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.
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,” 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,” 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
“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
“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…
I wonder who could have requested it…
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
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- John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” in “Silence.” You can hear him read it here. ↩
- Calvin Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P. 116 ↩
- Calvin Tomkins “Off the Wall,” P.124 ↩
- http://wildspeak.com/animalenergies/goat.html ↩
- http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/saltz1-11-06.asp ↩
- https://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/audio/rausch-ritch2.html ↩
- Glenn Lowry in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.7 ↩
- “Off the Wall,” P.143 ↩
- Quoted in “Robert Rauschenberg: 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” MoMA P.9 ↩
- 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. ↩
- “Off the Wall, P.146 ↩
- Calvin Tomkins Archives at MoMA. ↩
- “Off the Wall,” P. 181 ↩
- https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/01/03/still-rabble-rousing/ ↩
- Independent Obituary, 5/14/2008. ↩
- “Off the Wall,” P.283 ↩