Art In China Since 1989: O Brave New World

Talk about “digging a hole to China.” This one’s right through the Guggenheim’s ground floor! Wang Gongxin, “Sky of Beijing,” 2017, Color video installation with sound.

“MIRANDA:
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
PROSPERO:
‘Tis new to thee.”
(Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1)

The International world of Chinese Art is a dichotomy, it seems to me. On the one hand you have record prices being paid for Chinese Art all over the planet (particularly in the tightly controlled domestic Chinese market1), to the point that China is now the largest, or second largest, Art market in the world, depending on who you read (as of the latest figures, 12/31/2016). Meanwhile, a large part of the Western world is sitting back with absolutely no idea what is going on, who these Artists, not-named Ai Weiwei, are, and what all the fuss is about. Some of this market explosion may be due to a slumping Chinese stock market, some due to limited investment options in China, and some is good ol’ interest in Art. (Of course, prices being paid for any Art, or anything, are no indication of quality or “importance.” Regarding buying Art, my thoughts are here.)

Chen Zhen, “Precipitous Parturation,” 1999, Rubber bicycle inner tubes, fragments of bicycles, toy cars, aluminum, silicone and paint. Though living in Paris, Chen returned to his native Shanghai in 1999, one year before he passed away, where he saw signs that read “By the year 2000, 100 million people will have their own cars.” In response, he created this huge snaking dragon, largely from bike parts, especially the countless rubber bike tires that form it’s body. It’s pregnant belly is opening to reveal a load of toy cars. One older mode of transportation giving birth to the next.

That crack in the iceberg of the lack of broad Western exposure you heard on October 6th was not another artifact of global warming. It was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum’s monumental, and already historically important, show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” the long-overdue comprehensive NYC Museum introduction to what’s been going on in the Art of China since that apocryphal year of 1989. It’s the biggest show of Contemporary Chinese Art yet in the U.S.A.

Detail of the “bursting belly” full of tiny toy cars. I can’t help but recall that both Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg featured bicycles in their works. They are the two Western Artists I was reminded of the most in this show- whether or not they were influences on the Artists.

“Apocryphal” may be putting it mildly to characterize 1989…Empires fell (the communist’s in Eastern Europe). New ones were born (the first commercial internet service & the first written proposal for the world wide web), and other empires trembled- 1989 was the year of a protest involving 1 million Chinese calling for “government reforms and accountability2” that lasted 6 weeks and 6 days centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, (which means “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” named after the Tiananmen to it’s north, separating the Square from the “Forbidden City”). The protests (Plural. They took place in many cities in China) culminated in the  “Tiananmen Square Massace” (or “June Fourth Incident,” locally), in which 10,000 people are said to have been killed, with many more injured.

“It crystallized the spirit of the revolt,” Stuart Franklin, says on the verso of this 2015 Print issued by Magnum of his 1989 Photo, “Protestor in Tiananmen Square,” which he signed on the front. “It was a movement for freedom of expression, for basic rights, and against the outrage of official corruption,” he added. From my collection.

The iconic “Tank Man” Photo was taken by Magnum’s Stuart Franklin on June 5th. A tragic end to the decade of the relaxed “Reform-era,” begun in 1978, 2 years after the death of Mao Zedong. Marked by the “lifting China’s long-closed borders on the world and allowing for socialism’s planned economy to adapt to limited free-market principles3,” it served to stimulate both experimental and avant-garde Artists as well as students to question the status quo and seek other possibilities. Smack dab in the middle of this period, Robert Rauschenberg arrived in China in 1982, his experience inspired him to return and mount the “ROCI CHINA” show (for Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative), in the country’s most prestigious venue, Beijing’s National Art Gallery, in 1985, which more than 300,000 people visited in the three weeks between November 15th and December 5th!

Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for “ROCI CHINA,” 1985, Offset lithograph, featuring Photos Rauschenberg took in China, as seen at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” at MoMA, 2017 (apologies for the glare). The show moved to Lhasa, Tibet after Beijing.

The exhibition “confounded and inspired viewers, whose exposure to Western Art had been limited to reproductions within catalogs, and whose understanding of art had largely been confined to academic Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking4.” For me, at least, it’s hard to not see that there may be at least some influence of that show here. At the very least, Robert Rauschenberg (Duchamp, etc.) may have inspired Artists with a broader range of possibilities, as he has countless other Artists in the West. At the same time, however, many Chinese Artists were rejecting the “New Wave,” and all outside influences, focusing on finding their own answers and their own way forward. After June 4th in Tiananmen Square, radical economic reform came in, experimental Art was no longer “sanctioned,” all backed by strong suppression of any mention of what had happened on June 4th in the press, media, online, or in history books, that continues to this day, as do the international sanctions that the rest of the world responded with.

The scene outside the National Art Gallery during “China/Avant Garde,” with it’s famous “No U-Turn” Sign. From this moment on, there would be “no turning back.”

Four months before that horrible end, another event took place that has had lasting impact-inside and outside of China. The “China/Avant-Garde” Art Show opening on February 5th, 1989, which is seen to be the “official” start of Contemporary Chinese Art in some quarters, and marks the beginning of the period covered by this show. “China/Avant-Garde” was “official,” in more ways than one. First, it was officially sanctioned, as hard as it may be for most Westerners to believe, as the “China Modern Art Exhibition,” on one condition- that there would be no performance Art, and second, it was held in the National Art Gallery, Beijing, where Rauschenberg’s show had been 4 years before.

The “Official sanction” didn’t last long. Two hours after it opened, Artist Xiao Lu fired a gun at her own work, “Dialogue,” and the police shut the show down for breaking the ban on performance Art. It opened and closed a few times (once for a bomb scare, which might have been a “performance”), before running it’s scheduled allotted length of time. By then it had made history- Artistically, culturally, historically, and influentially. While many Artists wound up leaving the country after the climate changed, a good deal of that experimental creative spirit and energy remains. Regardless of where the Artists may be now, the range of creativity on view at the Guggenheim was unceasing, eye-opening, and a good deal of it was operating on multiple levels simultaneously.

Xiao Lu fires a pistol at her work “Dialogue,” Custom-made telephone booth, Photograph, red telephone, glass, mirror, on February 5, 1989, 2 hours after “China/Avant-Garde” opened causing the immediate shutting down of the show. Photo from xiaoluart.com

With so many Artist options and so much time to cover (27 years), any number of alternate shows could’ve been mounted, but I think that what made it into Frank Loyd Wright’s rotunda and the two adjoining galleries, was, on the whole, exceedingly well chosen, with the caveats that, yes, that with 71 Artists included there should’ve been more than nine female artists included- a little under 8%, and, it felt to me that there was a plethora of video and installation Art, at the expense of other mediums, like Painting and Photography.

Lead curator Alexandra Munroe sums up the “post-Reform” environment- “Historical turbulence has given rise to an intelligentsia with a profound sense of skepticism towards governing ideologies and a predisposition to pragmatism in the absence of enduring meaning.” This extended to Artists working post-1989. “They produced works that questioned systems of truth and ideological formations…Eschewing Western humanist avant-garde ideals…experimental Artists approached ‘contemporary art’ as a new ‘other’ space outside the Western and Chinese Art words5.”

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, 3 Gelatin silver prints and “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo,” 1993, left, Paint on earthenware.

For me, a classic example of this is Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 3 Gelatin silver prints, from 1995, is a prime example of letting go (sorry) of the past, it’s influence, and the “baggage” the past brings with it for Artists to “live up to,” or to continue what has been done before.

Many are undoubtedly familiar with those Ai Weiwei works. Not being able to include everything else on view in this piece, I’m going to focus on what stood out to me in Painting, Drawing & Photography, along with a few other works in other mediums I just have to include. The works are not listed in any particular order.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1987, reconstructed in 1993, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass. The original was a work displayed at “China/Avant-Garde,” in 1989.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1997, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass, begins this show with a strong statement that the past is over. History, as written in these two Chinese Art History Books, needed to be cleansed. The result is illegible, and so stands as a metaphor. Here is an Artist struggling with the question of how to become “modern” without becoming Western. Will studying Art History lead to something truly new, or will it just be recycling what’s been done? On one hand, the pulp though having been washed, is dirty. But, the slate has, also, been wiped clean since the books are now illegible. As Joe Strummer said, “The future is unwritten.” After this work, (which was shown in the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show), it was. As such it stands as an ideal starting point for this show. Let’s see what was “written” after.

Wang Xingwei, “New Beijing,” 2001, Oil on canvas. In this work Wang Zingwei reimagines a well known Associated Press news photo by Liu Heung Shing, “Beijing- Rushing students to hospital,” 1989, taken on June 4th during the Tiananmen Square tragedy, where heroic bicyclists were shown rushing off with some of the wounded/injured, or deceased. Everything is as it is in the Photo, except Wang Xingwei has substituted 2 Emperor Penguins- animals not native to China, and therefore devoid of the political import Painting 2 wounded (or dead?) students would have had, while those helping are pulling together in ways that Chairman Mao espoused.

