Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Too absorbed by the future to bother about the past: Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg at Gagosian Gallery
October 29, 2010 – January 15, 2011
522 West 21st Street
New York City 212 741 1717

Hiroko Ikegami
The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010
ISBN 978-0-262-01425-0
277 pp.

Jasper Johns: Drawing Over at Castelli Gallery
November 6 – December 18, 2010
18 East 77th St.
New York City 212 240 4470

Robert Rauschenberg, Short Circuit (Combine Painting), 1955. Oil, fabric and paper on wood supports and cabinet with two hinged doors containing a painting by Susan Weil and a reproduction of a Jasper Johns Flag painting by Elaine Sturtevant, 40-3/4 x 37-1/2 x 4-1/4 inches.  © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever
Robert Rauschenberg, Short Circuit (Combine Painting), 1955. Oil, fabric and paper on wood supports and cabinet with two hinged doors containing a painting by Susan Weil and a reproduction of a Jasper Johns Flag painting by Elaine Sturtevant, 40-3/4 x 37-1/2 x 4-1/4 inches. © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

Marcel Duchamp’s readymades are utilitarian artifacts–a bottle rack, a snow shovel, a urinal. Whatever his intentions, these objects now look like sleek early modernist sculptures. Joseph Cornell extended Duchamp’s way of thinking, collaging images, photographs and all sorts of antique memorabilia. Deborah Solomon’s Utopia Parkway: The Life And Work Of Joseph Cornell reveals maybe too much about his unhappily repressed erotic life, which found perfect expression in his little worlds of exquisite objects set behind protective glass. Marvelous as they are, these works of art are precious. No truly great artist can hold the world at a distance, as Cornell did in his life and his art. Imagine Cornell collecting his collage elements not in Manhattan’s thrift stores, but abandoned on the street. Suppose, furthermore, that he took an aggressively populist interest in politics and public life. And imagine then that he discarded his confining boxes and, boldly set his collages on the floor or wall, working on the scale of classic Abstract Expressionism. Imagining Cornell so dramatically transformed is, I grant, a utopian exercise, for it would have required a personality transplant. But fortunately there is no need to do that, for we are lucky enough to have had Robert Rauschenberg. “I’m for ‘yes,’” Rauschenberg once said. “‘No’ excludes. I’m for inclusion.” (p.34)

An artist, we expect, is someone who creates something essentially new. This exhibition teaches us that we need to reject that well-established way of thinking. Rauschenberg creates by combining already existing things. Combining cardboard, wood branch, and lace curtain in Untitled (Venetian) (1973) – no problem. Juxtaposing cardboard, sand, Day-Glo paint, spoked wheels, pillow, and hose in Untitled (Early Egyptian) (1974) –why not?  He can make art out of almost nothing, as in Vow (Jammer) (1976) composed of sewn fabric and rattan pol. Nothing could be simpler than The White Paintings (1951), canvases painted with white latex house paint. But he can also do elaborate creations, like Palladian Xmas (Spread) (1980), which is made of solvent transfer, acrylic, and collage on wood panel. Following Surrealist tradition, Cornell sought to display elective affinities. Like lovers, previously unknown to one another, who discover on a crowded city street that they are predestined passionate partners, his juxtapositions of objects are poetic. Rauschenberg thinks about art making in different, more plausible way. He demonstrates that the world is far more aesthetically fascinating (but less visually mysterious) than we have imagined.

We think of an aesthete as focused on the here and now. But Rauschenberg, so John Richardson suggests in his catalogue essay, was too absorbed by the future to bother about the past. Maybe Untitled (Late Kabal American Zephyr) (1985), composed of rubber cycle wheels on metal structure with hand crank, is a joke about Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. But mostly Rauschenberg so radically transforms this tradition as to make any search for precedents irrelevant.  Academics have already devoted great deal of attention to his iconography. In fact, however, that is a problematic procedure, since for him, it seems, almost any things can be combined. “I avoid images that are fixed,” he said. “You get that and it is just illustration.” (p.31)

