Standing in the presence of The Goat

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Robert Rauschenberg – Monogram

Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Bankside,  London SE1
Been away from the blog for a while – back now!

At Tate Modern to see the Robert Rauschenberg blockbuster on Friday evening. Tend to prefer it then – it’s usually quiet, but this time it’s packed. To me Robert Rauschenberg’s work has meant the triumph of creativity over ideology, of form over doctrine, of playfulness over conformity and I’m very excited to see this show, and clearly I am not alone.

In the first room it hits you straight away – you are in the presence of an artist who can draw from any idiom and use it to his advantage. Just in the first couple of rooms he offers us suprematist abstraction, gestural body painting, conceptual, kinetic and painterly work. And that is before we get to the printmaking, the Combines (Rauschenberg’s own word for his paintings that featured real things as part of them), the performances and the installations. The room is titled Experimentation but it represents more than that – it has a hunger, and a consuming energy that simultaneously sucks the marrow out of its sources and creates new avenues for development.

RR1Robert Rauschenberg –  Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print of 1953 stands out – a work I didn’t know – that seems to have the spontaneity of a watercolour together with an amazing conceptual and performance element but which ends up looking as striking as anything by Barnett Newman or Jackdon Pollock. It has that tension between the final image and our knowledge of that which created it – a simple almost commonplace insight about an everyday thing, stunningly rendered.  Next to it hangs the original of another extraordinary work – The Erased de Kooning Drawing from the same year. Another groundbreaking moment as one artist makes work by the subtraction of another’s.

He flirted with absolutes – white paintings, gold paintings, dirt paintings but moved on quickly. Working intuitively with out a manifesto or a destination. His approach reminds me more than anything of Dada – a quintessentially European movement, and RR is surely a quintessentially American artist. Everything about the work screams Dada though – the dynamic, off centre energy of the work, the heterodox approach to the fusion of materials breaking apart traditional (and contemporary) forms, and an underlying (and perhaps not completely focused) critique of authority.

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Robert Rauschenberg – Gift for Apollo 1959

By the time we get to the Combines in room 3 we are already travelling at the speed of light toward the heart of the creative act. That is when we meet the goat. Standing smack in the middle of room 3 we confront Monogram. For me this is a work like no other. The Goat – an actual stuffed goat – with a tyre around its middle stands atop a collagy abstact canvas on the floor. The Goat remains enigmatic – is it enduring its place in art history with dignity or is it a wiling sacrifice annointed with the paint untidly daubed on its nose? The Goat stands as if at the gatetway of something vital – the ability to create, the tyre around its middle suggesting that random element of inspiration,somehow symbolising – probably the wrong word – embodying – life force, animus in collision with society. It is imprisoned by the detritus but somehow also rising above it. In pictures you see the installation view – complete, detached. But what it is to get up close and look it in the eye! It is a gripping piece of work.

 

Bed (1955,  also in a ludicrous perspex box) on the adjoining wall is almost sidelined. Yet that too combined the elements of the real and the hand of the artist in a hitherto unimaginable way. Looking at Bed and Monogram it should be perfectly obvious to anyone that Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin did nothing. Their attempts at this theme some fifty years after these trailblazing originals seem like a dumbed down GCSE version of it for really thick people who need to be battered over the head with something before they can see it. Here RR takes ideas but plays with them and adorns them with formal touches – his fecundity a massive two fingers to ascetic Duchampian conceptual constipation.

 

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Rauschenberg – Retroactive 1

Following this the transfer paintings and silkscreens represent the flowering of his mature work. They are extraordinary images of the post war American world. They use techniques of reproduction through the transfer of photographic imagery and printing but they are also paintings with compostion, balance of colour and touch. The choice of imagery too is not merely a reflction of what is around him but chosen juxtapostions of power against sensuality and of armaments against art history that draw from surrealism and collage. The askew compostions and awkward looking brushwork come together with the photograpic elements to make a startlingly dynamic whole. It is a heady fusion of almost everything that the Twentieth Cenrty had to offer at that point.

Then almost as suddenly as it came, this extraordinary efflorescense of creativity is over.  The notes tell us that after winning the painting prize at theVenice Biennale in 1964 (amazingly the first American to do so) he called his assistant and ‘asked him to destroy any silkscreens remaining in his studio’. I then lose sight of him in a bewildering array of avant garde performances and other (very Dadaist) happening-style works. No doubt these were equally pioneering but to me they are impenetrable, the cold records available to us are dead echoes. When he does re-emerge in the 1970s he has lost the fire. Harder edge artists (it’s all in New York baby!) like Frank Stella and Andy Warhol  had seized the initiative – but they are much more didactic monocultural artists who lack Raushcenberg’s diversity and wide eyed creative approach. It’s our loss.

