by Mark Van Proyen
The schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch.
Gilles Deluze and Felix Guatarri, Anti-Oedipus, 1972
Milton “Robert” Rauschenberg was famously dyslexic, but not so much so as to deny us two famous and very telling quotes that can inform his entire artistic output. The first of these is “you have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself to be a good abstract expressionist,” and the second is “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to work in the gap between the two.” Judging from the over 150 works presented in Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules, he almost never felt sorry for himself. The exhibition also makes a convincing case arguing for the fact that he found vast territories of artistic possibility in that aforementioned gap, much more so than did any other post-war artist. Of course, this recognition invites the question of just how unexplored were those territories at the time that Rauschenberg so energetically passed through them? In many ways, they were sheer terra incognita insofar as the art world of the 1950s and early 1960s was concerned, this owing to the fact that they were made available by newly emergent imaging and communications technologies as well as some of the then-forward thinking ideas about the larger social import of those things (paging Marshall McLuhan!). Indeed, Rauschenberg’s work may well represent the very first instance of an aesthetic recognition of the media-scape replacing the landscape, and insofar as we can draw a sharp art historical distinction between the display etiquettes of the gallery and those of the projection screen (including its close videographic and pixelgraphic cousins), we can certainly see that Rauschenberg was the first American artist to find unique artistic opportunities in the interstitial spaces between those realms.
In other ways, however, portions of those territories were already claimed, and on this point we can take note of Rauschenberg’s likely acquaintance with some important European precedents, not the least of which were Kurt Schwitters’ Merz picture-collages made from the early 1920s through the early 1940s. The Sidney Janis Gallery had a major exhibition of them in the fall of 1952, still on view when Rauschenberg returned to New York from his second foray to Black Mountain College that same year. After some sleuthing around, I have found no clear documentary evidence that Rauschenberg encountered that Schwitters exhibition, but as he was corresponding with Betty Parsons at that time in hopes of landing an exhibition at her gallery (he had been doing this since 1950, and in 1951 he had some works included there in a group show), and since the Janis Gallery shared the same address as did the Parsons gallery, the assumption that Schwitters’ work exercised a direct influence on the 28 year-old Rauschenberg seems plausible, fair and useful. When critics such as Leo Steinberg used the term “neo-Dada” to describe his work in the early 1960s, it was clear that they were thinking about the connection to Schwitters’ Merzpictures more than they were thinking about the work of Marcel Duchamp, who at that time was still operating below the art world’s myopic radar (although Rauschenberg did have some early second-hand familiarity with Duchamp’s work by way of John Cage’s early interest in it).
Erasing the Rules was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in collaboration with the Tate Modern, and was presented there last spring after opening at the Tate the previous winter. It looks quite different in San Francisco than it did in New York. One reason for this is that it contains fewer works and related ephemera from his early periods, which the New York version went a little overboard with for the sake of fanning a Ph.D. candidate’s Pecksniffian idea about archival authority. There are also some other works included in San Francisco that were not in the earlier iteration of the show, mostly from the later, post-1970 period of his career. The net result is that the later rendition of the exhibition comes across as being less diluted and more balanced if not quite as comprehensive as it was on the East Coast.
The works that are dated from 1950 to 1954 give us a picture of an artist who was energetically exploring multiple possibilities within and beyond the Abstract Expressionism that was still hogging the art world limelight. For example, there are four examples of Rauschenberg’s black paintings done around the time of his second Black Mountain visit (1951-52), one showing an influence of Clyfford Still (Nightflower, 1951), the others pointing to the work of Ad Reinhardt. Those works also show him rebelling against the disciplinarian teachings of Josef Albers, who exerted an important influence on Rauschenberg by giving him something to rebel against. Still other works show him to be interested in exploring radically different options. For example, there is the now famous erased DeKooning drawing from 1953 where Rauschenberg painstakingly used several erasers to undo a knot of charcoal lines made by the older artist, leaving behind a ghostly echo of a female figure. Clearly, this was a very pointed gesture that can be interpreted at several levels. The obvious one has to do with undoing, undercutting and abolishing the hyper-masculine ethos of Ab-Ex “mastery,” while a less obvious one might have to do with an obsessive-compulsive banishment of a terrifying feminine presence. This reading can also be applied to the life-sized blueprint photograms of 1950 that he did of Susan Weil, his wife of three years.
