Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rauschenberg & Friends at MOMA

My first stop on a recent visit to New York was at the Museum of Modern Art. I was determined to see the Rauschenberg exhibit before it closed on September 17. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day, the galleries were very crowded, and it was difficult to appreciate the works on display.

With Rauschenberg, it's not so much that he produced a few singular works of excellence, but rather it's about the audacity of his oeuvre, its range, and the innovative hybrids he created, mixing disciplines to create something entirely new.

To get an idea of the exhibit, you can watch the 30-second intro to the 35-minute video above. The show focuses on the collaborations Rauschenberg forged with other artists, in other media, over his six-decade career. For example:

Short Circuit, 1955, Robert Rauschenberg with Jasper Johns, Susan Weil and Elaine Sturtevant.

Oil, fabric, notebook paper, postcard, printed reproductions of Abraham Lincoln
and of Lorenzo Credi's painting Venus (c.1493), autograph of Judy Garland, and program
from an early John Cage concert, given with David Tudor, on canvas, pine and poplar wood
supports, and pine cabinet with two hinged doors containing a painting by Weil and "an Original Sturtevant"
captioned by Rauschenerg and created by Sturtevant in 1967 to replace a Johns flag painting
that had originally been included but was stolen in 1965.

Another innovative aspect of Rauschenberg's work is his use of found objects, something we are used to seeing now but that was revolutionary in its time.

Charlene, 1954

Oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men's undershirt,
umbrella, lace, ribbons and other fabrics, and metal on Hemasote, mounted on wood,
with electric light

Charlene (detail)

Charlene is considered to be one of Rauschenberg's first "Combines". He explained that people would argue whether something he had made was a painting or a sculpture, instead of looking at what was in front of them. "So the next time someone asked me, I said 'combine'. After that no one asked."

Combines evolved from a series called the "Red Paintings". When they were first shown, Rauschenberg invited his friend the composer Morton Feldman to give a concert among the paintings. This was among the first of many collaborations across disciplines for Rauschenberg. The same year, the choreographer Merce Cunningham asked him to design the set and costumes for his dance Minutiae.

Kite, 1963
oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas

In 1961, Rauschenerg began concerted efforts to create a painting with readymade images – with "current worldwide information", as he later put it. A visit to the studio of artist Andy Warhol in the fall of 1962 provided him with a tutorial on the silkscreen technique, commonly used in commercial art. Rauschenberg clipped images from the press and sent them to be made into silkscreens, specifying the scale at which they were to be reproduced. He built an inventory of over 150 screens, combining and recombining them to print them on canvas in various configurations, and adding passages of paint. Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1965, in part in recognition of these works. The artist's response: he called a friend back in New York and asked him to destroy his stock of screens in order to avoid the pressure of repeating himself.

Glacier (Hoarfrost), 1974
solvent transfer on satin and chiffon, with pillow

The series of Hoarfrosts was inspired by the gauzy cloth used to wipe the inky residue off lithography stones and metal plates after printing – Rauschenberg appreciated the way the translucent material maintained traces of fragmented imagery. For these works, Rauschenberg used solvents to transfer images from newspapers and magazines onto unstretched fabric. 

Nabisco Shredded Wheat (Cardboard), 1971
Cardboard packing boxes and metal nails

Looking for a way to escape the pressures of the Manhattan art scene, Rauschenberg established a workshop on Captiva Island, in Florida. On first arriving there, he was drawn to working with the simplest, found materials. Cardboard packing boxes were the focus of the first series of works he produced there; "A desire built up in me," he recalled, "to work in a material of waste and softness." Other works were made from materials scavenged on the island: driftwood, tires, and an old bathtub.

Gull (Jammer), 1976
sewn silk, rattan poles, and twine

In 1975, Rauschenberg traveled to India to collaborate with artisans at the Sabarmati Ashram, a school in the textile centre of Ahmedabad, founded by Mahatma Gandhi and dedicated to teaching the crafts of making prints, paper, and fabric. There he fell in love with the silks he saw everywhere, rich and sensuous in both feel and colour, and often appearing against a backdrop of material poverty, and he bought yards and yards in textile markets. The silks prompted him to recognize what had been his own hesitation to explore beauty and colour in his work: "I mostly work in trash," he would recall with a laugh, "and the idea of a beautiful piece of silk, a beautiful colour, consumed in its own vanity, didn't interest me.... It was a prejudice."

Back in Captiva, Rauschenberg began making his Jammers, embracing, like many artists did during his time, textiles as material and the forces of gravity. He stitched together the silks from India and hung them simply, with only the most modest interventions, directly from the wall or from rattan poles. The nearly weightless fabric would flutter and dance in response to the breezes and people passing by.  The titles of the series evokes the windjammer sailboats that Rauschenberg could see from his studio, which were likewise designed to catch wind.

Bible Bike (Borealis), 1991

screenprinted chemical-resistant varnish and patina chemicals
on three plates of brass, bronze, and copper

Bible Bike (Borealis), detail

In the Borealis series to which this work belongs, Rauschenberg silkscreened photgraphs he had taken onto plates of brass, bronze, and copper, integrating these images with sweeping gestural marks made from the patinas, chemical compounds, and varnishes often used in printmaking. He applied these varnishes in various ways – sometimes barefoot, with rags, skating on a work's surface, sometimes with a range of implements, including mops. Bible Bike (Borealis) shows Rauschenberg, now in his mid-sixties, inventing new techniques and processes from the basic tools of printmaking.

As I write this post, from the perspective of several weeks post-visit, I realize that seeing the MOMA show Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends has given me a whole new appreciation for the artist, a long-time favourite.

No comments: