! Since most of them are Photographs he took, perhaps the work is a bit of a personal scrapbook, looking back on an extraordinarily eventful & productive 71 years in a way that looks like the way memory often works- in fragments. Whereas he called the x-ray a “self-portrait of inner man,” the rest of the composition is something akin to a portrait of where that man has been, seen in seemingly random moments in dream-like fragments.

He would still have 10 more birthdays to show us the inner man, and everything he saw outside of himself.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “I’m Looking Through You,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

Thanks to Gina Guy & David White, of the Rauschenberg Foundation, for their assistance.

Oh! One final work…by request. It was in the show, but it’s not by Rauschenberg…

“Bob Rauschenberg in Birdo,” 1973, by Oyvind Fahlstrom. Per MoMA- “In this work, Fahlstrom affectionately reimagined Rauschenberg’s name in “Birdo,” a language he invented based on American bird sounds….”

I wonder who could have requested it…

On the Fence #11, Among (Feathered) Friends” Edition

This is Part 2 of my 3 Part series on the shows in this “Summer of Rauschenberg.” Part 1 is above this Part (or here). Part 3, which looks at the 4 “satellite” shows going on around town is below this one, here

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.

  1. John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” in “Silence.” You can hear him read it here.
  2. Calvin Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P. 116
  3. Calvin Tomkins “Off the Wall,” P.124
  4. http://wildspeak.com/animalenergies/goat.html
  5. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/saltz1-11-06.asp
  6.  https://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/audio/rausch-ritch2.html
  7. Glenn Lowry in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.7
  8. “Off the Wall,” P.143
  9. Quoted in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.9
  10. It’s, apparently, a big deal even to MoMA, itself, who released a limited edition complete set of prints of them in 500 copies for as many dollars, in honor. Unfortunately, as nice as the limited edition is, comparing it’s prints to the real thing reveals the extremely subtle colors of the originals to be slightly off in the prints to my eyes.
  11. “Off the Wall, P.146
  12. Calvin Tomkins Archives at MoMA.
  13. “Off the Wall,” P. 181
  14. https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/01/03/still-rabble-rousing/
  15. Independent Obituary, 5/14/2008.
  16. “Off the Wall,” P.283

Rauschenberg Around Town: Found Objects

This is the third, and final, part of my series on the “Summer of Rauschenberg”- 5 shows related to Robert Rauschenberg from May though September 30.

Being New York, of course 250 pieces by Robert Rauschenberg on view at MoMA’s “Among Friends” (which I wrote about in Part 1 and Part 2) wasn’t going to be enough for many. Guilty. To the rescue came 4 satellite shows that provided a chance to see more, and even explore lesser known genres of the Artist’s prolific output. With “Among Friends,” they combined to create a fuller, if still not complete, picture of Rauschenberg’s accomplishment. The shows were (in no particular order)-

-“Robert Rauschenberg: Rookery Mounds,” and “Selected Series from the 60s & 70s,” at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl Gallery,
-“Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects,
-“Robert Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and
-“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery (Susan Weill was Rauschenberg’s first collaborator, and later his wife & mother of their son, Christopher. Divorced a few years later, she has continued her Art career to this day.)

Among these, too, highlights were plentiful. At Chelsea’s Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl, it was more like a revelation.

Rauschenberg at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl. Click any image to see it full size.

As I’ve said in Part 1, I’ve been obsessed with Rauschenberg’s Photography, and was a bit disappointed it wasn’t given a more thorough assessment at Moma’s “Among Friends,” and so I continued to explore it’s progression as part of his work in the other shows. “Rookery Mounds,” a series from 1979, turned out to be as close as I got to a breakthrough.