Wang Guangyi, “Mao Zedong, Red Grid No. 2,” 1988, Oil on canvas. Daring, and shocking, even 12 years after the death of Mao, given the omnipresence and power of his image in China. Unlike Andy Warhol’s “Mao as celebrity” series on the early 1970’s, Wang Guangyi has placed the former Chairman in a grid. It almost looks like he’s behind bars. It looks like it was done by (or influenced by) Chuck Close. The grid being one way Artists, including Close, have traditionally transferred images from one medium to another, but here it feels like there’s a different kind of transferring going on. Wang Guangyi painted this in 1988, 12 years after the subject’s passing, when it’s “meaning” is something else, something less fearful, something almost as neutral as the color he’s painted in, where it looks more like an old black and white Photo, and as such, it’s an image now locked in the past.

Liu Zheng, “The Chinese,” 1994-2002, 120 Gelatin silver prints. Among the Photography on display, these examples from the series of 120 stood out. Having worked on the state-run “Worker’s Daily” newspaper, his images go beyond the social realism they favored into a realm that isn’t quite “Street Photography,” and is significantly different from Robert Frank or Diane Arbus’ work, though the title is reminiscent of Frank’s “The Americans,” 1958. The rawness of the image is matched by the Photographer’s approach, which varies in each memorable shot.

Zhang Xiaogang, “New Year’s Eve, 1990,” Oil on canvas with collage of cloth and playing cards. After being hospitalized due to a bout with alchoholism, Zhang emerged from a dark period in his life in 1985 and joined the New Wave movement. This work has a haunting isolation to it. All we can really see are the figure’s left hand and his head/face. It’s as if he’s disembodied. In front of him lie 2 playing cards an unlit candle and a knife. Has the candle gone out? Is the knife for protection or self harm? This work was Painted after Tiananmen Square and refers to the beginning of the New Year. A black cloth hangs over the subject’s head, like a black cloud, with a red lining, possibly referring to additional raining of blood. The eyes stare straight out from the canvas, but not at the viewer. His glance doesn’t seem to make it out of his eyes.

Zhao Bandi, “Young Zhang,” 1992, Oil on canvas. One of the more popular Paintings in the show, judging by how many selfies I’ve seen taken in front of it online. It’s effect goes beyond it’s unorthodox off center hanging. Zhao shows us a young worker, living in a cramped space with few belongings beyond his embroidered comforter and a TV. Rising from sleep, he puts on his glasses and grabs a cigarette and stretches as he begins his day in his life in post-Reform China, where the economy is now booming, though the fruits of that may be slow to reach all levels of the workers.  This work was painted with a model in the Artist’s small room, on his bed. The title “Young Zhang” could really be “Young Everyman,” with Zhang being one of the most popular surnames in China.

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Still from Performance video, CITIC Plaza, June 3, 1995

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Color video with sound 36 minutes 45 seconds. Living in Manhattan, where pedestrian safety is an ever-increasing concern, there was no way I could leave this work out.

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Here, the Artist constructs a wall of cinder blocks on a road, then moves it block by block, column by column, across all 4 lanes until he reaches the other side, safely.  At the show, all 36 minutes of it were looped. While I immediately related to the issue of trying to cross any street safely, Katherine Grube, who spoke with the Artist, said “Mr. Lin’s objective was to create a ‘movable wall,’ animated by his own efforts that would interrupt the steady flow of traffic…and call attention to the unnatural, inhuman pace of urbanization and the human dislocations necessary to, and inseparable from such monumental environmental change6.”

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print- A while back in these pages I called Ai Weiwei the “Artist of the Decade,” even though there were three years left to run in it. I still feel good about my choice. He was named the #1 “Most Influential Photographer in the World,” among 50 selected in 2013, and by now he is, or will soon be, the most Photographed Artist in Art history. Still, it’s now obvious that he’s not the only important Chinese Artist of the past, let’s call it 3 decades. While his works, “Fairytale,” 2007, and “Citizen’s Investigation,” 2009-10, both “multi-media,” for lack of a better term, were also included, I picked this one because Ai Weiwei was in New York in June, 1989, when Tiananmen Square happened. He took this in Tiananmen Square on the 5th anniversary. It features his future wife, Lu Qing, center, while two soldiers walk casually behind her, another woman has her back to her right behind her, and, at the moment Ai shot this, a pensioner driving a powered cart, with his or her crutches visible, drives into the frame. Mao overlooks the whole scene. in the distance. What I haven’t seen mentioned, either on the wall card, or in the show’s catalog is that beginning the next year, 1995, Ai Weiwei began his famous “Study of Perspective” Photograph series, that lasted until 2003, where he flipped off important monuments around the world, including Tiananmen Square. Perhaps, learning from his experience with “June, 1994,” he opted to create a similar “affront” to “power” through means that required less “production,” and therefore, allowed him more control over the final result. Yes, it can be said he, therefore, stripped it down, even further than here, to it’s bare essentials.

Liu Dan’s “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. 196 by 75 inches. Photo- Liu Dan, Guggenheim Museum.

Liu Dan, “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. Besides Ai Weiwei, Liu Dan is the other Contemporary Chinese Artist that has captivated me since I discovered him at The Met’s “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” show in 2013. A close look at the incredible detail in his (often) huge works, reveals the man is a magician. I have since tracked down every book of his work I can find. Each of his larger works have the look and feel of being part of a giant scroll, with no “beginning” and no “end.” They seem to be influenced by ancient Chinese landscape Painting and the study of “Gongshi,” or “scholar’s rocks,” which have the abstract qualities of fantastic 20th Century sculpture. Still, I have absolutely no idea how he creates such incredible Paintings/Drawings, this one is almost 16 1/2 FEET long! Now living in the USA, he is gradually receiving the attention he richly deserves (witness “Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan,” where he reimagines classics of Western Art, which closes on January 29th at the Minneapolis Institute of Art). It might be too late for latecomers, though. His work already fetches large sums at auction, making it hard for it to find it’s way into public collections.

Liu Xiaodong, Two works from “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas.

Lio Xiaodong, “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas, 18 panels. Liu Xiaodong created a series of 9 diptychs of portraits of soldiers stationed on islands that are contested by China and Taiwan, Painting one soldier in each army in a pair. After Painting each portrait, he asked the subject to Paint their name, age and birthplace on the work. The result makes it hard for outsiders to know which army each soldier represents, and brings home the fact that though the soldier on the left, above, is 20, they all look very young, and the series quickly becomes a powerful meditation on…well, that’s up to you. For me, the two sides look indistinguishable. I can’t tell which side is which. About all that’s obvious is that these are young people with their whole lives ahead of them…unless war cuts them short.

Gu Dexin, 2009-05-02, 2009, Mounted on the top of the surrounding walls, Paint on 72 wood panels, Yang Jiechang, Lifelines I, 1999, On center pillar (and below), Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, as seen at the Guggenheim.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” 2009, Paint on wood, (Originally consisting of ) 74 panels, concrete and red lacquer, color video installation. Its’ fitting the show ends with Gu Dexin’s work, “2009-05-02,” At the Guggenheim, it consisted of a frieze surrounding the space who’s panels contain 11 sentences, unbroken, unpunctuated and repeated, which read, “We have killed people we have killed men we have killed women we have killed old people we have killed children we have eaten people we have eaten hearts we have eaten human brains we have beaten people we have beaten people blind we have beaten open people’s faces.” These sentences are said to evoke the revolutionary writer Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary,” from 1918. The work bears the same title as the show at which it debuted, as seen below, where it consisted of three components- a video of white clouds in a blue sky looped on video screens mounted over the gallery’s windows, above the 74 Painted panels. At the center of the gallery’s floor was a concrete plinth bearing a single sentence: “We Can Ascend To Heaven.” The show was up during the 20th Anniversary of the June 4th Incident in Tiananmen Square.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” installed at it’s premiere, Galleria Continua, Beijing, May, 2002, with the concrete plinth with red lacquer, below, and the video screens, above, from the show’s catalog.

During the run of the “2009-05-02” show, “Gu Dexin declared that ‘2009-05-02’ would be his last Artwork. He then proceeded to retreat entirely from Art and the Art world, which he understands as having become complicit in a political, cultural, and moral system which he refuses to accept. This refusal, more than any single object or image, may be his most enduring work of Art…He is, in singular ways, the conscience of his generation7.”

Yang Jiechang, “Lifelines 1,” 1999, Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas. 236 x 91 inches.

At the Guggenheim, Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02” panels were installed surrounding Yang Jiechang’s “Lifelines 1,” 1999, in the final gallery at the top of the 6th floor. Of “Lifelines 1,” which Yang Jiechang created for the 10th Anniversary of Tinananmen Square, Alexandra Munroe says, “”It recalls the pathways volunteers made in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations to ferry hunger-striking students to the hospital8.”

