Robert Rauschenberg: a modern great

A wondrous Tate retrospective showcases a man ahead of his time.

Christopher Bray

Topics Culture

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.

He had a point. Even those of us who love abstract expressionism, and have lapped up the Royal Academy’s ongoing show devoted to it, have a hard time denying that by the time Rauschenberg arrived on the scene the movement had become an arena for self-aggrandising mumbo-jumbo. Even those of us who can see parallels between, say, Pollock’s greatest works and the quantum view of the universe are likely to draw the line at Mark Rothko’s conviction that his floating squares might bring about a religious revival, or Barnett Newman’s claim that if only his paintings were to be properly understood they would bring about ‘the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism’. Instrumental theories about culture are for numskulls. Nonetheless, it was almost a historical necessity that the abstract-expressionist balloon be popped. Rauschenberg was the man who did the deed. (His friend, and occasional lover, Jasper Johns, made sure the needle was good and sharp.)

Whatever you make of Rauschenberg’s work, there isn’t a trace of piety or pomposity about it. He had no time for the idea that the artist’s duty was to evoke the spiritual or transcendental. He thought that making art was having fun, and that looking at it ought to be fun too. Studios weren’t secular cathedrals. They were arenas of play – workshops, toolsheds. One of the reasons his combines look so at home in the Tate Modern is that the gallery’s image of post-industrial chic was largely Rauschenberg’s invention. Rivets, nails, bolts, screws, hinged flanges, metal eyes, rope, packing cases, metal spikes – all these and more are on display in this show.

Not that Rauschenberg was closed to mystery. Like all great artists, he was never simply an empiricist. (He was raised as a Christian fundamentalist, and as a teenager considered a life as a preacher.) On one wall is Automobile Tire Print (1953), a long, narrow ribbon of paper (actually made up of 20 sheets of typewriter foolscap pasted together) that Rauschenberg got his friend John Cage to drive his car along while he (Rauschenberg) painted its tire so as to get a complete print of its worn-down patterns. Twenty years ago, when Rauschenberg’s first major retrospective was put on in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the critic Michael Kimmelman argued that Rauschenberg was mocking Newman’s famous ‘zip’ paintings (canvases covered in a single colour, save for a narrow stripe of contrasting paint). It’s a fair point. Still, as you walk the 20 feet or so of Tire Print’s length, you can’t help feeling that in its conflation of space (the roll of paper) and time (the registered duration of tire and paint on paper) it’s almost as susceptible to metaphysical readings as anything by Newman or Pollock.

The Tate show is organised broadly chronologically, though whether that matters is a moot point. Right from the start, Rauschenberg was firing on all cylinders. His art didn’t so much develop as envelop, devouring more and more of the world as it went. Granted, there is a tameness to the earliest works on display here – see, for instance, the Elemental Sculptures Rauschenberg knocked together from objects (ropes, stones, wood blocks and the like) he found while walking the streets of Manhattan and Staten Island. Still, sub-Dada reruns though most of them are, what strikes you about them is their literalness, their inscrutability. Though several of them involve one object tethering another with a rope, there’s no sense of tension or restraint about them. The individual components just sit there, mute and bold and indifferent.

Bed (1955), (Picture: Tate Modern).

On the walls around them, hang some of Rauschenberg’s most unparsable works. White Painting (1951) is one of a series that, yes, consists of nothing but white paint on several identical panels (the version on show has seven). Next to it is Untitled [Black Painting] (1951), a similarly monumental – though this time single – canvas, that’s been covered in black enamel. The black painting differs from the white, though, in that its glossy surface is rumpled and buckled thanks to the torn-up pieces of newsprint Rauschenberg glued to it before setting to with his brush. The white painting is incident free (so incident free it is said to have inspired Cage’s silent piano piece, ‘4’33′). The black painting is full of pitch and moment. But there’s no angst about it, none of the numinous dread Rothko would have wanted to evoke. It’s a delectable sight, in its way as happy and carefree as the ‘jammers’ (multi-coloured, sail-like forms) Rauschenberg would begin making two decades later and a selection of which is on display towards the end of the show. ‘Pop Art’, said Andy Warhol, ‘is about liking things’. Rauschenberg, it seems safe to say, liked things, too.

Yet though he paved the way for Warhol and Co, Rauschenberg was not himself a Pop Artist. His found objects are never just slapped down and put on display, like the labels in Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans. They’re either altered out of pretty much all recognition or used as component parts of larger compositions. When Rauschenberg came across a stack of empty container boxes, he didn’t represent them in paint, but nor did he just put them on a pedestal. He disassembled them and riveted them flat to the wall, or kept them whole and riveted them, flaps agape, inverted to the wall. Whatever you make of the result (I think they’re among the most exciting sculptures since Picasso’s Guitar), you can’t mistake Nabisco Shredded Wheat (1971) for Pop Art’s abject numbness, its bleating surrender to the consumerist quotidian.

For unlike the Popsters, Rauschenberg had his eye on the past as much as the present. His famously gnomic suggestion that he wanted to ‘act in the gap between art and life’ turns out, I think, to mean that he wanted to bring a sense of history back into art. For all the whizz-bang, JFK-meets-the-space-race iconography of Sixties silk screens like Retroactive II (1964) or Tracer (1963) – flattened out mash-ups that both condense whole eras into single canvases and evoke the slithery, falling-down-a-rabbit-hole sensation of a Google search gone wrong – there’s a great deal of what Greil Marcus called the ‘old, weird America’ in much of Rauschenberg’s work. Old laces and crinolines, swatches of ancient paisley, battered old doors and table legs – such are just some of the long-pensionable items on display in this show.

Yet there’s a comic sense at work here, too. I defy anyone to spend more than a few seconds in the room with Mud Muse (1968-71) – a shallow aluminium and glass vat filled with butterscotch-coloured slop that pops and bubbles as you watch – without smiling. As for Oracle (1962-5), a blaring Heath Robinson contraption made up of a car door, a beat-up windowframe, bits of old ducting, several radios, and dripping water (it’s situated midway through the show, which means that you hear the piece long before you see it), it’s an absurdist delight, impossible to ignore, and, like ‘Revolution Number 9’ (the most Rauschenbergian track on that most Rauschenbergian of all Beatles records, The White Album), impossible not to chuckle along with.

Not in a knowing, mocking, ironic way. With Rauschenberg, one’s laughter is always guileless. When he called a telegram sent to apologise for his not having come up with a painting for a show, This is a Portrait of Iris Clert, If I Say So (1961), he was being facetious. But he wasn’t just being facetious, as Wittgenstein would have acknowledged.

That’s because while Rauschenberg might have become the midwife to all manner of witless postmodern escapism, he himself remained committed to the modernist cause of explaining to his audience the increasingly ungraspable reality they inhabited. ‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go’, he once said. ‘All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway, and if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost, too.’ There’s no better place to get lost than this marvellous, innocence-inducing exhibition. Shows like this really are once in a lifetime.

Christopher Bray is the author of 1965: The Year Modern Britain was Born, published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Robert Rauschenberg is at the Tate Modern until 2 April 2017.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Culture


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