5 of the 11 lithographs comprising Rauschenberg’s “Rookery Mounds” series, 1979. This was the first time the complete set has been on view since their debut at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1979

Rauschenberg finally started using his own Photographs, exclusively, in his collaboration with Trisha Brown, “Glacial Decoy,” 1979,  (which was on view at MoMA’s “Among Friends,” as I mentioned, and showed in Part 1 of this series. In that work, 620 Rauschenberg Photographs were displayed by themselves as the background for the dancers in a constantly changing series of 4 Photos). He subsequently used Photographs from the body of them he created for “Glacial Decoy” in the series “Glacial Decoy Series Etchings” and “Glacial Decoy Series Lithographs.” He also used them in the series “Rookery Mounds,”1979, a gorgeous and very important series of 11 prints. These 3 series have a completely different look and feel, to me, from all that has come before. The Photos are shown pretty much on their own in groups, with minimal layering, and, apparently, no surface scraping, washes or other modifications, (besides tinting), and no painting over. They beg the question- “WHY didn’t he do this before?” It took a lawsuit for “borrowing” a Photograph by someone else, without permission, to get Rauschenberg, one of the most under-rated Photographers I can think of, to FINALLY feature his own Photographs in his work.

Hallejulah!

In “Rookery Mounds,” they are displayed in the most wonderful combination of wildly disparate images, that somehow…magically work together.

“Level,” left, “Steel Arbor,” right. Both, 1979, Lithographs from “Rookery Mounds”

After looking at so much of his earlier work, the difference is immediately apparent, and startling. In these three series there is a new “clarity” that is different from most of what’s come before, and strikes me as (the beginning of) a new plateau where his Photographs, in higher resolution than ever,  allow him unprecedented image clarity, when he wants it (as here, and in the “Scenarios,” 2002-06, and “Runts,” 2007, series, at the end of his career), and, with layering, painting, and other modifications in the “Anagrams,” 1995-97, “Anagrams (A Pun),” 1997, and “Arcadian Retreats,” 1996, series, which I wrote about in 2015. Other series, like the “Waterworks,” 1992-95, straddle the line between modified/unmodified images. After watching his use of images progress from his Black Mountain Photographs in the late 1940’s, to the Blueprints and the mid-1950’s Combines and Combine Paintings, to the Dante Illustration transfer drawings through the Silkscreen Paintings, it feels like he finally found what he had been seeking all along. Am I saying these are “better” than works containing the Photos of others? No. I don’t believe in those kinds of comparisons. I’m saying that it feels the “Glacial Decoy” graphic works represent a new style of presentation in his work that is different from what came before, which usually used (more) layering, and I find it to be equally as valid, and to my eyes, perhaps even more beautiful. Those who feel that Rauschenberg ran out of ideas at some point may want to take a look at these.

“”Rookery Mounds-Crystal,” left and “”Rookery Mounds-Masthead,” right. Both, 1979, Lithographs from “Rookery Mounds”

Given recent events, one of them, “Level,” shown above, struck me as ironically prescient…38 years later.

This could have been a real front page a few weeks ago. Detail of “Level.” It’s ironic that Rauschenberg put this image of water engulfing wood poles on the cover of the Fort Meyers News-Press, as Hurricane Irma, unfortunately, put much of the area under water. Rauschenberg’s studio & home complex on nearby Captiva Island, managed to escape major damage, I’m told.

Why at least one of these weren’t at MoMA in “Among Friends,” is a question I can’t answer. For the rest of his career he would use his own Photographs, until a stroke denied him the use of his right (Photographing & Painting) arm in the early 2000’s, requiring him to have others take Photos for him. “Rookery Mounds” is a shining example of why I feel his later work, AND his Photography, are under-appreciated. Rauschenberg was not only the master of the found object in the 2nd half of the century, he was also a master of capturing what I call the “found moment” in his Photographs. Most importantly, the “Glacial Decoy” project rekindled Rauschenberg’s love of Photography. In the late 1940’s he had agonized about whether to be a Painter of a Photographer. He chose to be a Painter. Now? He’d never look back. His “found moments,” and “found objects” would be central to his work for the rest of his career.