I’ve never been to China so I have to see this show through Western eyes. Overall, I find Chinese Contemporary Art to be one of the most interesting and fresh realms of Contemporary Art anywhere9. I’m not sure exactly why, but it seemed to me that even the most “avant-garde” works were not as obtuse as much of what I see around NYC, and most of what I’ve seen in my lifetime. While I’m not big on Art that meeds to be “explained,” given the differences in language and culture, I took a different approach here in an effort to “meet the work halfway.” Almost every time I did, I found the work not only made sense, I became aware of different levels the Artist was working on. Of course, it should be said that though Shakespeare’s “Tis new to thee” applied to me, with the two noted exceptions, most of these Artists have been long established both in China and Internationally. As I said, however, it would have been possible to mount any number of alternate shows given the universe of Artists to choose from. As a result, the only possible way to look at this show is that it represents “the tip of the iceberg” of Contemporary Chinese Art.

Therefore, trying to sum up this show is as pointless as trying to  sum up China itself. The strength of the show lies in the diversity of its vision, that so many unique, strong voices are at work creating impressive, and interesting, work right now is what counts. At those times when I wonder where the next big breakthrough will come from I see I need to cast a much wider net. It’s out there. And it’s probably going on right now out of the gaze of most of us.

“It’s new to thee,” indeed.

If this work can come out of/be born of repression? There may be more hope for the world than I feared.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is my NoteWorthy show for December. 

My previous Posts on Ai Weiwei, covering his NYC shows in Brooklyn in 2014 and four Manhattan shows in 2016 may be found here.
My look at Cai Dongdong’s recent show at Klein Sun Gallery may be found here

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Brave New World” by Iron Maiden, released in 2000 on the album of the same name, which was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. diplomat.com “China’s Art Market Is Booming…”
  2. time.com Tiananmen Protester Wang Dan
  3. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” Exhibition catalog, p. 23. The show’s exceptional catalog is one of the best I’ve seen, for any show, in many years. It’s much more than a guide to this show. It also includes extensive documentation on the history of Contemporary Art in China, including an in-depth look at all previous larger shows of Chinese Contemporary Art, internationally, biographies of Chinese Artists & Artist Groups, and a guide to reference texts on the subject by year, all of which will make it a standard reference on the subject in the USA for the foreseeable future.
  4. UCCA, “Rauschenberg in China,” 2016
  5. Exhibition Catalog P.25
  6. Exhibition catalog, P. 157
  7. Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari, Exhibition catalog for this show, P. 286.
  8. Exhibition catalog, P.35
  9. While keeping an eye on Africa.

On The Frontiers of Photography: Trevor Paglen, Willa Nasatir, Caslon Bevington

While I’ve spent much of this year exploring the world of Photography, my focus has largely been on the period beginning with Robert Frank’s universally revered book “The Americans,” 1958. Most of those I’ve encountered work in fairly “traditional” realms- “Find a subject and shoot it.” Ah…the good old days. Of course, the world isn’t going to stand still for me while I look back, thank goodness, a point brought home by 3 concurrent shows this fall.

Unprecedented times call for extlraordinary means. Trevor Paglen at work on a prior project using equipment originally designed to see distant galaxies. Photo from his website.

Trevor Paglen (B. 1974), who holds both an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago’s School and a PhD in geography from Berkley is, perhaps, best known for his Photos of “black sites”- classified defense department/CIA/NSA installations. Those pictures are usually murky, because of the haze from the extreme distances he has to work from because of security, and legal, restrictions to shoot many of these places. He prefers them that way, usually foregoing clearer images because, as he told the New Yorker in 2012, his “aim is not to expose and edify so much as to confound and interest1.” In the same piece, he said that a clearer image would say “a little less, really,” adding “that blurriness serves both an aesthetic and an ‘allegorical’ function2.” “It makes his images more arresting while providing a metaphor for the difficulty of uncovering the truth in an era when so much government activity is covert,” writer Jonah Weiner concluded3. As a result, some of his more “atmospheric” work have been compared to Painters, including J.M.W. Turner and Gerhard Richter, by some.

So, I was somewhat surprised when I walked into his new show, “A Study of Invisible Images,” at Metro Pictures. Robert Longo’s “The Destroyer Cycle” had recently been up on these walls, featuring huge charcoal drawings deep with socio-political imagery. I was expecting more of the same from Mr. Paglen given his books of “black site” Photos.

That’s not quite what we get.

Installation view, with a still from his video, “Behold These Glorious Times,” 2017. Click any image for full size.

It’s about something different, though not entirely unrelated. It turns out that Mr. Paglen has, also, been deeply involved in studying computer learning, specifically, how computers see the world. As he explains in the “Artist’s Notes” for the show-

 “Over the past decade or so, something dramatic has happened to the world of images: they have become detached from human eyes. Our machines have learned to see. Without us.”

He goes on to talk about how smart airports, smart homes, even smart cities are becoming ubiquitous, with self-driving cars possibly on the way, before adding, “Most images these days are made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. I call this world of machine-machine image making ‘invisible images,’ because it’s a form of vision that’s inherently inaccessible to human eyes. This exhibition is a study of various kinds of these invisible images.” They break down to three groups- “machine readable landscapes (landscape images overlaid with marks that show how they’re being interpreted by machines), training images (made by humans for machine eyes), and things that we might call ‘ghosts.'”

“It Began as a Military Experiment,” 2017, ten pigment prints

While the new iPhone X uses facial recognition technology instead of passwords or fingerprints, this technology is nothing new. The military wanted it developed back in the mid-1990’s, so the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began funding research. They quickly realized they needed to create a gigantic database of facial images and these folks, above, mostly military employees, were among the first of tens of thousands of photos it took and compiled into what was called the FERET database. Mr. Paglen then combed this database to arrive at this selection of faces. He then ran them through an algorithm to locate the key features of their faces. “One of the ways I think about these portraits is as a kind of super-structuralism in the sense that they are images not made for human eyes. They are meant for machine eyes. What’s more, these photos represent the original faces of human facial recognition- the ‘Adam and Eves’ that nearly all subsequent facial recognition research has been built upon,” he says in the “Artist’s Notes.”

Closeup of the fifth portrait, shows the key points on his face.

Recognizing one face out of this gigantic database first requires a “faceprint,” made out of all of the faces of a particular subject, aligned so their eyes and mouths are in the same place. Once you “average” them, you subtract the average image of all the other people in the database from the average of your subject. You’ll end up with a faceprint of your subject showing what distinguishes him form everyone else in the group. This portrait translates the faceprint of philosopher Frantz Fanon into an image that looks like a face to human eyes.

We’ve gone from the images seen just above- images that humans would recognize as people and faces, to this, an image constructed from computer to computer images so humans can recognize it as a face. “Fanon” (Even the Dead Are Not Safe) “Eigenface,” 2017, Dye sublimation metal print. The Afro-Carribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon is the subject.

It gets stickier from there. The Artist’s Notes continue, “A.I.s (artificial intelligences) are taught how to recognize objects by giving them training sets….(which may) consist of thousands or even millions of images organized into pre-sorted classes that correspond to each of the kind of objects that the A.I. will eventually be able to distinguish. For example, if you want to train an A.I. to recognize all the objects in a kitchen, you might give it a thousand pictures of a fork, a spoon, a knife, a countertop, etc…Once that A.I. is trained, you can give it a picture of a fork it has never seen before and it should be able to recognize it as a fork. ” After mentioning that “every image posted to Facebook or other social media sites undergoes powerful artificial intelligence algorithms that can recognize the identities of people, the objects, the products, and even the place depicted in those images,” Mr. Paglen created his own “massive” training sets, “based on literature, philosophy, folk-wisdom, history, and other ‘irrational’ things, and taught the A.I. to recognize things from those ‘corpuses.'” The last half of the show consists of the results of these experiments, which are much more ethereal and evocative than literal, at least to this human’s eyes.

“A Man (Corpus: The Humans) Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” 2017, Dye sublimation print.

Mr. Paglen has groups this part under the broad heading of “Hallucinations,” or “Adversarilly Evolved Hallucinations.” These further break down into the subcategories, or “Corpuses,” which includes-
“Corpus: Eye Machines” (Fittingly)
“Corpus: American Predators” (The Artist’s notes include Mark Zuckerberg, who he lists as a “predatory machine,” reminding viewers that computers mine every image loaded to his site and are capable of reading a tremendous amount of information from them.)
“Corpus: The Humans” (As seen in the image above. Porn was included in the training sets, and another image depicts it as seen by a computer…or so the title says.)
“Corpus: Omens and Portents”
“Corpus: Interpretations of Dreams” (Examples of both are seen below.)

“Rainbow (Corpus: Omens and Portents),” left, “False Teeth (Corpus: Interpretation of Dreams) both from “Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” 2017, Dye sublimation prints.

Trevor Paglen seems to like to push the boundaries of our perception while avoiding the sharp detail most Photographers live by, which, indeed, ventures into the domain of Painting. Now, he has gone beyond what humans can perceive, and into the realm of what is only “seen” by computers to create Art for humans. I wonder how long it will be before computers get around to doing that for us on their own.

Installation view, with another still from his video, “Behold These Glorious Times,” 2017.

