Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

En route from London to New York the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, the first to be mounted since the artist’s death in 2008, acquired a subtitle: ‘Among Friends’. This new inflection made explicit the central concern of MoMA’s presentation: to celebrate the open, collaborative approach that the artist brought to his various encounters: with the most everyday and apparently mundane of materials; with other artists and art forms; with experts in engineering, programming, and other kinds of advanced technology; and, especially later on in his career, with artistic communities across the globe. This show, then, is framed as an ‘open monograph’ that draws in Rauschenberg’s friends, as well as many of his collaborators, peers, teachers, and, while not often introduced in such explicit terms, his lovers. What emerges is an extension and intensification of the existing characterization of the artist as friendly, upbeat, unprecious, energetic, experimental, open, generous, and forward-thinking. It hardly needs stating that such qualities stand out very sharply in the current climate of political chauvanism in America and elsewhere.

Installation view of Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 21-September 17, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.
Installation view of Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 21-September 17, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

Perhaps in response to the general feeling that the massive Rauschenberg retrospective presented at the Guggenheim in 1997 would have benefitted from more editing, MoMA’s lead curator, Leah Dickerman, aided by both her curatorial team and by the artist and film-maker Charles Atlas, has been more stringent. This approach is at odds with some aspects of Rauschenberg’s own modus operandi, but for this kind of show – which was hardly going to be wanting for work to include – that was a good thing.

The exhibition nevertheless still brings together over 150 of Rauschenberg’s works, and amongst them many of his most iconic statements, organised across eleven galleries. The selection was augmented by an exceedingly well measured sprinkling of pieces by artists with whom Rauschenberg had lived, worked or otherwise collaborated: Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, Sari Dienes, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, Hazel Larsen Archer, John Cage, Billy Klüver, and a wide array of dancers and choreographers (Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, etc). Charles Atlas, who was also stage manager for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for ten years or so, enlisted here as curatorial collaborator, was entrusted with the task of editing and installing the film footage of Rauschenberg’s many performances and dance collaborations.

The works themselves are supplemented by some illuminating wall texts: there are main panels for each room plus numerous ‘in focus’ texts accompanying specific works. There’s also an audio guide, the text of which has been made available on the MoMA press website, in which Dickerman offers brief explanations and introduces an impressive series of interviews with figures close to the artist: Christopher Rauschenberg (his son), Susan Weil, Calvin Tomkins, Julie Martin, and David White, for example, and, indeed, with Rauschenberg himself. There are other events and performances on the programme too, footage of which can be viewed on the MoMA website.

As in London, MoMA’s exhibition is arranged broadly chronologically, beginning with the work that the artist produced at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and stretching to a handful of pieces from the 1990s, plus just one very late inkjet dye transfer work from 2005, before the show ended with a small final room dedicated to the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI), which ran 1984-1990. While inclusive of the broad trajectory of the artist’s more-than-sixty-year career, however, Dickerman and her team have not sought to challenge the prevailing sense that Rauschenberg’s most consequential contributions were made in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s.

This is not to say that other later moments do not carry potency here: Room 8’s sequence of three large-scale works from the Cardboards series (1971-72) together with Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974) and Sor Aqua (Venetian) (1973) was powerful, and the bent, buckled, and busted Gluts (1986-87), oddly animate ruins salvaged from America’s troubled oil and automobile industry, also look impressive. Nevertheless, the amount of wall space given over to the zipped-together and interchangable Hiccups (1978) seemed to me too generous, and the corporate scale of the later photographic dye transfer and screen-print-on-metal works (only sparingly represented here) reaffirmed the sense that the artist was at his best when his material means were more limited. Contrariwise, for me some of the more puckish small-scale gestures from the 1960s do not stand up to very much scrutiny: apart, perhaps, from Warhol’s note of genuine irreverence I wouldn’t much care whether the Moon Museum got attached to the Apollo 12 spacecraft or not; the telegrammed ‘conceptual portrait’ of Iris Clert (1961) carries none of the risk and reverberation of the earlier Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953, also on show here); and – and this is perhaps a more controversial judgement – for me both of the famous performance-paintings, First Time Painting (1961) and Gold Standard (1964), only go to demonstrate just how much Rauschenberg’s combines gained from having hung around his studio for a while.

