There was no shortage of fanfare for the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition on show at Tate Modern until early April this year. Described in Tate’s promotional material as the ‘ultimate Rauschenberg experience’, and supported by claims by Adrian Searle that the show ‘finally reveals the man in full’, and by Laura Cumming, who sees Rauschenberg as ‘America’s Leonardo’, the institution itself is in no doubt (as if it would be) that this is a defining retrospective for a defining artist. At least half of this claim is unquestionable: Rauschenberg’s status as a key figure of twentieth century art is long established, and a retrospective of this magnitude that encompasses the span of his extraordinary, experimental, sixty-year-long career feels timely. The exhibition that was delivered, though, failed to do justice to the work and undermined the lively, playful quality of Rauschenberg’s practice.From the start of this chronological survey, problems of presentation were apparent. The first room entitled ‘Experimentation’ contained Rauschenberg’s early works, completed during and just after his time at Black Mountain College. This included the seldom-seen Scatole Personali (1952-3), delicate boxes containing precisely arranged spikes, pebbles and shells, and Elemental Sculptures (1953/9), which were created from stones, metal and twine discovered around his Fulton Street studio in the 1950s. Together, they represent the artist’s initial experiments with found objects and his attention to the properties of the materials that he included in his work. The Elemental Sculptures’ rough, rusty surfaces foreground the wear of the stone, metal and wood from which they are constructed, whilst also creating shapes that play with the weight and degradation their materials suggest. The small-scale Scatole Personali look like enigmatic keepsakes that juxtapose debased and aggressive materials with small artefacts, enclosed in what look like jewellery boxes so as to give the appearance of precious personal relics.
Also in the first room were more canonical works: the Automobile Tire Print (1953), which Rauschenberg made with John Cage by inking the tyre of Cage’s Model A Ford and driving it over sheets of paper in a more-or-less straight line; a White Painting (1951) — three canvases painted white with a roller so as to achieve an entirely flat painted surface that could act as a register of the space around them (‘airports for lights, shadows and particles,’ as Cage described them); and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg’s successful attempt to create a drawing by the method of erasure. Erased de Kooning Drawing particularly brings to mind the ways in which initial readings of Rauschenberg’s practice as neo-dada nihilism have since been refined to see his work as part of a playful but serious engagement with the art world of his moment. The small paper support, gilt-framed, shows us the remnants of a work donated somewhat reluctantly by Willem de Kooning, which Rauschenberg then painstakingly erased, reducing this crayon, ink, pencil and charcoal drawing to a mere residue. The project’s success—reliant on the undeniable status of de Kooning’s drawings as ‘art’—demonstrates Rauschenberg’s attention to the conditions of the art object: this is a drawing only because there is a visible absence, the index of Rauschenberg’s labour foregrounded in the same way as the scribbled mark.
The combination of key works of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre with less considered ones was not unhelpful, but the room felt overly busy, to the point that Rauschenberg’s photographs of Cy Twombly from their trip to Italy in 1952-53 were stacked over Automobile Tire Print. There were also some strange choices in the presentation. Erased de Kooning Drawing, for example, was accompanied by a visible light scan of the work by Ben Blackwell, which recovers a spectral trace of de Kooning’s original for the viewer to see. It speaks to a sense that the work requires mediation, a curatorial need to soften the gesture for the viewer so that any implication of art historical impertinence is tempered. Of course, curiosity about what Rauschenberg erased is reasonable, but it points to the wider problem of this exhibition in that is seeks to create an historical narrative around the practice at the expense of the encounter with vital objects that you might expect when viewing Rauschenberg’s work. Here, his oeuvre was presented in order to be understood art historically: a chronological and explanatory survey that focuses on giving the viewer a sense of the overall significance of the individual artist with art works illustrative of key moments in the course of his career. For many artists this approach can be productive, but for Rauschenberg the works themselves are so much about the experience of viewing that if this is not foregrounded in their presentation the energy and vibrancy of the work is diluted.
