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.

 

RobertRauschenbergRetroacti

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

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain Millbank London SW1

Miles Richmond at Messum’s Cork St London W1

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

Frank Auerbach Head of JYM 1984-5

The Frank Auerbach show at Tate Britain is a very classy retrospective hung by the artist and long time Auerbach cohort Catherine Lampert (depicted in some of the pictures). It does not follow the usual pattern of a retrospective: although chronological it doesn’t really attempt to show linear artistic development. Rather it shows evolving treatments of the same themes (sometimes the exact same ones) over a lifetime’s work. And at Tate Britain rather than Tate Modern it eschews the ephemeral trendiness of the latter for a more enduring relationship with the past.

Auerbach is famous, slightly notorious in some ways, for his extreme work ethic – seven long days a week in the studio. But a relatively small output – a couple of dozen paintings a year. This show is a core sample of that intense output, showing the same sitters and views from the 1950s to today. There is no fat on it. Now well into his eighties he has not let up at all, rather the reverse – still a lot of painting he needs to do, he says, and he is more reluctant than ever to leave the studio. So what’s my excuse?

Frank in the Studio - a good day at the office...

Frank in the Studio – a good day at the office…

Sometimes I think Frank’s painting is Impressionism gone mad, sometimes it seems more like Expressionism gone sane. It is the tension between and synthesis of the two that makes his work so compelling. Everything in the work comes from observation of the subject, but he is building a pictorial equivalent of the subject through dynamic interaction with paint not an illustration. Some people just never get this. That’s just the way it goes. Yet to some he is a stubborn reactionary for whom other postwar ‘developments’ in art simply never happened.

In the years 1945-53 the gears of the world were still turning and the seeds of the future being sown despite the exhaustion following the war. Pol Pot was studying engineering in Paris and in Minnesota, the four year old Bob Dylan was singing ‘Accentuate the Positive’ at a family gathering. In London, Frank Auerbach was attending David Bomberg’s drawing classes .

Miles Richmond - Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond – Ronda Landscape

Miles Richmond - Self Portrait

Miles Richmond – Self Portrait

Bomberg had by this time turned his back on the aggressive modernism of his youth and returned to painting from life. Also there was Miles Richmond, whose work is also on show in London at the moment. Lesser known, and much more redolent of Bomberg, there is nonetheless a lot of energy and interest in Richmond’s work. It just has not forged a new vision in the way that Auerbach’s has. And I think that has a lot to do with the extreme commitment that Auerbach makes to every painting and the despair that he accordingly feels when it falls short – as all paintings inevitably do. But that only reinforces his determination to carry on. And as he is a very introspective, even insular artist who very much goes his own way oblivious to the rest of the art world, this internal conflict between energy and rational despair gives his hand its unique quality. So many artists today, almost all of them in fact, are desperate to avoid the ‘hand’ of the artist being apparent. It is not Duchampian, Warholian, Johnsian, empirical – they would maintain. But that is because their hands are weak.

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)

Lucien Freud in bed under an Auerbach drawing (Daily Telegraph)