These images are haunting, nightmarish, and beautiful, at the same time. In his Art Basel Conversation with Jenny Holzer, Mr. Paglen said the basis of his work can be summed up as- “How do you see the historical moment that you live in?” This show certainly provides answers to part of that question, though it raises others. Mr. Paglen’s new work is no less unsettling than his “black sites” and drone Photos. Perhaps most unsettling is not what’s in these images. It’s what they portend for the future.

Willa Nasatir,”R.V.,””The Green Room,””Bird,””Blue Girl,””Sunbather,””Conductor,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood, from left to right. Installation view, Whitney Museum.

Unlike the other Artists featured in this piece, Willa  Nasatir (B. 1990) doesn’t use digital techniques to create her Photographs. That might be hard to believe after seeing her work. Her analog process involves creating props, often from found objects, shooting them, and then reshooting the resulting Photographs, which has sometimes been modified by fire, water, and any number of other things. The results, as seen in her revelatory Whitney Museum show, “Willa Nasatir,”achieve something of a 3D effect in a 2D work. Fresh from a show at the Knox-Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, who owns one of her most stunning images, Ms. Nasatir shows herself to be at once a throwback, and a visionary.

“The Red Room,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood. The-Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns this one. They chose well.

Ms. Nasatir created the 6-part work, shown first in this section, especially for the Whitney’s long gallery wall, the unifying feature of which seems to be the color grey with green or blue. All of the works on view are dated 2017 and show a remarkably consistent unity of style and vision, and a somewhat daring use of color.  As for what’s going on in these, or any of her work? You’re on your own. The Whitney’s introduction to the show says, in part, “The resulting works are hand-manipulated images that become psychologically charged and difficult to discern; the viewer is left to parse out unresolved narratives that the image only implies.”

“The Green Room,” 2017. When I look at this, with it’s mirror reflection, even some of it’s props, I can’t help but recall Samara Golden’s work in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

Hmmm…Where have I heard that recently? Her style shares some similar props and some of the effect of Samara Golden’s work, particularly “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes,” 2017, which I felt was the show-stopper of this year’s Whitney Biennial. Ms. Golden’s work can look like “sets” that Willa Nasatir might base one of her Photographs on. Whereas I called Ms Golden’s astounding work in this year’s Whitney Biennial “unphotographable,” (as a whole), Ms. Nasatir’s Photographs are often impossible to locate in the real world. Both Artist’s works features elements of the “known world,” but place them in contexts which are unknown, mysterious, ominous.

Samara Golden’s “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes,” (detail), 2017, at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year.

In thinking about precedents for Ms. Nasatir’s work, Man Ray once again comes to mind. Ray, of course, didn’t use digital techniques, either. He pre-dated them. The Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, the German Expressionist filmmakers also come to mind, as do Robert Rauschenberg’s found objects. But, as with Samara Golden, it’s what these image stir in the mind, and the mind’s eye, that overcomes any attempt at reference- in the real world, or the historical one.

Willa Nasatir, “Street Sweeper,” right, “Half Heart, Bus Depot,” both 2017, Gelatin silver prints.

It all fades away as you ponder “What happened here?” Or, “What is about to happen?,” and then feel resonances in your mind and life. Oh, and by the way, there’s the beauty of her work, which I say as almost an afterthought, though it’s not, to their main impact- mystery.

“Butterfly,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood.

With two museums shows to her name by her mid-20’s, Willa Nasatir is an Artist who’s stock is rising pretty quickly. It will be interesting to see how her work evolves from here.

Caslon Bevington (B. 1992) is an up and coming NYC Artist I met during the run of the Raymond Pettibon show at David Zwirner. Her reaction to that show struck me, so I became interested in seeing her work. To this point, I had only seen what’s on view on her gallery’s, Apostrophe NYC’s, website.

One of the earlier pieces by Csalon Bevington I saw on Apostrophe NYC’s site. When I saw it in person, I guesstimated it at 12 feet tall. Photo courtesy of the Artist & Apostrophe NYC

My shock was palpable when I walked into her show, “A Home for Formless Creatures: The Charisma of Fragmentation,” at Apostrophe NYC’s studio & gallery space at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, NJ. (Yes…I went to N.J.) to find she had spent the summer creating a new body of work that, at first look seemed quite different from what had come before. When I looked at the show of new work one word summed up the experience.

Qucksilver…

Installation view of Caslon Bevington’s show “A Home for Formless Creatures: The Charisma of Fragmentation,” shows her new, “Translation,” series, 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and ApostropheNYC

As fast as lightning, her work had altogether changed and, low and behold, there was an entire show of new work that was largely unlike any of her work I’d seen thus far. The show centered on a series of 10 works in which the Artist takes found and original images and processes them using more software programs than she could list for me, including some involving sound waves. The results were outputted to paper and then mounted on wood blocks with resin to create a series of black and white works titled “Translation” that are quite mezmerizing.

Caslon Bevington, “Translation #8”, 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC

They have the glossy surface of gelatin prints, but the images are mounted on blocks that extend 2 and a half inches out from the wall, jutting into the viewer’s space. Their rectangular shape and size (7 x 11 inches) is different from the usual sizes of Photographs, making them feel like something else. In them, images are juxtaposed- sometimes recognizable images (like fire escapes), with unrecognizable images, or repeating lines or waves, or abstract patterns or circles, leaving the viewer somewhere between reality and…?

“Translation #10,” 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

They have a presence as a group, like a visit to another world that exists in multiple visual dimensions. Images explode out of some, interrupt others, or dialogue with each other, or mirror each other, while sharing not quite half of the work. There’s an elegance, an other-worldliness, and a haunting presence to these new works, especially, when seen in a group of them.

As for Quicksilver…What are the processes in an Artist’s mind that leads to such radical changes in their direction? Changes that seem “quick” to outsiders?

The Artist’s statement in the lovely catalog she produced, in conjunction with Apostrophe NYC, for the show.

Later, she gave me a tour of her studio, and we looked at, and discussed, her earlier work. I was very surprised at the journey her work has taken. Having studied at the Art Student’s League and Parsons, the drawings she showed me were by no means academic. They explored geometric possibilities of color in abstraction. Later works all around were often complex weaves (literally) of painted cut strips of fabrics and canvas, in a square or rectangular grid. She then explored the possibilities of rope in patterns that freed the composition from the grid, and made the picture plane transparent, including one fascinating and intricate rope work of many layers on a large rectangular frame that looked to me to be about 12 feet tall (shown earlier). Ms. Bevington has also worked in metals bending strips of them onto a frame, delicately weaving each piece, and in fashion, creating a very cool T Shirt for the show.

“Flying Saucer Archive,” 2017, Photo Transfer on Linen. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

Along with these works, were some works, that also involved Photographs, on woven grids, that seem to bridge the woven grids seen in some of her prior work. One features found images of UFO’s, or what might be UFO’s. Two others featured images of sunsets shot from moving vehicles.

“Photos of Sunsets Taken From Moving Cars #1 & 2,” 2017, left to right. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

Whereas earlier she took abstract painted canvas cut into strips and imposed “order” on them by subjecting them to being woven into a rectangular or square grid, now she does the same thing using images. Along with these, also on view was an Artist’s Book she created from found images using all kinds of search algorithms- closeups of fabrics, rugs, and she only knows what else. Caslon tried to explain the process of finding and selecting it’s images to me, but I was lost looking at the pages go by as she turned them. Besides, knowing too much often steals some of the mystery. This beautiful object was produced in an edition of 9, while the other works shown were unique.

Yes, there was Painting, too. “Static Painting,” 2017, Oil on Wood. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

The “Translation” pieces struck me, among other things,  as creating successful, new, compositions out of the juxtaposition of existing images. Thinking about her new and earlier work, while she makes something “else” out of unexpected combinations (of materials or images), for this viewer, they share the common thread of having a “new order” brought to them.

Caslon Bevington seen with “Translations #10, 11, 12, 13 and 14,” 2017, left to right, at Apostrophe NYC’s gallery at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City.

Caslon Bevington is part of “Base 12,” “an experimental project…(that) groups together 12 emerging artists in a quasi-collective,” represented by Apostrophe NYC, which is run by the brothers Sei and Ki Smith, and has been in residency at Mana Contemporary. Given how rapidly Caslon’s work is evolving, seemingly like quicksilver, she’s an Artist who will be fascinating to watch. It will be interesting to see what she does next, and if she continues to explore this new realm of her work, or moves to another new frontier.

Bonus Show- Lucas Samaras (B. 1936) may be as familiar to many Art lovers as a subject for Chuck Close (like this one) as he is for his own work. At his new show, “New York City, No-Name, Re-Do, Seductions,” at Pace, 510 West 25th Street, all the works on view were digitally modified Photographs. The show  concluded with a large gallery of what he calls “Kastorian Inveiglements,” works that began as Photographs that depict “every day objects” subsequently manipulated in Photoshop into symmetrical abstractions.

Lucas Samaras, “NO NAME (Kastorian Inveiglements),” 2017, Pure pigment on paper mounted on Dibond

Detail of lower left quadrant.

Having seen other Artists experiment with these, though not to this level of complexity or accomplishment, I decided to try one myself to gain an understanding of the process. Here is my first experiment-

“Symmetrical Abstraction 1,” 2017, based on one of my Photos.