Exemplifying this was Monogram (1955-59), arguably the most literal incarnation of what Leo Steinberg described as the ‘flatbed picture plane,’ which alludes to ‘any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion’ (‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, 1972). Standing on the centre of a wooden platform collaged with fabric, bits of paper, metal, and the rubber heel of a shoe is a taxidermied angora goat. The goat’s long fur falls neatly almost to this painted ground, patches of colour are daubed on its face, and a rubber tyre wraps around its middle. The goat both stands atop and forms a part of a field of contemporary detritus, exemplifying the ‘shift from nature to culture’ that Steinberg asserts is Rauschenberg’s major innovation. Monogram is a work that demonstrates the ambition and energy of Rauschenberg’s project, at once a serious and convincing aesthetic proposition and a witty engagement with the tropes of postwar American painting: where Pollock laid his supports on the floor in order to create his action-driven all-over canvases, Rauschenberg makes his horizontal to create a meeting place between objects and signs; the seriousness of the former undercut by the combination of the mundane and the bizarre that litter Monogram’s wooden support.
However, in this presentation of the work, the wit and life of Monogram was literally contained by the thick glass vitrine—presumably due to conservation concerns—separating it from the viewer. Not part of Rauschenberg’s original presentation, it is now enclosed and preserved, an archival specimen for our investigation. In a display case to the side of Monogram were ephemera that demonstrated the work’s development before the key aesthetic decision to place the goat on the horizontal canvas. Again, it was a treatment that asked us to look at this work through an historical lens, presented as an artefact designed to be indicative of the late great artist’s innovation rather than an object designed to trigger associations and spark our own readings of the incongruous whole.
The sheer volume of work included in the eleven rooms of this exhibition demonstrated an attempt to present an exhaustive account of Rauschenberg, but one which failed to do justice to the intellectual proposition that marked him out among his contemporaries. Represented were the Combines, the complete set of his XXXIV Drawings for Dante’s Inferno, the silkscreens, his work with Experiments with Art and Technology, his collaborations with the choreographers Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, his Gluts, Jammers and Cardboards, and his late digital collages. However, the attention to the experience of the work suffered: Charlene, for example, one of the more important Combines to be included in the exhibition, was presented in the same room as a projection of extracts from the dance Minutiae by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, for which Rauschenberg designed the sets and costumes. By being placed together neither was shown to its best advantage, the projection of Minutiae washed out by lighting that was too bright, and the detail of Charlene difficult to perceive in the dulled and flickering glow that came from the projection. It felt like an attempt had been made to repeat the ways in which Rauschenberg’s works bring together contrasting objects and images in order to set off new associations, but one that did not reflect his careful attention to the ways in which signs and meanings interact, so evident in the works on display.
That said, there were real highlights here too. Rauschenberg’s experiment with illustration in the Dante Drawings—completed through the solvent transfer process, which involved clipping pictures from sources such as Sports Illustrated, Time and Life magazines in order to represent Dante’s epic tale of his journey through hell— are materially and referentially fascinating. The room of silkscreens was compelling, making visible the evolution of Rauschenberg’s referential practice towards an engagement with contemporary political and social events. A selection of cardboard works demonstrated Rauschenberg’s precise attention to found objects, with pieces like Untitled (Cardboard) (1972) using the dents, folds and damage to found cardboard boxes to create a careful material study. Overall, though, this survey of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre and its remarkable evolution over the course of his career, felt staid. Focusing on a complete chronological survey of his practice, this style of exhibition served to frustrate the lively imaginative encounter between object and viewer that is the particular value of Rauschenberg’s work. What the Tate exhibition shows us is that Rauschenberg’s practice does not sink easily into history and in this presentation the work’s vibrancy, excitement and challenge was dulled.
Robert Rauschenberg was on view at Tate Modern, 1 December 2016 – 2 April 2017.