Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 17, 2017

Unfixed—ideas, methods, materials—is what can be said to characterize the extraordinary output of Robert Rauschenberg. In a sweeping retrospective of his six-decade-long career, opening this week at the Museum of Modern Art, this restless innovator’s contributions to the art of our own time registers in full. Visitors will experience the moment when Modern art made its exit, rules were swept aside, and friendships became collaborations, opening access to the contemporary and the quotidian in art.

Robert Rauschenberg Among Friends charts the emergence of this protean figure from his first stint at Black Mountain College in 1948; his subsequent travels to Italy and North Africa; studies at the Art Students League and a return to Black Mountain in 1951. By that time, he was already formed in his outlook and approach to art making. He had had a show at Betty Parsons Gallery, the bastion of the New York School and had spent time listening to the musings of the Abstract Expressionist cohort at the Cedar Tavern (Rauschenberg subsequently said that he learned more by eavesdropping there than by attending figure drawing classes at the League). He had made a series of Black paintings and White paintings, but instead of drawing upon “metaphorical suffering” in his brushwork, he layered up his canvasses with discards worked over with house paint, and scribed into the surfaces with a stick.

Robert Raushenberg, Jasper Johns,  Minutiae, 1954

Elemental to his art is the constant collaborations he invited and nurtured. One of his White paintings from 1951 was repainted in 1968 by Brice Marden; a Black painting formed of 4 panels was continuously re-sequenced by artists, musicians, dancers and other friends who visited his studio, by 1953, on Fulton Street. A painting made of dirt, as a gift to composer John Cage, was overtaken by mold, which gradually grew into an abstract addition that became a collaborator of the material kind. “I’m opposed, he said, “to the whole ide of conception-execution—of getting an idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to collaboration with materials than any kind of conscious manipulation and control.”

Robert Raushenberg, Toby Fitch, Harold Hodges, Billy Klüver,Oracle, 1962-65, surrounded by oil and silkscreened prints on canvas by Robert Rauschenberg from 1963-64.

By the late-1950s Rauschenberg was established as an artist of the now, whose achievement as a painter, printmaker, photographer, sculptor, theater designer, performance artist and tech artist was recognized. He began collaborating with Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Labs who had a passion for the avant-garde. With support from IBM, among others, they formed E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology and produced a blow-out series of evenings at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory with some 10 artists, 30 engineers, and 500 volunteers exploring future through the first use of closed-circuit TV in theater and the use of Dopplar sonar to translate movement into sound. 

Between 1968 and 1971, Rauschenberg collaborated with a number of artists and engineers on Mud Muse (above), an 8,000-pound vat of mud that bubbles, gurgles and erupts on sonic cues. The primordial mess, which simultaneously recalls the La Brea tar pits and futuristic interplanetary journeys, is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Rauschenberg’s long-term collaborations with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, an alliance formed at Black Mountain, as well as subsequent performances with Trishia Brown, are well represented through inventive presentations designed by Charles Atlas, who participated the exhibition design. Rauschenberg’s solvent transfer drawing collages that comprise the series Thirty-four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno is presented in its entirety. Seen as a group, the work highlights the invention that is central to the artist’s methods, and offers a straight line to the group of oil and silkscreen printed paintings from 1963-64. Using readymade images from newspapers and magazines, as he had in the Inferno series, Rauschenberg created an inventory of 150 screens, which he made under the guidance of Andy Warhol. By recombining them in different ways and adding passages of paint, he made a series of images with “current worldwide information,” from moon landings to the assignation of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Aptly labeled a great catalyst by curator Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg made art out of ordinary stuff, trash from the streets, found sounds, movements and meetings. “[I]nterdisciplinary in attitude and performative in implication or in essence,” she writes, “we see the legacy of Rauschenberg. His work serves as a prehistory of our own moment in time, the contemporary in its emergent form.”

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends opens to MoMA members today, and to the public on Sunday, continuing through September 17, followed by an opening at SFMOMA in November.
Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY. Info Public programs include performances with Bang on a Can: Music Among Friends and poetry performances with Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis. Education programs include a course on Robert Rauschenberg and the Art of Collaboration. Publications include the eponymous catalogue, edited by Leah Dikerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume and Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s “Inferno,”a new volume in both paperback and cloth editions. More Info
Photos © Peggy Roalf



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