Also on view are the 20-foot long “print” of an inked automobile tire tread made in 1953 in collaboration with John Cage (who owned and piloted the car), and the three-panel White Painting from 1950, which was later used as a projection screen for colored lights in a 1952 event at Black Mountain simply titled The Event. In addition there are some very handsome Aaron Siskind-esque photographs that he took while stationed at Black Mountain, some of which feature the likes of Cage, Cy Twombly and Merce Cunningham, all of whom would continue to be friends and collaborators with Rauschenberg for decades to come. Nearby, there is a 1961 photograph that Rauschenberg took of Jasper Johns, revealing a plentitude of liquor bottles placed next to its subject, suggesting (as did Johns’ own Ballantine AIe cans from 1960) that alcohol abuse was a factor in the famous 1961 falling out that occurred between the two artists who were “close friends” in the pre-Stonewall sense of the word. These small and intimate photos are the earliest instances of a recurring theme that runs through the entirety of Erasing The Rules, that being its revelation that Rauschenberg “got by” with the help and support of a large cadre of peers, supporters and sympathizers ranging from Cunningham, De Kooning and Weil to musician David Tudor, sculptor Niki De St. Phalle, master printers Tanya Grossman and Sidney Felson to dancer Alex Hay and engineer Billy Kluver, with whom he co-founded the group Experiments in Art and Technology in 1966. We can also add Andy Warhol to the list of fellow travelers, insofar as Warhol first taught Rauschenberg how to use photo-silkscreens to apply images to paintings in 1962. As Dore Ashton once put it, “Rauschenberg’s work was at the center of a very large wheel of collaboration.”
The Kurt Schwitters influence initially makes its presence felt in a series of intimately scaled collage works called Untitled Shirtboards, which were executed in 1952-1953, no doubt in hotel rooms while Rauschenberg was traveling around Europe with Twombly, or just after, when he was traveling alone in North Africa. Upon his return to New York, we see that same influence manifesting itself more powerfully in the Red Paintings that were executed between 1953 and 1955, only two of which are displayed at SFMOMA. Like some of the earlier black paintings, these works feature layers of colored paper applied to their surfaces as if they were large brushstrokes, and we can make no mistake about them: they are Merz pictures writ large, made big and painted a sumptuous and glistening red, establishing the post-AbEx ur-template for the universal solution for every MFA candidate’s creative dilemma: make it big and paint it red.
Much of the literature about Rauschenberg’s artistic development points to a 1954 piece titled Bed as representing the beginning of the artist’s mature work, incorrectly alleging that it was the first of his famous combines, which was the Americanized term that the artist preferred over the snooty francophone word assemblage. Another piece titled Minutiae (1954) from seems to now deserve that honor, it originally being a portable and movable stage set for a dance performance choreographed by Cunningham that same year. Situated next to Minutiae was a video monitor featuring the 1977 re-performance of Cunningham’s original choreography, showing dancers who were wearing costumes that were designed by Rauschenberg. Bed (1955) is exactly as its title indicates it to be, a small mattress covered with a torn and paint spattered quilt, achieving visual and metaphoric tension through its juxtaposition of tidy order and seemingly violent disruption. The work has also been taken to refer to Rauschenberg’s fraught relationship with Jasper Johns, but the timing for that claim does not fit, as the work is dated from the time that Rauschenberg first came to know Johns, long before their 1961 parting of ways.
The well-circulated story of that falling out goes something like this: in the fall of 1957, Rauschenberg had arranged for Leo Castelli to make a studio visit at his Pearl Street live/work residence, but Leo had to go through Johns’ studio to get there. On the way, Castelli was instantly dazzled by Johns’ work and immediately offered him the exhibition slot (March of 1958) that Rauschenberg was hoping to snag. Soon after that exhibition opened, commentators such as Leo Steinberg controversially proclaimed that Johns’ work was the harbinger of an important new sensibility, making Rauschenberg’s Fall exhibition at the same gallery seem like an afterthought, engendering resentment on the part of the older artist. The subsequent development of Pop Art followed this suit, and soon thereafter, it seemed a perfect fit for the academic importation of semiotic theories from Europe a decade later, all serving to shore up and amplify Johns’ reputation. Throughout most of that time, Rauschenberg’s work was thought to be too connected to the lingering residues of Abstract Expressionism, and thus, not as radically advanced as were Johns’ or Warhol’s projects. But as 1980s Neo-Expressionism emerged, Rauschenberg’s work from the late 1950s and early 1960s was re-positioned into a more sympathetic critical light, because at that moment, the realm of simulations had started to triumph over the world of signs, meaning that Rauschenberg’s work was seen to be ahead of rather than behind the times.
The literal centerpiece of Rauschenberg’s Castelli exhibition is also the centerpiece of Erasing the Rules. It is a floor piece titled Monogram (1958), which is now ensconced in a thick cube of Optima Glass. It is a particularly ominous work, featuring the head and upper torso of a long-horned goat emerging through a tire as if were a demon conjured in Satanic ritual. It is accompanied by several drawings indicating that Rauschenberg had originally considered the piece to hang on a wall, suggesting that the decision to put it on the floor might have been in response to a moment of creative frustration. It is worth getting close to the work to see the little
knot of rainbow colors adorning the goat’s snout, but I do not want to go so far as Jonathan Katz did when he suggested that the work was an allegorical representation of gay sex. On another nearby wall are other works from Rauschenberg’s 1958 Castelli Gallery exhibition, those being the twin works Factum I and Factum II (1957), enacted as proof that it was possible to make two (almost) identical works by hand, thereby mocking the precious overvaluation of Abstract Expressionist spontaneity a mere year after Jackson Pollock’s death.
Another center of gravity of Erasing the Rules are the 34 mixed-media drawings dedicated to Dante’s Inferno (titled Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, 1958-1960), with each Canto given its own drawing. When these works were initially exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1960-61, they were accompanied by small paragraphs written by Michael Sonnebend, which detailed how the images in each drawing reflected the allegorical text that inspired them. In Erasing The Rules, those texts are available on cards ensconced in a box next near the works, but it is a shame that they are not preserved in the exhibition catalog. To state the obvious, the drawings are not literal illustrations of Dante’s poems so much as they are imagistic imaginings
of their deep allegorical significance to modern readers. Each of these works is the same size (14.5 inches by 11.5 inches), and each bespeaks Rauschenberg’s early use of a solvent transfer technique that he developed using lighter fluid to apply newsmagazine images directly to the drawings’ surfaces. The application required rubbing from the back side of the source photo, which is indexed by the way that the images in the drawings sport a kind of arc-hatching, making them seem like conjured ghosts.
On the wall opposite the Dante’s inferno drawings, we see some of the large silkscreen paintings that Rauschenberg executed during the ensuing decade, starting in 1962 with Crocus, a work that shows clear evidence of Andy Warhol teaching Rauschenberg the silkscreen technique that year. In a very short period of time Rauschenberg was using the technique to very different effect than one sees in Warhol’s work, although Crocus does resemble some of the images later found in Warhol’s Kennedy-assassination inspired Disaster series. In Rauschenberg’s case, the images are presented in layered juxtaposition with each other to suggest a kind of hyper-visual rebus writing that also included passages of thick oil pigment painted by hand. These were the same works that earned Rauschenberg the Golden Lion Award at the 1964 Venice Biennial, which catapulted his career into the international limelight, finally placing his work on a par (if not beyond) those created by Johns and Warhol. After the Kennedy assassination, the idealized image of the 35th president turns up in several of Rauschenberg’s works, such as Rectroactive I (1964), which also sports a similarly sized silkscreen image of an Apollo-era astronaut, showing the artist’s optimistic attitude about America’s much-vaunted New Frontier of technological possibility and neo-liberal advance, articulated just prior to the unfolding of the Viet Nam nightmare that was soon to follow. This optimism marks a stark contrast with the work that Warhol was dong at the time, and an even starker contrast with the contemporaneous work that Bruce Conner was doing on the West Coast, where no punches were pulled insofar as the artistic investigation of the dark heart undergirding the American dream was concerned. In retrospect, it does seem that Rauschenberg was pulling those punches at that time, making his mélanges of fragmented imagery seem a little Pollyannaish. But given his meteoric success at that moment, he may have not had full access to the grim machinations that were well underway during that decade, or if he did, he chose not to feel sorry for himself about them.
During that same eventful decade, Rauschenberg also became seriously interested in printmaking and in doing performance work. He started working with Tanya Grossman and Sidney Felson at Gemini G.E.L. in 1966, presenting his first suite of editioned prints there in 1967. Among that first group of prints was a work titled Booster (1967), which at the time was the largest lithograph ever made. It features a life-sized full body X-ray broken into six subsections, overlayered with a blue chair, some engineering notations and what appear to be vague graffitos describing dance steps, suggesting that the seat of knowledge may be preserved, but otherwise, technologization was tantamount to death. Even though the work echoes the earlier photograms that he did with Susan Weil, the scale of Booster is still important because it heralded the initial moment when the printmaker’s art would move from the folio to the gallery wall, and in so doing have as much visual authority as a painting while also anticipating the vogue for large photographs that would sweep the art world in the 1990s.
