There is so much that impresses and excites about this vast new Robert Rauschenberg (October 22, 1925 – May 12, 2008) retrospective at Tate Modern that it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I start with the extraordinary breadth and range of Rauschenberg’s works that hits you as you wander through these galleries, almost in a stupor, marvelling at everything from film to bubbling mud baths, from taxidermied goats to unmade beds (ahem), and from pioneering silkscreen paintings to umbrellas?
Or do I perhaps start by way of explanation, that this is the first posthumous retrospective of a pioneer who radically challenged conventional thought and boundaries both in life and art, who moved effortlessly between painting, sculpture, photography, technology and performance, and infused his works with both a love of global culture and innovation, and political commentary?
Or perhaps do I instead start with plaudits for the team at the Tate for bringing together this, the most comprehensive survey of Rauschenberg’s career for over twenty years, and somehow managing to persuade institutions across the world to part with their Rauschenbergs, to loan them to this show, when so many of these works are evidently fragile and precious?
I don’t know where to start so pick one of the above and go with it, for I had to walk through this exhibition many, many times (which it was a privilege to do, btw) just to get my head around the dynamic energy, the radicalism, and the variety of all the works on show. I just felt dazzled and excited.
But in the opening gallery is a work I had longed to see for many years. Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, when Rauschenberg famously bought a drawing by Willem de Kooning – and then erased it. It was controversial at the time – de Kooning knew about it but was unhappy the paper was presented as a final work, considering it should have remained an ‘experiment’ behind closed doors – and it’s amazing that, what is effectively a blank piece of paper, can still hold power today. All these years later, it remains such a radical act.
And this spirit of turning tables and challenge flows through the whole exhibition. Yet never at the expense of brilliance.
Monogram, 1955-59 – the stuffed goat – is arguably Rauschenberg’s most famous work. And this show marks the first time in over fifty years that the piece has been seen in the UK. It’s as beautiful as it is bizarre – a goat in a tyre should be an odd combination yet here they seem perfect companions. And just behind that is Bed, 1955, where Rauschenberg has taken his pillow and duvet and treated them like a canvas, covering them in paint and pencil.
Rauschenberg looked to the world around him for the source of both his inspiration and the elements, the ingredients, that he would work with. There are street signs, vast sheets of tarnished aluminium, cardboard, and automatic fans.
Yet there is such harmony in these pieces. These aren’t clumsy or awkward – he blended these elements together beautifully. I particularly loved Charlene, 1954, which has so many different component parts – mirrors, wood, newspapers, and electricity. Yet he has swept them together in deep red hues and has fused them into a congruent single piece.
Yet occasionally all this reality was too much for some, and even sometimes for him, such as his rejected Time magazine cover which is on display here. He’d been asked to create a cover at the end of the 1960s to reflect the era. But it had been a depressing decade, and Rauschenberg’s submission, which reflected the assassination of liberal voices such as Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, and the escalation of war in Vietnam, was rejected.
Eventually you will manage to tear yourself away from the show, perhaps overwhelmed, perhaps excited. I wonder what you will take away from this show. But above all the excitement, energy and radicalism in Rauschenberg’s works, what has really stayed with me is the joy.
He clearly had a love for life, the world, and everything in it. This may be most evident in his works that came from his Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, a travelling exhibition in the 1980s, which included visits to Mexico, Chile, Cuba, the USSR, China and Tibet. Rauschenberg was so keen to capture the culture of these countries he visited in his works and this led to pieces such as Glut Data, 1986, of mangled Stop road signs, and Untitled (Spread), 1983, with umbrellas attached to a collage.
Rauschenberg saw art as a way of bridging deep cultural divides and political difference, as a means of bringing people together. He lived through difficult times. We are now in difficult times again (arguably, we never left). I hope that spirit can somehow be brought to life again. We need it, and we need art.
Tate Modern, London, to April 2, 2017
Admission: £18.50 (concessions available)
1. Monogram, 1955-59. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters. 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
2. Bed, 1955. Combine painting: oil, pencil, toothpaste, and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt (previously owned by the artist Dorothea Rockburne), and bedsheet mounted on wood supports. 191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Leo Castelli in honour of Aldred H. Barr, Jr. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
3. Untitled (Spread), 1983. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas. 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
4. Stop Side Early Winter Glut, 1987. Riveted metal road signs, car parts, and gas station signs. 109.9 x 116.8 x 86.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Marie-Josee and Henry R.Kravis © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence