Walking round Tate Modern’s mammoth Robert Rauschenberg retrospective is like listening to The Beatles’ 13 albums straight through. The range, diversity and sheer fecundity of invention on display here is as astounding as the Fabs’ progress through the Sixties. Unless you’re blessed with Rauschenberg’s seemingly limitless energy, you might find the show itself rather tiring. There’s simply so much to see. But see it you must.
Half a century ago, people were asking themselves how, in the space of a year or two, The Beatles could go from recording cover versions of simple pop songs to writing chromatically adventurous multi-movement epics, complete with overdubbed sitars and Stockhausen-style out-of-tune radios. You get the same feeling from seeing Rauschenberg’s work whole, too. You pass from room to room at the Tate and think: a year ago he was tooling around with objects he’d found on the streets; now he’s giving us his version of Dante’s Inferno with transferred collages of images torn from magazines? Yesterday he was silk-screening cut-ups; today he’s making self-portraits with light-sensitive paper?
And like The Beatles, there’s a sense in which Rauschenberg not only inaugurated whole traditions, but effectively ended them, too. Listen to Revolver or The White Album and you can find yourself wondering whether they left anything for pop or rock to do. Looking at Rauschenberg, who over the course of a near 60-year-long career invented pretty much everything from performance art to conceptualism, you find yourself wondering if any artist of the past 60 years has been engaged in anything but issuing dreary footnotes to the litany of challenges he laid down.
It’s not just, as the curators of the Tate’s show argue, that without, say, Rauschenberg’s totemic, ineffable Monogram (1955-59) – a stuffed goat, besmirched with blurts of paint and encircled by an old tyre – there’d be no shark floating in a tank courtesy of Damien Hirst. It’s not just that without Rauschenberg’s paint-smeared Bed (1955) we wouldn’t have Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998). It’s that Hirst’s and Emin’s work feels so slight and secondhand next to Rauschenberg’s, that you almost wonder why they bothered. Just as nobody today would ever think of putting the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request on the turntable when they have Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so nobody who has seen Rauschenberg’s work need concern themselves with the legions he inspired. This may sound like a mournful verdict, but one way of telling the history of art in the age of mass communication is to say that it was about a few exemplars whose work was so potent and plentiful it rendered everyone else’s redundant.
Monogram (1955-59), (Picture: Tate Modern).
But if Rauschenberg’s influence – like that of The Beatles – has been almost wholly malign, don’t go getting the idea he had any kind of nasty streak. Looking at his work in the round, you realise that he was one of the sunniest artists since the Impressionists – the Paul McCartney of the post-Jackson Pollock era. Pollock was famously jittery and neurotic in the company of journalists. Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 at the age of 82, was so relaxed about his work he even set about it on live television. To the sound of a ticking clock counting down the minutes, he knocked out Gold Standard (1964) from a collection of found objects that even included the list of questions the audience on the show wanted to ask him – for all the world like some art-world equivalent of Ainsley Harriott.
As for the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) – a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title if ever a one there was – it feels less like an act of aggression than of tender solicitude. Yes, Rauschenberg really did ask his neighbour, the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (for some, Rauschenberg among them, the finest painter of the day) if he would give him a drawing so that he – Rauschenberg – might erase it. But the Oedipal scenario that critics have seen here, the idea that the new kid on the aesthetic block wanted to literally rub out the older generation, doesn’t square with what we see hanging on the wall.
What care Rauschenberg took with de Kooning’s drawing! It took him more than a month to complete the erasure, but the paper hasn’t been at all abraded by those weeks of rubbing and scraping. There isn’t a crease or a tear on it. And to cap it all, Rauschenberg had it framed in gold! This wasn’t, you realise, the destruction of one artist’s work by another. Rather, it’s the oldest story in the art-history book: the creation of a new work through the infinitesimally close study of an old master. (By contrast, Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon-strip version of the abstract-expressionist brushstroke is far more of an affront. Your work, Lichtenstein was saying to the likes of de Kooning and Pollock, is not only worthy of parody, it’s really easy to parody.)
As for Bed, down the years more than one pundit has argued that the spatters and blurts of red paint (and, apparently, nail-varnish and toothpaste) on quilt and pillow betoken violence. Back in 1958, the anonymous critic of Newsweek went so far as to say that Rauschenberg’s ‘combine’ (his word for works that are neither fully painting nor entirely sculpture) ‘recalls a police photo of the murder scene after the body has been removed’. In Italy a year later, the authorities refused to let it be shown at Spoleto’s Festival of Two Worlds for fear it would have the locals calling for a fainting couch.
Yet confronted with the actual work, which doesn’t stand horizontal but hangs on the wall like a canvas, you think less of murder than you do of natural death. The pattern on that now aged and grimy quilt, with its blocks of orange and its panels of red and blue, can’t help but put you in mind of Mark Rothko’s similarly blocky paintings of the time. Rauschenberg’s whips and drips and slathers of paint, meanwhile, irresistibly recall Pollock’s mammoth icons of the abstract sublime. Yet here are these emblems of high romantic afflatus being pressed into service to gussy up a tired-looking bed. Abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg is saying, is a busted flush. It’s time it went to sleep.