Especially welcome in New York, as in London, are the complete set of the rarely-seen XXXIV Drawings for Dante’s Inferno (1958-60), very happily accompanied here by print-outs of Michael Sonnabend’s original summaries of Dante’s cantos, with which the drawings were first shown at Leo Castelli Gallery, and which recently turned up in the Castelli archives in Washington D.C., having long been thought lost. Rauschenberg’s drawings were indeed intended as illustrations, and throughout the 1960s were exhibited with written commentaries relating them to Dante’s poetry, to aid viewers’ engagement. Charles Atlas has also done a great job of energizing the experience of video footage that is not always in itself very compelling: his visually and conceptually inventive display of the Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering events (1966) has the audience move around the various performers, navigating a series of screens mounted on forest pipes, in a neat and appealing solution. Indeed, sound and dance pervade, nuance and enliven the exhibition compellingly throughout.

A big Rauschenberg show offers MoMA a fabulous opportunity to deploy its uniquely rich resources: a supreme collection of American art from the 1950s; large, flexible, and absolutely state-of-the-art exhibition spaces; the capacity to bring on board a whole host of key figures from Rauschenberg’s immediate circle; and archival and research holdings matched by few other modern art institutions (one contender, though, is San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which will be this exhibition’s third and final destination).

Two particular aspects of Dickerman’s curation should be singled out for special praise: firstly, the decision to introduce works by other artists, and the manner in which this has been done; and, secondly, the subtlety and precision with which she has enriched our understanding of key artworks by letting certain formal and visual correspondences do their own kind of work (in this sense she is importantly responsive to Rauschenberg’s method). While there are many examples throughout the show – and particularly early on, when you feel Dickerman is most sharply engaged – the full force of the curatorial intelligence was particularly strongly felt in the two rooms that constituted what Peter Schjeldahl has described as the exhibition’s ‘beating heart’: those covering the period from 1954-1960.

In Room 3, Red Paintings and Early Combines, the potent pell-mell of Charlene (1954, also in London), was joined by both the airier Rebus (1955) and the joyfully freestanding Minutiae (1954), neither of which was at Tate. Above Minutiae, unobtrusively installed, was a projection of Atlas’s footage of the Cunningham dancers moving around the combine, in a performance also called Minutiae. These major statements were accompanied by a rich and garrulous Red Painting, and by Bed (1955), Short Circuit (1955), and both Factum I and Factum II (both 1957).
More than this, though, Dickerman was able to exploit the museum’s extraordinary holdings to make interventions of great visual and conceptual precision: the hanging of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces (1955) next to Short Circuit, for example, was not only a visual coup, but also served to subtly dramatize the theme of intimate collaboration: the face that Johns cast to make his work was that of Rachel Rosenthal, a close friend of Rauschenberg and Johns, and Short Circuit itself once contained a miniature Johns Flag – when it was stolen it was replaced by the current Sturtevant replica – and a small work by Susan Weil. Likewise, across the room and to the left of Rebus are three drawings by Cy Twombly from 1954, very similar to that found on the surface of Rebus itself. With Bed in the same room, the romantic entanglements of Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns are hinted at too, perhaps, but this dimension of Rauschenberg’s life is consistently downplayed throughout the presentation, in keeping with all three artists’ own comportments but rather problematic given the wealth of recent scholarship on the topic. (The only explicit mention of Rauschenberg’s homosexuality is found in the audio guide commentary on the museum’s own majestic Canyon [1959].)

Other noteworthy interventions arrive in the first two rooms, where, for example, Rauschenberg’s early photographic experiments at Black Mountain College are accompanied by works by his teacher, Hazel Larsen Archer, as well as by Cy Twombly and Aaron Siskind; and Automobile Tire Print is joined in Room 2 (another high point) by Sari Dienes’s impressive pavement rubbing, SoHo Sidewalk (c.1953-55), which was a revelation to me but had been introduced to New York audiences by a major Drawing Center presentation of Dienes’ work in 2014. Rauschenberg’s mature forays into performance in the early 1960s are displayed together with works by Johns, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Marcel Duchamp; and the room of silkscreens – as if having nine of the best of them together wasn’t enough – also featured Andy Warhol’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family) from 1962, on loan from Washington. These kinds of curatorial moves, carried off with both subtlety and precision, were simply not available to the curators at Tate.