It shows that I’ve got a ways to go to match Mr. Samaras, as I do in getting up to speed on the frontiers of Photography, and Photo-based Art. Before it moves, again.

“Willa Nasatir” is my NoteWorthy show for October, though it ended on October 1.
*- Sundtrack for this Post is “X-Ray Visions,” by Clutch, from the appropriately titled album “Psychic Warfare.”

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. New Yorker, October 22, 2012, P.56
  2. ibid P.57
  3. ibid P.56-57

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. 

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. 

January 8, 2018-All three Posts are dedicated to the memory of my friend, the late Tim Rollins. Tim and I spoke about and compared notes on these shows both of the last two times I saw him. He told me that he knew Rauschenberg, and he agreed to give me a quote about Rauschenberg for this series. But, I never got around to getting one from him. R.I.P., my friend. I hope you like 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

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 William Blake, 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
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  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.
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  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.
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Unfinished. Auspicious.

“Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But, she’s not there.”*

"Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento," 1794, by Mengs

“Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento,” 1794, by Mengs

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Van Eyck, Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Mondrian, Basquiat, Whistler, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Klimt, Munch, Whistler, Robert Smithson, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, and on and on. “Unfinished” is a mimi-Museum unto itself that probably rivals quite a few entire Museums. “Unfinished,” along with the “Nasreen Mohamedi” Retrospective, were the inaugural exhibitions at The Met Breuer (TMB), the first shows of two new eras- The Met’s new 8 year Breuer Building Lease (at a reported $17 million a year 1), and Sheena Wagstaff’s tenure as Chairwoman of The Met’s Modern & Contemporary (M&C) Department. No pressure there. It’s a show that leaves you wondering “Why didn’t anyone think of this before,” before you’ve even gotten to it’s second floor.

Opening Day of The Met Breuer. Member's Preview, March 8, 2016

Welcome to the future! Opening Day of The Met Breuer. Member’s Preview, March 8, 2016

Well, for one thing, though many of the works here come from other sources, not a lot of places have the resources The Met has, so yes, a part of this is “showing off.” They’ve chosen to install this in a brand new branch that previously held the entirety of one of the other “Big Three” Manhattan Museums, before the Guggenheim made it the “Big Four.”

If that’s not showing off? I don’t know what is.

The rest is the pure joy of discovery, of seeing a curtain lifted and getting an all too rare chance to see some of what goes into making a masterpiece, a work of Art. And? The hits just keep on coming. The big names, that is, if not the most well-known work by any of those names. 197 works in all filling the 3rd & 4th Floors. While nothing here is “famous,” even in their, supposedly, incomplete state (either left unfinished on purpose, or not, in the case of Lucian Freud’s “Portrait of the Hound,” which was left as we see it on his easel when he died), these works hold up just as they are, making this a show jam packed with excellent, even important pieces. Yes, curating a show of “unfinished” work THIS well is also showing off The Met’s superb staff. Along with the pleasure of looking, they also provide fascinating, voyeuristic, even unique, insights into the Artist’s process- both working and thought. Some, as in Alice Neel’s “James Hunter Black Draftee’, 1965, are, perhaps, more evocative than it might have been had it been “finished.” Mr. Hunter never returned for additional sittings. We are left to wonder why not.

"James Hunter Black Draftee," 1965, by Alice Neel

“James Hunter Black Draftee,” 1965, by Alice Neel

The whole question of “When is a work of Art, finished?” comes front and center here as well, and no less than Rembrandt chimes in on it.

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Highlights? I’ll list those that come to mind quickly because there are so many. For me, Jan Van Eyck was the very first Artist who truly captivated me as a kid. Shortly after getting my driver’s license, I drove the almost 6 hours each way just to see his “Annunciation” in Washington’s National Gallery, then drove right back. Seeing his underdrawing for his unfinished St. Barbara was just breathtaking. It’s truly unbelievable to think that something like this lies underneath his finished masterpieces, like The Ghent Altarpiece! While he is legendary for the extraordinary and exquisite detail of his painting, which has held me in disbelief for all these decades, apparently, he could also draw every bit as well2

Small wonder. "Saint Barbara," 1437, Jan Van Eyck. Barely 12 inches tall.

Small wonder. “Saint Barbara,” 1437, Jan Van Eyck. Barely 12 inches tall.

Just astounding. Oh, and sitting a few feet away was a da Vinci portrait profile that was positively otherworldly. When the show opened (along with the Met Breuer) in March, it was flanked by Leonardo’s “Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child” and Michelangelo’s “Study for the Libyan Sibyl.” Since “Unfinished” was up for a very generous four and a half months, the later two were replaced after a while, no doubt due to their fragility. It seemed to me they may have been there in honor of TMB’s opening. Both works are in TM’s permanent collection. More showing off? (Slight smile)

Blink, and you missed it. Briefly on view, Leonardo, center and left, Michelangelo, right.

For a New York Minute, the two greatest figures in Western Art were on view together. Leonardo, center and right. Michelangelo, left. Has so much hunan genius ever been side by side than when work of these two are shown together? March 8, 2016.

Oh, all of this is in the 2nd room. In the first room, upon getting off the elevator on the 3rd Floor, at the show’s beginning, you’re immediately faced with 2 large, powerful Titians that are guaranteed to stop you for a good long while, and a Jacopo Bassano.

This view once the elevator doors opened on 3 is one I'll long remember.

The opening salvo. This is the first thing many visitors to TMB saw after the elevator deposited them on 3. Bassano, left, with 2 Titians.

Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew, a whole room of Turners, a beautifully selected print gallery, a very “different” Degas of a horse race, a Van Gogh who’s color filled the entire room, a stunning Munch self portrait…all on the 3rd floor, wowed me.

"Street in Auvers-sur-Oise," 1890. In the year he died, no dark clouds in this sky.

Life affirming. “Street in Auvers-sur-Oise,” 1890. The year he died, no dark clouds in this sky. I am among those who believe Van Gogh did not commit suicide.

Finished, or Un? "Lucretia," 1642, by Guido Reni. Magnificent.

Finished, or Un? “Lucretia,” 1642, by Guido Reni. Magnificent.

On the 4th Floor, getting off the elevator was no less dramatic. No less than 4 amazing Picassos greet you, one of which is “the Charnel House,” the work which bookends (with “Guernica”) his WW2 years. While “Guernica,” rightfully, is seen as one of the landmarks of 20th Century Art (and one I’m eternally thankful I got to see in person at Moma’s Picasso Retrospective in 1980 before it was moved to Spain as Picasso’s will required), here is a work that I think deserves more attention. It’s surrounded by 3 other pieces, in 3 other styles (in addition to 2 others in the next gallery, and a few more on the 3rd floor), that show Picasso in the process of thinking through the problems inherent in each work- each one in a different style. After the 1921 “Portrait of Olga,” right, below, he was inventing each of these styles. It’s akin to inventing a new language. There was no one else to help him or guide him. Some artists, like Jackson Pollock, have done this once. Picasso? There’s three in this one gallery, and it doesn’t even include Cubism.

Pick a style-any style. 4th Floor Lobby/Galley 1. Picasso 1921, '29, '31, '45.

Pick a style-any style. 4th Floor Lobby/Galley 1. Picasso 1921, ’29, ’31, ’45.

There was quite a bit of fanfare paid to The Met’s announcement of The Met Breuer as a “Contemporary Outpost,” especially during the years when the 5th Avenue Modern & Contemporary Galleries were to be undergoing the reconstruction they had also announced. Yet, in this co-inaugural show, we get quite a bit of what The Met is famous for, along with about two thirds of the 4th floor of more recent works. The size of many of these newer works seems to cut down on the number of pieces, however, making the show feel skewed towards older Artists. Of the 197 works in the show, I counted 74 works by Artists born after 1900, 12 by Artists born after 1950. (The youngest Artist represented is Urs Fischer, who was born in 1973, and who’s mysterious cast bronze “2,” from 2014 is also the newest work here by my reckoning.)

The day after at the NighhawkNYC offices? No. "2," 2014, by Urs Fischer.

The day after at the NighthawkNYC offices? I’ll never tell. Actually, this is “2,” 2014, by Urs Fischer.

“But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there”*

Yet, even among the M&C pieces here on the 4th floor, there are memorable pieces. In additon to Urs Fischer’s “2”, the unfinished Mondrian struck me as a revelation. Yayoi Kusama’s genre defying paintings of consecutive numbers gave pause for thought, as did Sol LeWitt’s amazing tour de force  “Incomplete Open Cubes” nearby  and, Kerry James Marshal’s “Untitled,” 2009, was a nice appetizer for his much anticipated “Mastry” show opening at TMB October 25. The show concludes with a wonderful selection of sculpture, including haunting works by Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled (No.2), 1996, and Alina Szapocznikow’s work about her own battle with breast cancer, “Turmors Personified,” 1971, in dialogue alongside 3 Rodins. The final gallery consisted of only one work- a series of 6 pieces by Cy Twombly, entitled “Untitled I-VI (Green Paintings), 1986, which provided a meditative, cleansing experience I found especially memorable.