Erasing the Rules reveals that Rauschenberg had an extensive career as a performance artist, usually but not always undertaken in collaboration with Merce Cunningham’s dance company. That aspect of Rauschenberg’s career is sufficiently extensive to make for a major museum presentation in its own right, which is something that I expect will happen within the next decade. For now, what we have are a few claustrophobic video documentations of things like the 1965 re-performance of Pelican (1963) which has Rauschenberg skating around (with Alex Hay and Carolyn Brown) with open parachutes attached to their backs, and Spring Training (1965), which features Rauschenberg and Lucinda Childs using everyday locomotion as part of a complex dance choreography that also included two fairly large turtles wandering about with flashlights affixed to their shells. Fascination with technology was also a theme in Rauschenberg’s non-performance work, and we are reminded of that by Mud Muse (1968-71), which was Rauschenberg’s contribution to Maurice Tuchman’s 1971 exhibition titled Art and Technology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (with a catalog that cynically mimicked a Rand Corporation annual report). As was the case with most of the works presented in that exhibition, Rauschenberg’s was executed in collaboration with a team of scientists and engineers, who were able to figure out how to make a 12-foot wide glass and aluminum vat full of mud bubble when activated by sensors that registered the viewer’s presence. There is an old style IBM computer stationed nearby, looking a bit like a some production design for one of those 1950s movies involving ill-advised mixtures of radioactivity and large insects, but other than that, it is hard to take the “advanced technology” subtext of the work seriously beyond the point of a quaint aerospace-era sensationalism that invites comparison to theme-park attractions.
There is something off-putting about the installation of the Rauschenberg exhibition at SFMOMA (epitomized by the encasement of Monogram in the Optima Glass box), and I think that it has to do with the way that the galleries in the old Mario Botta wing turn everything contained within them into lifeless specimens. This was not a problem in the New York version of the exhibition, and I suspect it would not have been a problem if it were installed in some of the more sumptuous galleries in the museum’s new Snøhetta-designed wing. And it is a problem, because it undercuts the lively, performative and peripatetic character of Rauschenberg’s work, making much of the exhibition look like a collection of dead butterflies. This was further amplified by the fact that in New York, documentation of performance events such as Pelican were projected onto large walls, rather than displayed on small video monitors, as is the case in San Francisco. The larger projections came closer to making their viewers feel as if they were witnessing a live event, rather than a faded memory.
The San Francisco version of Erasing The Rules adds emphasis to an aspect of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre that was given short shrift in New York: his late, post-1970 work, executed during the three decades after he decamped from Gotham to establish his new base of operations at Captiva Island on the gulf Coast of Florida. Captiva must have seemed like a paradisical doppelganger to the petro-chemical hellhole of Port Arthur, Texas where Rauschenberg spent the first 16 years of his life, and the easy-going charms of the island are registered in almost all of the work that he produced during the following three decades. These works were often done in series and in many cases multiple editions, which was a logical extension for the artist whose questions about the unique authority of singular objects reaches all of the way back to the Factum duo of 1957, establishing Rauschenberg as the artist who did more than any other artist to bring printmaking into the foreground of the 1960s art world – decades before the making of editioned art objects would be widely practiced by artists such as John Baldessari, Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst. Here, we should remember that it was Marcel Duchamp and other Fluxus-related artists who first made authorized multiple copies of their works. However, in the case with many of Rauschenberg’s later works, the turn is not toward Duchamp, but away from him, in the direction of an unembarrassed embrace of simple, everyday beauty. If we think back to what was going on in the New York art world at that time, we can remember that Frank Stella was also working in a similar direction that moved away from geometric rigidity, and the concurrent emergence of the Pattern and Decoration movement during that post-Watergate era indicated that this move had some broad (albeit short-lived) critical support. But in both of these cases, we can see that there were important mirrors to the same flexibility of form and material that preoccupied Rauschenberg during the same time.
One thing that seems fairly consistent about the post-1970 works (excluding a 1971 series simply called Cardboards, which seem to be playful riffs on the work of Donald Judd) is the use of translucent, diaphanous and subtly reflective fabric that very often hangs free from its support structures, allowing to it gracefully respond to the movements of the air around it. For example, in Foil (from the Hoarfrost Series, 1974), we see a mélange of images set on an uneven grid, partially concealed by a kind of negligee/window curtain hanging over the picture plane. In Quarterhorse (from the Jammers series, 1975), brilliantly colored fabric hangs over rattan poles, bespeaking a trip that Rauschenberg took to India in 1975. The colors are rich and radiant; they look as if they were taken right out of Albers’ paintings from the late 1950s, possibly indicating a kind of belated reconciliation with his old teacher’s harsh lessons. But they also suggest another lingering influence from his Black Mountain days, by Anni Albers, who applied her husband’s Bauhaus
color principles to fabric design. Yet another series, Hiccups (1978), goes a step further: It is composed of 97 separate smallish (9” x 8”) pieces of paper to which images have been applied by way of the solvent transfer process that Rauschenberg initially used in the Dante Canto works. The images are all fragmentary echoes taken from the contemporary mediascape, each purposefully vague but still subtly ominous. There are zippers attached to each, making it possible to connect and reconnect them in a myriad of different ways. Made during the moment when the initial emergence of cable television gave the world dozens of channels of nothing to watch, this work seems to be a prophesy of how the Internet would eventually allow for the personal customization of media content, setting the stage for the post-truth politics that are the basis of our current national nightmare.