That said, the selection of the ‘friends’ included, and, indeed, the decision to include friends only, rather than work by other kinds of artistic peers and influences, is not neutral. Firstly, and perhaps surprisingly given Dickerman’s expertise in the area, very little mention is made of works of the earlier European avant-gardes. In fact, little consideration is given overall to the non-American influences on Rauschenberg’s formation, although the exhibition catalogue fills this in to some extent. Duchamp’s presence is not registered until the room dedicated to ‘Performance and Objects’ in the 1960s, whereas in fact the major Dada show that he curated for Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 had been a powerful influence on Rauschenberg. Indeed, he and Johns had travelled to Philadelphia to visit the Arensberg Collection in 1958. In a similar vein, there is no mention of Kurt Schwitters, a clear precedent for Rauschenberg’s aesthetic, who was represented in the aforementioned 1953 Dada show, and whose major presentation, again at Janis, Rauschenberg had seen (and loved) in 1956. There is no reference to the visit that Twombly and Rauschenberg made to Alberto Burri’s studio while in Rome in 1953, or indeed the Burri exhibition mounted at the Stable Gallery later that same year, which Rauschenberg himself had photographed; nor again, later on, is attention paid to the striking parallels between Rauschenberg’s Cardboards and Venetian series and developments in European art in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even though Sor Aqua (1973) strongly recalls the work of Joseph Beuys and the Cardboards align powerfully with the principles and materials of Arte Povera artists working in Italy.

The exhibition’s conceptual framing also tends to lean away from the controversies that Rauschenberg’s works provoked. Little sense is given of the hostile tenor of almost all the reviews he received until 1959 or so (the main exception was the poet Frank O’Hara, who also figures in the exhibition, albeit briefly and, in the main instance, tragically). In the 1950s Rauschenberg’s works were largely read as so many neo-dada pranks and personality gestures (indeed, this objection is still voiced today, most recently by Jed Perl, writing in the New York Review of Books this May). It also served as a lightning rod for an only very thinly veiled homophobia pervading sections of the New York critical establishment, which was of course also rampant throughout the country at large. Perhaps it is not reasonable to expect this kind of content to be included in the show itself. However, some address to the way in which what Lawrence Alloway once called Rauschenberg’s ‘flair for the drastic’ was, at least early on, rarely seen as benign could have been useful here. So too, perhaps, could some sense of the ways in which the artist in fact fell out with many in his closest circle too, especially after his win at Venice in 1964 (itself very controversial, both at home and abroad).
MoMA’s Rauschenberg retrospective coincides with the museum’s major presentation of Louise Lawler’s work, Louise Lawler: WHY PICTURES NOW. In what was presumably a knowing move, the exhibition includes her Persimmon and Bottle (1993/2010), in which Rauschenberg’s silkscreen Persimmon – itself on view next door – is shown, radically cropped, installed in its collector’s apartment. Taking my cue from Lawler, I want to end this review by panning out a little and brushing the celebratory tone somewhat against the grain.

Two further exhibitions recently on view in New York also featured works by Rauschenberg, and can be thought of as kinds of brackets to the current retrospective. The first speaks to the artist’s New York formation: Melissa Rachleff’s acclaimed show at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965. Including a Rauschenberg combine painting, the exhibition and its excellent catalogue convey the extraordinary energy and diversity of the downtown art scene at that time, also highlighting how most of its players are now long forgotten. The second exhibition was presented in the Christie’s showrooms in Rockefeller Plaza, just a few minutes walk from the MoMA: for ten days or so visitors were able to browse the lots for the Postwar and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which was to be held on 17 May. In the end the star performer in the sale was Cy Twombly’s raucous Leda and the Swan (1962), which was sold for $52,887,500. Rauschenberg’s own Drawings for Dante’s 700th Birthday, made to be reproduced in a special feature of Life magazine in 1965, was one of only a handful of lots to achieve considerably more than double its highest estimated value, finally selling for $2,887,500. This juxtaposition could obviously be the start of an (admittedly fairly familiar) polemic concerning the conversion of downtown grunge into uptown money, as well as concerning an important aspect of the function of major museum retrospectives today; yet its elaboration seems unnecessary here, given the figures. Nevertheless, when assessing the celebration of a modern American master of this calibre and reputation it is useful to keep such dynamics in view, alongside the very considerable achievements of Dickerman’s excellent exhibition itself.

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends was on view at MoMA until 17 September and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view 18 November 2017 – 25 March 2018.