“Rookery Mounds- Gray Garden,” left, and “Rookery Mounds-Night Tork,” both 1979, right

Along with “Rookery Mounds,” two other rooms featured other works from the 60’s and 70’s, and the discoveries continued. These include a number of Rauschenberg’s work in corrugated cardboard in a series he called “Cardbirds,” 1971, along side a series of pieces that LOOK every bit like cardboard but are, in fact, made of clay- the “Tampa Clay Pieces 1-4,” 1972-3.

No, this is not made of cardboard . “Tampa Clay Piece 1,” 1972-3, Fired clay with screen printed decal and soil patina.

Then there was a set of lithographs- supplementary plates for the deluxe edition of the “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” from 1964. Completely entrhalled by the Dante set, as I wrote about in both prior installments of this series, seeing these darker, black & white works, added new dimensions to them. They share so much with both the Dante pieces, and also with his Screenprint Paintings, also from 1964. JFK appears here as well, among a number of contemporaries, which serves to really act as a bridge between two major series in Rauschenberg’s career.

“Ark,” from the deluxe edition of “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1964,

And, there was this-

“Bellini,” #4, 1988, Intaglio in 7 colors on Arches paper. Giovanni Bellini’s “Allegory of Vanitas,” c.1490 completely restaged.

Down in SoHo, a gem of a show featured rarely seen pieces in a well known but little studied genre of Rauschenberg’s work- Show Posters. Todd Alden and Alden Projects presented a fascinating array of Posters by Rauschenberg, and Artists in his “Early Network,” including Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, in a show of the same title. The Posters include both unique designs and designs adopted from existing works, or Photographs. Little known is that Rauschenberg created show Posters, continuously, for most of his career. A very nice selection of them from 1959-72, along with an incredible selection of ephemera from the “9 Evenings” theatrical collaboration between Artists and Bell Labs engineers in 1966 was on view. Shows of Rauschenberg’s Posters haven’t happened often after they were included in the 1977 Rauschenberg show that Walter Hopps curated for the National Collection of Fine Arts, which travelled to MoMA.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects. Installation view. Left are Posters for shows by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg from the early 1960’s.

Especially memorable were two wonderful Posters by Rauschenberg for his 2nd week of November, 1961 show at Leo Castelli and his first retrospective in 1963 at the Jewish Museum, curated by Alan Solomon. Both are revelations. The 1961 Castelli Poster is particularly brilliant.- wonderfully making sly reference to Rauschenberg’s love of the found object.

Poster for Leo Castelli’s November, 1961 show, showing folds which was the way it came. Photo courtesy of Alden Projects.

What could be more Rauschenberg then to see the announcement for the show, and it’s title, among a pile of debris, where they, too, become “found objects”- like his materials? Not to mention it’s also a great Photograph, and appears as such in the book, “Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949-62 1, though it was, no doubt, taken with the intention of being used for show publicity.

The Jewish Museum piece is both historically important, being for the first ever Rauschenberg Retrospective (the Artist was all of 37), a major event being the first such show at the museum. It was followed by a similar show for Jasper Johns, who also created a wonderful “Flag” Poster which is included in the show, the next year.

Rauschenberg’s rare Poster for his now legendary Retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1963 features a work unique to this Poster, and the accompanying lithograph..

An audacious work. Rauschenberg was in the middle of his Silkscreen Paintings period, yet this work seems to me to have even more rawness than they do. His handwriting has an edgy look, too. Speaking of “edgy,” stylistically, it presages “punk” rock posters by 13 years.  The lettering of his name on the top reminds me a bit of the “game” he played with his name in signing “Ace,” 1962, with the R separated from the “auschenberg” by 3 entire panels (see Part 2). Here he moves the “G,” and mirrors the first “R,” leaving “auschenber” looking a bit stranded. The mirroring of the “R” could be seen as mimicking his fondness for including mirrors of various kinds in his works. Given the historical importance of this show- the first retrospective of his work, in 1963, only 10 years after the Arno River incident I led off Part 1 of this series about, and the first retrospective presented at the Jewish Museum, it’s a remarkable piece all around. The only familiar image from the Silkscreen series Rauchenberg brought with him to this Poster appears to be the partially filled glass of water, which could be a reference to the fact that at the time, the Artist was only 37 and had been creating for about 13-15 years. He would go on to create for another 45 years. The glass of his career was barely 1/3 full by that point.