The Cy Twombly Gallery closes the show seen in panorama.

Water works? It’s hard not to feel a sense of water in movement in this gallery of 6 Cy Twomblys, which closes the show, seen in panorama.

Overall, what I took from this show as a whole was a possible template for what The Met plans to do going forward, the kinds of Artists they may include in their “new initiative.” It’s something I plan to watch closely as it unfurls. I should say that I have been in the minority regarding The Met and M&C Art. I liked that they were taking their time and allowing time to give some perspective on Contemporary Art before jumping in. It’s always been an honor to be in The Met- they have the best of the the best across all cultures and all times. Yet, given the unprecedented popularity of M&C Art today, they have opted to move more fully into it. Ms. Wagstaff, who I met in June, seems to have a great sense for all of this, and if anything, “Unfinished,” is a show that consists of work across at least a few Met Departments. Being able to work, apparently, so well with the other Met Departments augers well for the future. After all, The Met has 2,000,000 items in it’s collection. Showing M&C Art along side of selected objects in their collection is something I am all for.

Floor beach. As close as I got to a real beach this summer.

Floor beach. “Mirrors and Shelly Sand,” 1970, by Robert Smithson. As close as I got to a real beach this summer. I shot this wearing shades.

For me? That’s what this show says- Here are (unfinished) works by many of the greats. This is where we are starting from. Let’s see how other work that may, or may not, have been influenced by them, looks alongside these. The show may be seen as a number of conversations between Artists they are displayed alongside- Leonardo with Michelangelo. Van Eyck and Durer, Rembrandt with Velazquez(!). Degas and Manet. Van Gogh and Whistler(!). Picasso and Cezanne. Pollock and Kusama. Smithson and Fischer. Marshall and Warhol. Szapocznikow and Rodin. Rauschenberg and Mondrian. And, Picasso, also…with himself, among them. I say bring it on!

Still, there’s no denying that The Met Breuer is a HUGE gamble. Who knows how long Contemporary Art will stay as “hot” as it is? For that matter, who knows how much longer record number of viewers will go to see Art, as they have these past few years? The Met is locked into this for 8 years, and they have already announced a budget deficit that caused them to put off the previously announced reconstruction of the Modern & Contemporary Galleries, and, more sadly, even forced an unknown number of lay offs.

When they return to better times, IF they decide to move forward with those reconstruction plans, they will, most likely, need additional space for the temporary display of their Modern & Contemporary holdings, and Special Exhibitions. What will they do? Extending the lease on the Breuer will be VERY expensive. So far? I have yet to see it’s galleries very crowded. The “Diane Arbus; In The Beginning” Show, which recently opened on the 2nd floor, seems to be drawing pretty well, and “Unfinished” was fairly crowded during it’s last weeks. Yet? They’ve already closed the 5th Floor Cafe & Bookstore and remodeled it as additional Gallery space, which indicates that they want to have more going on there for visitors to see, and their basement restaurant is scheduled to open in about a month, which will be open during some hours The Museum is not. Obviously, this is all new, and still in flux. The Met seems to be reacting fairly quickly, which is a good sign. They did away with late Thursday nights, which I seemed to be among the very few that went to, and changed to late Friday & Saturday nights, like TM, 5th Avenue.

"Tumors Personified," 1971, by ALina Szapocznikow.

Survivor. “Tumors Personified,” 1971, by Alina Szapocznikow.

So far, on very little evidence, I like the direction TM is going at TMB, and with M&C Art. “Nasreen Mohamedi” was a revelation that struck me as the “perfect choice” to be the first M&C Show. “Unfinished” was an unexpected blockbuster the likes of which has never been seen before, which is somewhat startling given how long there have been painting shows. The Diane Arbus show is fascinating and features a ground breaking installation. Also, not to be lost is the reconfiguration of the M&C Galleries at TM on 5th Avenue- I love what they’ve done. The Art has been imaginatively rehung in fascinating new combinations, with some pieces given new prominence, like Edward Hopper’s majestic “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,”1929, and other pieces shown that have long been in storage. Along with this, Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” Mural appears to have now been permanently housed, at the center of supporting works and works that enter into interesting dialogue with it nearby. Other galleries are arranged by theme, instead of chronology.

So? There’s been a lot of action coming from new M&C Chairwoman Sheena Wagstaff and her Department. There’s a long way to go, but so far? It’s hard for me to give her less than an “A” for what she and they have accomplished.

Haunting, and then some.

Haunting, and then some. “The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edniburgh,” 1870, James Drummond.

Most of the Artists in “Unfinished” won’t get the chance to finish what they started. The Met will.

Stay tuned.

*-Soundtrack for this post is “She’s Not There,” by Rod Argent, recorded by The Zombies, and published by Marquis Songs, USA.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/05/arts/design/breuer-building-expands-the-imagination-and-the-budget-of-the-met.html?_r=1
  2. Yes, I saw “A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece” at TM proper, which featured a drawing of the Crucifixion from Rotterdam that may, or may not be, by Van Eyck. I came away VERY impressed by it to be sure, but remaining to be entirely convinced.

Art Shows, 2015 – Who Keeps Your Flame?

“But when you’re gone,
Who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?”*

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January, 2015. Goya @The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Neither snow, nor 5 hours on a train kept the Nighthawk from the Front Door of Great Art. Click any image for full size.

Since I don’t believe in comparing creative work or creative people, AND I believe that “awards” for “Best” whatever among the Arts (and Sports) are absurd 1, I thought I’d do a “List In No Particular Order” of 2015 Art Shows I saw (some opened in 2014) that may or may not have closed for good, but still continue to open doors in my mind, and that’s more important than any award I could bestow.

“Oh can I show you what I’m proudest of?”*

“Goya: Order and Disorder” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. No photos permitted.) AND “Goya:Los Caprichos” (National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, NYC)- Two concurrent, excellent shows, 250 miles apart, one huge, the other “small” showing two views of  Goya- one all encompassing, filling the whole lower level of the MFA, one narrowly focused on a rare, complete set of his landmark 80 print, “Los Caprichos,”(once owned by Robert Henri, who reappears below) combined to show the enduring power, importance, relevance and eternal influence of the Spanish Master. Many saw the former, far fewer saw the latter, tucked away in a dining? lecture? room on the second floor of the NAC (Behind hundreds of chairs on one of my visits!). An artist of nightmares, both surreal and all-too-real, the likes of which perhaps only Bosch can equal, who can then turn around and paint with the utmost lyricism, Goya was all about what it is to be human. Take your pick- portraits, historical pieces, landscapes, the otherworldly or the underworldly, children, tapestries, or his graphic works that hold their own with dare-I-say-Rembrandt, he’ll blow your mind.

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Goya/MFA on the show’s elevator entrance, overlooking Dale Chihuly’s Tree.

Remember My Name. Goya’s Self Portrait casts his all-seeing eye on us 215 years later.

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” from “The Caprichos.” So? Stay up!

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Neither blizzard, nor the furniture(!), kept the Nighthawk from seeing all of Goya’s incredible “Los Caprichos” at the National Arts Club, but I think they tried to.

“Richard Pousette-Dart” (Pace 510 West 25th, Chelsea)- I walked in and was completely captivated by “abstract” Art the way I haven’t been since the Mark Rothko Show at the “Old” Whitney in 1998, which was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. (That’s not comparing.) Don’t be fooled by the apparent geometric simplicity, there is an astounding subtlety to these works that at once feel microscopically considered, often freely rendered, yet globally cohesive. Pousette-Dart had a number of styles, and this show represented one, geometric style, from the 1970’s in both large oils and smaller drawings. For any of those who think that Abstract Expressionism is “easy” to do, go ahead and try creating one of these, the largest is almost 8 foot square, and then see if it has the “Presence” of Dart’s. The amount of work that went into each piece belies their seemingly “simple” composition, is matched by an extraordinary primacy of order, and second only to their transcendent impact. Here, we see Richard Pousette-Dart as the great, “under known” abstract artist. While Pollock & Rothko have grown larger in stature, Pousette -Dart’s name deserves to be right there with theirs. There is only one word to describe this show’s effect- Magical.

Then? There’s never a chair around when you want one. Pousette-Dart @Pace- “Presence, Circle of Night,” 1975-6, center, “Black Circle Time”, 1980, left and “White Circle Time,” 1980, 90″ square each.

“Imploding Black,” 1975, six feet square. Transcendent,

Detail.

“Cerchio di Dante,” 1986, six foot square

Detail of the left side.

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?”*

“Richard Estes: Painting New York City” (Museum of Art & Design, NYC)- My favorite contemporary artist, and one of the greatest living realists, FINALLY gets an NYC Museum show, and it was worth the wait. A virtual time capsule of NYC from the mid 1960’s to 2015’s astounding “Corner Cafe,” showing the 83 year old Master is still at the height of his considerable power. Oh…Do NOT call him a “photorealist” in my presence! Estes shows us the world we live in as we do not see it, (more on this soon) and so follows in the footsteps of Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler in advancing American realism while, perhaps, being the first to include the abstraction that is also a part of the real world. A misunderstood painter, in my eyes, who is only just beginning to be really seen, finally.

