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
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  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