The works from the later years seem pointless bloated in scale and lacking in bite – now the marks seem arbitrary  where they once seemed free. Trying to recapture that skein of inspiration that he clearly took for granted as his birthright. It may be that moving to his studio complex in Florida he lost touch with the inspiration of New York which was clearly a big part of his best work. But for me there is nothing in the last forty years of his career to match the first fifteen. But then again the first fifteen contain some of the most amazing artworks of the last century so nothing to complain about really. Nothing except the brainless way these exhibitions are organised – a plodding, linear assembly of a few works from this ‘phase’, and then a few from the next ‘phase’ and so on. It is the approach of a dull archivist – putting everything in its labelled box. Mind you, if that goat was loose it could take over the world…

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Wolf in Torus. Accidental riposte to Monogram I created at work yesterday.

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To Be Perfectly Frank – The Movie

selfportraitauerbach-largeJust back from a screening of Frank, a new documentary portrait of Frank Auerbach by his son, film-maker Jake Auerbach at King’s Place.

It was a simple format – Frank was shown a video of his retrospective in Bonn (the same show now at Tate Britain) and he talks about the paintings and issues arising.

Overall you are left with the sense that Frank is one of the few people who has not wasted his time on Planet Earth. He has pursued the ostensibly pointless diversion of painting with an obsession that endows it with extraordinary intensity and unique value.

The seemingly limitless choices of creativity seem like a paradise to those of us who live within walls prescribed by quotidian exigencies. We are constrained by our lives, but to paint without restriction imposes its own harder discipline. Frank has accepted that servitude gladly and we are given the benefits of his dedication when we look at his paintings.

In the film, Frank is illuminating about the process behind his paintings but in a way that mystifies it more. There are some things that cannot be explained – they have to be experienced. When paintings ‘work’ they are precious vessels that share life experience between people over thousands of miles, over centuries. The difficulty of attaining this goal causes Frank to ruthlessly revise his work until it does: a process that can take years for a single picture.

Frank abandoned a career as an actor in favour of painting. This seems almost unbelievable given his apparent reticence to talk about his work or appear on camera. His stance seems almost the obverse of Andy Warhol who seems to have been shy in the extreme in his private life and the reverse in his artistic one. Frank may have kept the art world at arm’s length, but he knows exactly how long his arm is…

His work is the embodiment of the tension between the Old Masters and Contemporary  Art, yet it belongs to neither. It goes its own way. Stick to your guns, Frank!

The Wizard Who Made Ideas Disappear

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

Polke 'Alice' ...the image is the disappearance of the image

Polke ‘Alice’ …the image is the disappearance of the image

Polke is the most enigmatic character in all of contemporary art. His work inhabits a phantom dimension between art and anti-art. A sort of artistic wormhole which distorts the usual values and perceptions, and in which a lesser talent would be crushed to nothing.

For many years I have wrestled with Polke’s work, seeing it and not seeing it at the same time. I just could not understand h0w any painting (and I am just interested in his paintings really) could be so beautiful and so ugly at once as his are. I don’t really know whether I like them or not and I am not sure that it matters. I think ultimately Polke only cared about stimulating a certain response in his viewers, which was a complex compound of dissatisfaction, questioning, aesthetic awareness and a kind of transcendental indifference to everything.

Like all good artists though, he didn’t care to repeat himself and his work takes many forms, and given his rejection of fixed points of reference it is hard to perceive the core, but it may well turn out that the core is rejection. Obviously if you reject everything all at once you won’t make anything, but he seems to have started with rejection of the Nazi past that was so recent for him (he was born in Poland in 1941), but followed that by rejection of post-war consumerism in the early 1960s, and by the time that he was rejecting perceptual reality in the 1970s through his drug use he had also embraced many rejections of new and traditional artistic styles in an exhausting contrarian Odyssey, and for the rest of his life (he died in 2010) he did not slow down or resolve into any obvious pattern, but he often backtracked and took on things he had previously rejected.

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Polke’s bleak critique of his chosen vocation

 

Disintegration of patterns was for Polke suggestive of the disintegration of meaning – of photographs, of images in general. His use of fragmented images anticipates layers of computer graphics but also shows that using images in this way will hasten the descent into the void. To subvert the power and meaning of the images you are using even while relying on them for that very same power and meaning: he knew years before us all that photography was dead as documentation, and showed it reduced to entropic pattern.

varnishing day...

varnishing day…

He used a hundred different ways of making transparency and translucency on the canvas in order to make his work more opaque.

I don’t go to Tate Modern that often, about once a year I reckon. I am not sure about it I feel obscurely oppressed by its omniscient orthodoxy. This time I went in the evening, and it was the best it has ever been. If you are going to try to give some mental space to art, you need some physical space to do so. It was just us and a few glamorous Italians who were really very decorative.

Polke’s use of spillages and other accidental marks seems an echo of Pollock, but his use of ‘ready-made’ images and printed fabrics seems an echo of Duchamp. Between art and anti-art lives the wizard, and like trying to identify the location of a mythical place, clues are often misleading. For many years he claimed his work was dictated by ‘Higher Beings’. Was he joking? Polke has made an enchanted world without certainties, where everything is open to question. That is not an easy place to live, but it is a free one, and I will return.

polka showing his spills

Polke showing his spills