“Horn & Hardart Automat” 1967. Not since Hopper has a work spoken to me of life in the City like this does.

“Columbus Circle, Maine Monument” 1989. 500 years ago, or 100, they came by ship. Now? They come by bus. Frozen in time, side by side.

“Times Square”, 2004. Nothing captures the experience of the place better than this, though Robert Rauschenberg is capable of giving me a similar feeling (See below).

“I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings
You really do write like you’re running out of time.”*

“Picasso: Sculpture” (MoMA)- If he had never done anything besides paint, Picasso would be considered among the all time Masters. But, noooooooooooo… Picasso was, perhaps, the most unique genius in (known) art history in that his genius was among the most restless. He almost never stopped creating, and he never stopped seeking new outlets for his creative vision. Consider- PICASSO HAD NO TRAINING AS A SCULPTOR! NONE. Yet, that didn’t stop him from becoming, perhaps, THE most revolutionary sculptor up to his time. There is so much great work to see in this show, I don’t even know where to start talking about it. “Picasso: Sculpture” shows us the naked face of endlessly creative genius the like the world has never seen. I’ll sum it up by saying virtually all of it is wonderfully selected, though some of the Cubist works here don’t stand up to his paintings, in my opinion, and wonder- When will we see his like, again? The “other” takeaway, for me, is- Oh…MoMA. I miss you. About as much as I miss your “old” building.

Standing “Figure” in Wire, 1928. Unprecedented. Astounding.

“Sylvette,” 1954. “I see you slightly folded…in steel, my dear.” Picasso must have said.

“America Is Hard To See” (Whitney Museum)- I’m saving my thoughts on the “New Whitney” Building, but the opening show in the new place was a wonderful “Welcome Back” to one of the first 3 of NYC”s Big Four Museums and a reminder of it’s world class (and first anywhere) collection of American Art. My personal highlight? The first floor gallery featuring a selection of Hopper Drawings done at the Whitney Studio which predated the Museum, and the absolutely mesmerizing portrait of Museum founder, the indomitable Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney (also an overlooked sculptor) that looked out at Gansevoort Street, and for my money? SHOULD HAVE BEEN LEFT RIGHT THERE- PERMANENTLY! It wasn’t.

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Frozen in time. Mrs Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney looks out on the new home of the collection she started.

Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri, 1917, with her “Study for the Head of her Titanic Memorial” from 1922, right. Yes. She was a sculptor, too.

Before the First Whitney Museum opened in 1931, there was the Whitney Studio Club, where artists came to draw from the model. See that guy to the left of center rear with the light shining on his bald head? That’s Edward Hopper, a regular. That’s why his estate was left to The Whitney. Litho by Mabel Dwight, 1931.

America is hard to change. Excellent, rarely seen, works by Grant Wood, “Study for Breaking the Prairie” 1939,…

…And Kara Walker, “A Means To An End,” 1995, struck me as serendipitous.

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America: Seen everywhere. Inside- Rothko’s “Four Darks in Red, 1958, Pollock’s “Number 27,” 1950, Chamberlain “Jim,” 1962 & Guston’s “Dial,” 1956…

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…And, Outside- sculpture from one of the countless roof decks.

“And I’m still not trough I ask myself,
what would you do if you had more time
The Lord, in his kindness
He gives me what you always wanted
He gives me more time.”*

I end this section honoring two endlessly creative American “painters,” featured in very very good shows. Like Richard Estes, these two artists also put that “more” time of a long life to superb use. Yes, despite evidence to the contrary, they both consider themselves to be painters. To me, the “lessons” of their lives, how they were able to survive following their star in this country for so long, may prove to be as important as their considerable artistic legacies.

Robert Rauschenberg- Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams:A Pun” (Pace 534 West 25th, Chelsea)- Presaging Photoshop, the late, great Mr. Rauchenberg continues to speak to our times though he, unfortunately, left us almost 7 years ago. Light years ahead of his times, throughout his life, “Anagrams…,” a show of Mr. Rauschenberg’s final development, shows that once again, his work will look “contemporary” for years to come, and more amazingly, I think it will be as relevant as what anyone else is doing at the moment! As I just said, he represents something of an American miracle- an artist who was able to spend virtually his entire life creating EXACTLY what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself. That sure must seem miraculous to today’s American artists. Interestingly, like Mr. Estes, the works here are based on Mr. Rauschenberg’s own photography, to very different results. Unlike Mr. Estes, Mr. Rauschenberg’s are directly transferred to the piece, though with such skill and subtlety they have the effect of melting into the others they’re surrounded by. A surprisingly fresh, visually rich, often beautiful show who’s spell will call me a few more times before it ends on January 16. And then, I will miss it, but it will have changed the way I see the world, like Richard Estes has.

Rauschenberg @ PACE. I just loved this show.

“Frank Stella” (Whitney)- An art mover’s nightmare of a show, the Artist’s helpful hand notated directional markings seen on some of the pieces notwithstanding, it must have been hard for Mr Stella, himself, to narrow his 50-some year career down to one floor at the New Whitney, handsomely displayed in the still-new space. With only one Moby Dick piece in sight, the take away for me is that here is a Triumphant overview of another rare American artist who continues to explore and evolve, fickle times and the “harpoons” of even more fickle critics & collectors be damned. Mr. Stella has devoted his career to the eternal pursuit of finding new possibilities, “new spacial complexities” 2, for the Art Form of painting. Some of these sure look like sculpture, but I’ll bow to what he says on one of the show’s signs- “Q- You still call these paintings? A- Yes. They are, in fact, paintings.” Remarkably, as he closes in on 80 this May 12, Mr. Stella continues to “start over,” as Richard Meier says on the audio guide, eternally following his muse, breaking painting out of 2 dimensions, to lord-only-knows-where-next. In this show’s case? The Journey IS The Destination. Mr. Stella strikes me as a master conceptualist with an endless font of making the unlikely, and especially the unthought-of, real. Forget this show’s afterthought of a catalog, for me, his value, “message” and influence lie in the sheer physical experience of his work- they simply must be seen, and often, walked around like sculpture to be fully appreciated. Who else “paints” like this? If you go, and you should, check out the great quotes from Mr. Stella on the wall signage- “What you see is what you see.” And then some. What I saw was a show to fire your creativity, and inspire you to see new possibilities in anything, if there ever was one. You still have a few days left to see it before it closes after February 7. Then, the art movers get to pack it up and move it out. I would pay to watch that.

50+ years of “starting over.”

“Toto, We’re Not On Canvas, Anymore.” Stella Busts Painting Out.

“Um..A Little Higher On The Right?”

And lest I forget…

 

 

Cubism (The Met No photos permitted.)- TM is on a mission to shore up it’s Modern & Contemporary Art holdings, as we will soon see at The Met, Breuer, but this show featuring works of a promised gift goes a very long way to solidifying TM’s Cubists holdings, and then some. So many strong works by the Masters of Cubism, Picasso, Braque, the underrated Juan Gris, and Leger abound, they made me wonder where TM is going to install them all when they finally get them!

Madame Cezanne (TM No photos permitted.)- Portraits are not the first thing most think of when they think of Cezanne. Many think of his groundbreaking landscapes and genius with color, but this show of his, no doubt long-suffering wife, says as much about this under known muse as it does about Cezanne. The hours she spent posing for him reminds me of “The Man in The Blue Shirt,” by Martin Gayford about sitting for Lucian Freud. The show is a striking look at another side of this master of impressionism, and gives us rare opportunities to see 4 versions of a painting reunited, and Cezanne’s actual sketchbooks. A rare treat for the lover of Impressionism, portraiture and great Art.

China Through The Looking Glass” (TM)- Except for Picasso: Sculpture and Goya’s Los Caprichos, the above shows are painting shows, my true love, but CTTLG is in a category all it’s own. ANY show that can get TM to stay open till Midnight has to make the Nighthawk’s list. After setting the bar high with “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” TM’s Costume Institute topped themselves with a spectacle that the 800,000 who saw it will remember almost as long, and which will prove quite a challenge for 2016’s “manus x machina,” or MxM, as I’m calling it to equal, let alone top. I predicted 1 Million will attend it, so GO EARLY (or don’t say I didn’t warn you) & Stay tuned!

“Francis Bacon- Late Paintings” – (Gagosian No photos permitted.) – with one work, a triptych selling for 142 million, I can’t fathom how much 28 are worth, but here was a chance to see that many in one show, focused on the seemingly contemplative, other-worldly “late” Bacon,

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especially after seeing the following (Rembrandt show) on the same day, which brought to mind subtle, fascinating convergences- self-portraits, multiple views, or states, for Rembrandt, diptychs & triptychs for Bacon, among them.

“Rembrandt’s Changing Impressions” (Columbia U.)- In lieu of the “big one” I missed (see below), this was a closer-to-home chance to see 50 or so prints by the Master and a rare chance to see various “states” (versions) of works side by side. A bit light on the most well known of Rembrandt’s etchings, but very worth 4 visits none the less.