Prophetic. Rauschenberg “Art & Technology” Letterhead, from around the time of “9 Evenings” (1966), an epic series of theatrical collaborations between Artists & Bell Lab engineers at the 26th Street Armory. Rauschenberg’s piece was the infamous “Open Score” tennis match, used technologically enhanced rackets that controlled the lights in the Armory. One of the two players was Artist Frank Stella. “Open Score” may be seen here. Photo courtesy of Alden Projects.

Over at “Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art in Chelsea, this large work served to be another example of Rauschenberg bringing the viewer into his work, something he does often, as I pointed out in Part 1. In this case, not only is there a chair as there is in “Pilgrim,” 1960, which I wrote about in Part 1, by 1990, Rauschenberg has become fascinated with reflective/shiny metallic surfaces, which, as seen below, reflect (mirror) whatever is in front of them, bringing the room, and the viewer into the work (and making Photographing it challenging).

“Pegasits, from ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works),” 1990, Screenprint, wax, polished steel with painted wood chair. 8 feet by 6 feet.

“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. The first collaborator of Robert Rauschenberg, as was beautifully shown at MoMA’s “Among Friends,” where Susan Weil is Rauschenberg’s collaborator, and subject, of their large blueprint piece, “Sue,” ca. 1950, (which I showed near the beginning of Part 2 of this series), married Rauschenberg in the summer of 1950. They had a child, Christopher, now the head of the Rauschenberg Foundation, but separated almost a year later, and divorced in 1953, though they remained close after separating. Sharing much of the same Art education background with Rauschenberg, including both going to Black Mountain College beginning in 1948, her Art career had a solid foundation. So, it’s no surprise that she has continued creating, now, for almost 60 years. Their romantic relationship now looks like a small part of her long career.

So, what has she been up to since? A selection of her work from 1972 to date was on view at Sundaram Tagore Gallery this past June, into July, though it was heavily slanted to newer work, with 12 of the 24 pieces on view being from 2016-17.

“Susan Weil: Now and Then” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery Installation view.

A number of recurring themes were included. Hands- seen in “Leftovers,” below, which extrapolates the hands from da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” and “Percept Prespect,” shows three views of a cupped hand in the shape of  triangles, with each succeeding one receding into space/getting closer to the wall. The effect is akin to falling into the open palm, complete with a sense of space within the work. Trees were, also, the subject of a few works. Her work often has a sculptural element to it, as if it is coming out from the wall to meet the viewer. Many of the works reveal a fondness for using unusual materials and taking images apart. Also on view was a vitrine containing a selection from her journals, which she has been keeping all along.

Susan Weil, “Percept Prespect,” 2015-16, Inkjet print mounted on paper mounted on Dibond, Each shape is set at different receding distances from the wall, large to small.

Susan Weil, “Leftovers,” 2015, Digital printing on acrylic sheeting and painted aluminum.

Coming full circle. As she had begun doing with Rauschenberg in the late 1940’s Susan Weil has continued making Blueprints. Here, “Penumbrella,” 2009, Blueprint. Umbrellas, also, appear frequently in Rauschenberg.

It might be tempting to look for Rauschenberg in her work, but that would be doing both of them a disservice. Susan Weil was “there at the beginning,” and they collaborated for a good many of both of their formative Artistic years. Personally, though there may be some “intriguing echoes” in her work, I don’t see anything more to it than that. She has continually stood on her own and followed her own path, and it was a rare pleasure to see such an interesting overview of her accomplishments.