I have no idea what Rainbow Harp (Roci Tibet) (1984), fabric, metal rings, and wire on aluminum stand with animal skull and turquoise, means, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying it.  I do ‘get’ Petrified Relic from the Gyro Clinic (Kabal American Zephyr) (1981), an assisted ready made consisting of metal table with metal wheel, rule, and duct. And Untitled (Kabal American Zephyr) (1983), composed of a metal chair with metal object and advertising thermometer also is easy to understand. So too is Watchdog (2007), rusted metal buckets on mirrored aluminum composite base, which is simple, and no doubt silly. But it works. Rauschenberg loves to include works from other artists within his art, as in Short Circuit (1955), in which the copy of a Jasper Johns’ Flag by Elaine Sturtevant and a painting by his wife Susan Weil compose a collage whose support is a rustic hinged wooden cabinet.  Art Box (Combine Painting) (1963), oil on wood crate and paper with enameled telephone sign, Plexiglas, and wing nuts, looks like an anticipation of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964). But how different it is!

It would be unfair to compare Castelli’s small uptown show Jasper Johns Drawing Over, a display of thirty drawings executed from the early 1960s to the present, against this massive exhibition.  Still, comparing them reveals much about these artists, whose personal relationship was important for both of them. Made in a variety of media – acrylic, watercolor, ink, gouache, pastel, etc. – Johns’s drawings are executed over prints. In this body of work, an image previously created by the artist has been reworked and transformed into something else. Thus Land’s End, Johns’ monochromatic intaglio from 1979, became a vibrant pastel at the artist’s hand, and a new work: Land’s End, 1979/1989.  In this show, as in his recent paintings, Johns obsessively reworks a small group of subjects, going over and over his themes, like Bach in his Goldberg Variations or Mendelssohn in Songs without Words. Johns thus turns inward, whilst Rauschenberg would embrace everything and everyone.

If Johns is our Mallarmé, Rauschenberg is our Walt Whitman. One of his few unfulfilled dreams, Richardson says, was to photograph the world in its entirety, big as life.  You would have to be seriously emotionally stingy not to respond to this irresistible show of our most open and winning artist. At a press conference in Japan during the 1980s, a member of the audience asked Rauschenberg to name his greatest fear. “That I might run out of world,” he replied. (p.11) That never happened. Some critics complain that Rauschenberg was not sufficiently self-critical. (He made more than six thousand works of art.) Gagosian’s exhibition shows that they are totally wrong. Like Andy Warhol, the most different artist imaginable, he was often great. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” Rauschenberg said when he was seventy-four. “Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.” He never stopped screwing things up. I am in awe of his amazing generosity.

Our globalized art world, in which Gagosian has branches in Athens, Geneva, Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris, and Rome, and many artists travel between America, Asia and Europe, was created during Rauschenberg’s lifetime. There has been a great deal of discussion about the politics involved in the export of Abstract Expressionism.  Now Hiroko Ikegami extends that analysis. Her marvelous The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art reveals how supportive curators and dealers in Paris, Venice, Stockholm and Tokyo made it possible for Rauschenberg to become a superstar. Although she has very interesting, albeit brief remarks on how to read his allegories, she focuses on analyzing the system of collectors and curators who made possible his career. Early on Rauschenberg had important exhibitions in four cities, Paris, Venice, Stockholm, Tokyo—all part of the “Free World.” Ikegami discusses the role of Ileana Sonnabend in Paris; Alan Solomon in Venice; Pontus Hultén in Stockholm; and a number of artists and critics in Tokyo. Rauschenberg, Ikegami argues, was generally seen as a very American artist, which sometimes involved downplaying the politically critical and homoerotic dimensions of his art.  Her very tactful narrative, which is an amazing synthesis of materials in many languages, has the feeling of total reliability.

In Paris Rauschenberg suffered from rivalry with French artists, and in Venice his success was much resented both by some Italians and by jealous American rivals. Monogram, purchased for $15,000, now is a symbol for the Moderna Museet, but in Stockholm not everyone was pleased when Hultén paid serious attention to contemporary American art. And in Japan, Rauschenberg had French rivals.  His personal generosity, openness and tact played an important role in his success; he was generally gifted at avoiding unproductive conflicts. Some of the Abstract Expressionists traveled to Europe, and Sam Francis lived in Europe and Japan. But before Rauschenberg, no major painter exhibited and worked in so many countries. So far as I can see, however, these extensive travels didn’t decisively his art. He didn’t speak French, Italian, Swedish or Japanese, and never stayed anywhere very long.