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.
Robert 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.
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.
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…