In thinking about the “sum” effect (sorry) of these 5 shows, the name Man Ray came to mind. They have quite a few things in common. They both worked in an extremely wide range of mediums and broke boundaries in every one. Both had Artistic friends who were associated with various Art “movements,” yet they, themselves, remained beyond category. Both have areas of their achievement that is under-known. Yet, in all the research I did Ray’s name never came up as an influence, or, in fact, was never mentioned in the Rauschenberg interviews I’ve seen, though Man Ray only died in 1976. Of course, some have compared Rauschenberg to Picasso, also because of that wide range of mediums, and because of how innovative both were. While Rauschenberg saw Picasso’s work early on in Paris, and wanted to meet him, I don’t know if he ever did. Rauschenberg strikes me as an Artist who, primarily, especially early on, was living in the moment, perhaps as influenced by his creative friends (including older friends/acquaintances who were Abstract Expressionists) as by Art history (some of his works from the mid-1950’s on feature pieces of masterpieces from the past, like “Bellini #4, 1988, shown earlier, though there is more visual evidence to say that more recent Art history may have been an influence on him- as something to break away from, while he adapted some of it’s techniques). Though Man Ray worked in many mediums, and is, perhaps, best known for his Photographs, he, like Rauschenberg, considered himself a Painter. In 1961, Ray said this about Photography and Painting- “I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence2.” It’s hard not to see Rauschenberg in that, too..

Mind the gap. Say “Goodbye” to “the Summer of Rauschenberg.”

“Now I’m standing in a doorway with my overcoat on
It really feels like summer’s gone”*

Making 25 trips to these shows from June 1, though their closing on September 30th, these Posts could well be titled “What I Did This Summer.” Taken as a whole, I think these 5 shows could be summed up in one word- “Surprise.” One of the magical things about looking at a Rauschenberg is that you never really see all of it. Certain parts of it speak to you one time, something else the next. It looks different…new to you, each time you see it. Then, there are the works you’ve never seen, since he was so prolific for so long, that surprise you for being unfamiliar. On my first visit, and on my 25th visit there were surprises- new details that altered my thinking about a work, new connections with other works, recent or past, and, new possibilities from them for the future.

I’m not alone in seeing those “new possibilities.” Right now? I can’t think of another Artist who is more influential on other Artists based on what I see in shows these days than Robert Rauschenberg. Not even Picasso.

As the elevator doors closed on my final visit to a Rauschenberg related show this summer, as shown above, I was reminded of his quote from the 1959 MoMA catalog for the show “16 Americans,” “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two).” In that “gap” is where I spent my summer.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Summer’s Gone,” as recorded by The Kinks. Words & Music by Ray Davies, publisher unknown. R.I.P.-Tom Petty.

Thanks to Gina Guy & David White, of the Rauschenberg Foundation, for their assistance

On the Fence,” #12, The Mind the Canyon” Edition. (The Postscript to this episode follows, below.)

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.

  1. as item 109 on Page 217
  2. Undated interview, circa 1970s; published in Man Ray: Photographer, 1981.

Rauschenbird Postscript

“On The Fence, #13,” the Sail on Silverbirds Edition.* Continued from “On The Fence, #12,” here (scroll to the bottom). (In response to queries…Yes. The fence’s railing was recently painted silver. )

*-“Sail on silver bird…” is a paraphrase of “Sail on silver girl” from the Soundtrack for this Post- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.

Chris Ware’s “Hurricane Harvey”

The latest issue of The New Yorker, ironically dated September 11th, features this timely, sad, and poignant cover by Chris Ware, titled “Hurricane Harvey.”

Click to enlarge this photo of my issue.

Mr. Ware went to school in Austin, as his long time readers know, and spoke about those days recently, here.

My thoughts are with readers, and everyone effected, or about to be, by Hurricanes Harvey & Irma. As I write this, Irma may be about to hit. I hope it makes a drastic last minute turn and heads out to the Atlantic Ocean. If not? Stay safe.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right, for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com