The final period of Rauschenberg’s career has him coming back around to the forms, images and materials of his earlier, pre-Captiva works. For example, in Spread (1983), two open umbrellas pop off the picture plane, perhaps reminding us of the parachutes that he used in Pelican, while another exceedingly large triptych titled Mirthday Man (1997) seems like one of the earlier silkscreen painting done to mural scale, with the X-ray skeleton image from Booster coming back to take a morbid bow in the center panel, like a triumphant angel of death.
The bulky exhibition catalog features no less than 17 separate essays exploring all of the facets of Rauschenberg’s work as they emerged in the distinct periods of his career. In their own way, they are all first rate, but, with the exception of Leah Dickerman’s concluding essay, there is something about their aggregation that comes across like the proclamations of blindfolded gropers of the proverbial elephant, each taking a partisan grasp of a part and assuming it to represent the elusive whole. This is understandable, and in fact more than understandable insofar as Rauschenberg’s long career is concerned, because there has been no other artist (including Martin Kippenberger) active during the past 75 years who has made such a forceful point of not being pinned down or otherwise consigned to any stylistic pigeonhole.
This fact may be the real key to understanding the totality of Rauschenberg’s output. Looking all of the way back to the early 1940s, we can see that he traveled a lot. After a short period when he was studying to be a pharmacist (no doubt gaining some acquaintance with the psychopharmacological options of his day), he was drafted into the Navy, only to be excused from combat duty. During his Navy years (1943-1945), he worked as a technical assistant in a mental hospital near San Diego, where he was exposed to other serviceman who were psychologically damaged or otherwise overmedicated to the point of being delusional. This seems an important biographical fact, in that during those years, Rauschenberg would have likely taken curious note of the ways that some of those individuals might respond differently to so-called consensus reality, an interest that might have been prompted by his own struggle with dyslexia. After his discharge, he went to study at the Kansas City Art Institute and then the Académie Julian in Paris before deciding to “settle” in New York, only to then divide his time between that city and Black Mountain College. In 1953, he was again traveling throughout Europe (with Cy Twombly) and a bit later, in North Africa. Throughout his later life, he visited many far-off lands, including China in 1982, oftentimes part and parcel with philanthropic projects associated with the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), which he founded in 1984.
Was he running from something? Boredom? Regimentation? Entrapment? The trauma of an angry father’s disappointment? The biographical record tells us that Rauschenberg’s parents were zealous Evangelicals, and it is interesting to remember that his studies with the strict disciplinarian, Joseph Albers, only prompted him to do the opposite of what he was taught. Indeed, one can navigate the entire exhibition and see that Rauschenberg thrived on being a perpetual beginner who never had a false start, simply because he never gave himself time for one. He was always at his best when he was stepping outside of himself and into the ever-changing world, which he did often and usually with auspicious results. My concluding thesis here is that is that all of Rauschenberg’s peripatetic movement through places, materials and styles emanated from some form of anxious mania of perpetual escape, or some other sub-clinical form of mild schizophrenia. But if so, we also need to be reminded of the fact that Rauschenberg undertook his journey of a thousand great escapes long before such an approach to either art or life had been normalized by the mass media’s valorization of revenge fantasy and impulse-control failure, in essence turning all of us into minor league schizophrenics trapped in a world of endless media mirrors.
Sadly, the enticing freakishness of how Rauschenberg’s works must have looked at the moments of their initial exhibition has been lost, and what we have left is an array of objects that now seem to look like a collection of inert specimens that simultaneously appear to be fresh and dated, and for that reason, uncanny. It should go without saying that this particular contradiction is something that we see in a lot of contemporary art, which all too often looks dated-on-arrival. But in recognizing this fact, we should also remember that almost all of the paths taken by virtually every contemporary artist during the past four decades can in some way be traced back to something that Rauschenberg did five, six or even seven decades ago, and Erasing The Rules certainly makes that case, all-the-while also issuing a challenge to younger artists to up their game.
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Robert Rauschenberg: “Erasing the Rules” @ SFMOMA through March 25, 2018.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.