Not a triptych. Rembrandt creates 3 masterpieces from one composition.

Chuck Close Recent Paintings” (Pace 534, Chelsea)- I met Mr. Close, briefly, but in spite of the fact that he is one of the greatest portraitists of the 2nd half of the 20th Century+, I know he won’t remember my face. He has Prosopagnosia. He’s ALSO paralyzed and in a wheel chair. I never cease to be absolutely astounded at what he achieves and what new ground he breaks. Already a Master before his brain aneurysm, which would have stopped 99.5% of anyone not named Chuck Close, he’s gone on to create ever new works that continue his life long exploration of his famous “grid technique.” These works add even new elements- new palettes, a new approach to focus and depth of field, and more.

Linda & Mary McCartney “(Gagosian Books)- If they had taken down all the title cards, removed the iconic shots among Linda’s, and you walked in without knowing which work was by who- Linda McCartney, or her and Paul’s daughter, Mary, you’d never know. That’s how amazingly symbiotic the eyes of the two photographers are. They see as one. Walking out, and I say this with nothing but respect, it really felt like Linda had never passed away. That her work continues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

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The daughter reflects well on her famous mother.

 

George Caleb Bingham” (TM)- The year’s “sleeper” pick. I don’t know if he ever met Mark Twain, but if Mr. T. ever wanted an artist to illustrate “Huck” or “Tom Sawyer?” G.C.B. would get my vote. His work captured what it was to live on the River the way only Twain, himself, has, and makes a contribution to laying the ground work towards defining a truly “American” style of painting, and by the Mid-Nineteenth Century? It was about time! TM’s show reveals him to be something of a predecessor for that other great American 19th C. portraitist, Thomas Eakins, but with a style and a power of his own that still holds up.

“Araki” (Anton Kern, NYC)- He lost his wife…he gets prostate cancer…he says he no longer has sex…Nothing stops the indefatigable, legendary Araki. Don’t let the “casual” taping of the photos to the wall fool you- I found this show striking, poignant, meditative and moving. The images flowed one to the next, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in dissonance, but all of them speak with that sense that only Araki has. Some will say he’s a misogynist. I’m not a woman but I disagree. I see beauty and poetry in his shots of women. Reading some of the press materials on hand, I was struck by his comment that he had sex with most of his models. I couldn’t help wonder- Does that include Bjork? Live long, and much health, Araki.

 

Also lingering in my mind, tormenting me with what I missed, are the ones that got away-

“Late Rembrandt” (Rikjsmuseum, Amsterdam)- I agonized about going. For months. Like I agonize about Frank Gehry at LACMA right now! (Hello, Sponsorship?)

Bjork” (Moma)- Sold out when I went. Bad reviews be damned, I love Bjork.

Overall, it was a good, but not great year. Still, these 17 shows had real staying power and lasting influence. I’m grateful that in NYC, we still have so much to see. As I said a few posts back, I live in mortal fear of missing a great show- Like all those I missed this year because I never knew about them, and still don’t.

As I look back on 2015, the Idea of great Art is what lingers in the mind, inspires, even instructs. The experience, talent and creativity of a great Artist speaks to the highest & best of mankind, in ways the rest of us can, perhaps, relate to, learn from, and even aspire to. As Mr. Pousette-Dart cosmically said-

 

In these times of so much senseless hatred, violence and the worst of human kind on display, we need this more than ever.

*Soundtrack for this post is “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells  Your Story?” from the 2015 album I listened to the most, “Hamilton– Original Broadway Cast Recording,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. Remember- Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock, Fellini, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick, among others, never won an Oscar for Best Director! I rest my case.
  2. as is said on the audio tour, #508

“Robert Rauschenberg: Anagrams (A Pun)” But No Joke

11 days after being here for the final day of the “Chuck Close: Recent Works,” I returned to Pace’s 534 West 25th Street Gallery to see “Robert Rauschenberg: Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams (A Pun),” on view until January 16, 2016. Up a few steps to the back office area where the show continues, a short video of Rauschenberg at work in on view. As the camera looks down from slightly above, I noticed that surrounding him all over his studio were numerous works consisting of seemingly chaotic collages of images. I couldn’t help wondering about the effect on a visitor’s brain of spending 8 hours in that studio, and what it would  feel like to then walk outside. I wondered what they said about the images playing inside of Rauschenberg’s mind all the time. Day in. Day out, for the 82 years he lived. It might be why there’s so much to see in even one of his works. This new show makes clear that it may be a long time yet until everything that brain, and he, created in his professional life from the 1950’s until he passed in 2008 is seen, fully appreciated and assimilated.

These works are dated 1996 and 97. Visually, his work presaged the visual chaos of the internet age, and the graphic print style of David Carson and others. Seen in 2015 it fits right in with the everyday chaos of NYC, both on the physical level, where pedestrians have to face a never ending life, death or injury battle with bikes, cars, buses, trucks and lord knows whatever else, simply to get from point A to point B, while being bombarded with every square inch plastered with ads, images or graffiti on the visual level.

The modern world makes me try to make sense out of it’s visual chaos- like Rauschenberg did so masterfully.

Visual chaos, 2015. Without the “Art.” By the way? Times Square was better before

“Anagrams, Arcadian Retreats, Anagrams (A Pun)” is a bit different from any Rauschenberg show I’ve yet seen. It’s concise yet catholic, coherent and sharply focused on these three series of works, which share working methods, making it very hard to tell which work is from which series. As such, it’s a rare opportunity to see a selection of late works. Pace’s release states the images are from Rauschenberg’s own photos, which continues a trend in recent shows of artists using, or basing their work on their own photographs (Richard Estes, Chuck Close). Rauschenberg appears to have been at the forefront of image manipulation, made possible by software like Photoshop, while adding “painterly elements.” Regarding exactly what these pieces are and how they were made, Pace’s press release says- to create these works, “he developed and perfected a powerful new technique combing dye transfer with novel supports including plaster, large-scale paper and polylaminate panels…The process produced an aqueous and fluid appearance, blurring the crisp edges of his photographs…The inkjet dye process also liberated Rauschenberg from the mechanical production of printing screens, allowing him to produce sheets exclusively from his own photography on an in-studio printer. In addition to a more painterly effect, these works reflect a more nimble and freer approach to image-making than earlier works which were bound by the limitations of the mechanical process.”

 

It’s tempting to “read into” the resulting images, some of which are repeated verbatim in other works, and take them as a visual language, to be deciphered for “messages,” even hidden meanings. That will take a lot of looking to compile. Though “Anagram” is a word about words, I don’t think I’ll be taking it that literally. I prefer to let the images speak, and this show is an orgy for the eye.

The works range from very large to large and a few of medium size. Two, including the largest, (one, I felt to be the most impactful piece in the show), are owned by the Whitney. Most of the others are not titled, detailed or described. Many feature images from different cultures around the world from the Sphinx and the Pyramids to traditional costumes, apparently from trips he had taken shortly before, which are juxtaposed with images from the western world, like construction equipment, firefighters, store fronts, junked cars, bicycles and soda bottles. Despite being combined, layered, even processed, the results don’t look like images produced in Photoshop. They look more like paintings, which I find somewhat remarkable, probably because I am so used to seeing Photoshopped Photographs. While he anticipated digital image processing and manipulation in works gong back to the late 1950’s, he continued doing things entirely his own way, and only selectively using technology when it suited his aims.

I previously saw some works from these series in the 1977 Guggenheim Rauschenberg Retrospective, but these were new to me. Seeing only works from these series brought home how wonderful they are. They’re different from what he had done earlier in his career, yet they have that undeniable “Rauschenberg” feel. In spite of being Photo based, they retain a “painterly” look, which I think is remarkable, and one of the things that sets his work apart from all those doing these types of works today. For me, Rauschenberg is kind of an American Picasso of the 2nd half of the 20th Century- his creativity and inventiveness knew no bounds. Like Picasso, he never stopped innovating and trying new things and techniques. Even 7 years after his passing, we continue to discover new facets of this work, which seems as fresh and contemporary as anything else around today. That will, no doubt, continue at the first full scale retrospective of his work since the Guggenheim’s 1997 blockbuster to be held next year at the Tate Modern, London.

These are wonderful works that reward repeated looks from a period of the Artist’s career that strikes me as being under appreciated. They seem so of the moment, it’s hard to think they’re going on 20 years old. In that sense, like their creator, they are ahead of their time, even now. I’m continuing to try and get the modern world to look like a Rauschenberg to me, to make that kind of sense, possibly even find the “Art” in it…that is when I’m not dodging bikes, cars, and the rest to actually feel safe enough in it to look around. That danger is what’s missing in these Rauschenbergs. Probably because he seems to be focused on the bigger picture, the dangers of the modern world to ancient cultures and ancient creatures. Including man.

On a bigger scale, like that bike I don’t see coming the wrong way on a one way street, the modern world is obliterating all that came before.

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*-Soundtrack for this post is “Crosstown Traffic,” by Jimi Hendrix.

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