The first comprehensive retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg’s career since his death in 2008 recently opened at the Tate Modern and runs until April 2nd. Encompassing the vast diversity of his artistic legacy, from his early experimentations at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, to his final works reinvestigating the possibilities of photography transfers, the exhibition is a monumental celebration of Rauschenberg’s achievements.
Robert Rauschenberg matured as a young artist during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Taught by such bastions of modernism as Bauhaus artist Josef Albers – whose strict disciplinary approach to learning prompted Rauschenberg to do “exactly the reverse” of Albers’ instructions – Rauschenberg rapidly became a pioneering artist of the Neo-Dada movement. Reacting against the heroic, expressive framework of the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg instead challenged the sanctity of the canvas and questioned the definition of a work of art. His inquisitive, pioneering approach is apparent from the early years of his career. In Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, Rauschenberg pushed to the limits what could be considered art. In this work, on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMa) for the Tate Modern exhibition, Rauschenberg erased a drawing given to him by Willem de Kooning in an attempt to create art through erasure, rather than formation. As he explained in an interview at SFMoMA many years later, “it’s not a negation; it’s a celebration.” Close by in the gallery hangs Automobile Tire Print, 1953, a work in which Rauschenberg recruited the composer John Cage to drive his Ford Model A in a straight line over typewriter paper. The act removed any trace of the artist’s hand from the work and turned Cage, as Rauschenberg later joked, into “both the printer and the press.”
The chronological and thematic layout of the Tate Modern exhibition emphasizes the broad scope of Rauschenberg’s experimentation and his constant desire to push boundaries and rethink existing materials and conditions in inventive ways. On view are his famous Combines, paintings made three-dimensional and interactive through the addition of found objects, as well as his collaborative film and dance projects with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and other radical contemporary figures. One is struck throughout the exhibition by his entirely individual approach, but also by his tongue-in-cheek attitude and sense of humour. Explaining the final iteration of Monogram, 1955-59, in which a stuffed Angora goat is enwrapped by a tire and adhered to a panel on the floor, Rauschenberg observed that no matter where he placed the goat in relation to the canvas, it continued to look like a goat next to a work of art. It was only with the addition of the tire and the placement of the ensemble on the ground that Monogram became a cohesive work of art. Monogram provokes an immediate smile upon the face, and pleasure at the bizarreness of the scene, but also further underscores Rauschenberg’s incredible innovation in creating an entirely new category of art.
Moving from room to room of this vast and comprehensive Rauschenberg retrospective, one cannot help but be imbued with an energized spirit of discovery. Rauschenberg sought to create works that enter into dialogue with the viewer, that engage the audience and challenge one to reconsider the boundaries of art. Experiencing his artworks en masse underscores the inspiring, radical effort Rauschenberg undertook over six decades of work, an effort founded upon the desire to see art anew. The Tate Modern’s presentation of Rauschenberg’s work more than does justice to the artist’s efforts in this direction and is not to be missed.