As the Royal Academy of Art closes the doors on the magnificent Abstract Expressionism exhibition on January 2nd, it seems fitting that an abstract-expressionist artist who didn’t appear with Pollock, Rothko and Kline, is celebrated in a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern.
In fairness, Robert Rauschenberg was an artist who didn’t fit comfortably in a single movement. His busy silkscreen prints provided a contrast with the clean, bold Warhol images that defined the Pop Art era. He worked with avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer and modern dance pioneer, Merce Cunningham. His expressive and innovative use of material and paint places him within both the Neo-Dada and Abstract Expressionist movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Rauschenberg couldn’t be stuffed into a one-movement show as he spanned so many, refusing to follow any rules or conventions that went before.
Rauschenberg is an exhibition that spans his entire career. Beginning with his bold, challenging experiments at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, his work dips in and out of the multiple periods in 20th Century art, until his death in 2008. Josef Albers, a student of the Bauhaus, was his teacher and he paved the way for Rauschenberg’s exploration of material and form. Rauschenberg’s glorious “Combines” challenges our definition of painting and sculpture. Whether he has wooden planks, jutting out the frame, or umbrellas, fans and suitcases connected by a small wire, Rauschenberg refused to be limited by the rules of composition.
His constant connection to the burgeoning art world meant that influential figures would directly impact on Rauschenberg’s creations. Willem de Kooning, for example, is raised up and then deconstructed in Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Though not completely blank, its absence of art nevertheless connects to John Cage’s famous 4’33’’, and its absence of sound, from 1952. Rauschenberg’s relationship with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns also impact on the control and composition of his paintings. Yoicks (1954), a mixed-media painting of red and yellow horizontal lines, cannot help but recall Jasper Johns well-known Flag (1954-55) of the same time.
But, as we draw to the end of such a tumultuous year, Rauschenberg’s passion and inclusion of the upheavals he experienced are worth analysing and comparing to our current crisis. Some of his most vivid pieces include the TV-still of assassinated president John F. Kennedy. Both Retroactive I (1964) and Retroactive II (1963) display JFK, strong and powerful, in the years following his death. To imagine this period in America is difficult to comprehend, yet Rauschenberg proudly acknowledges and mourns this historical moment. His later pieces, enormous sculptural collages, from The Gluts Series 1986-1989/1991-1994, are metallic creatures built by a selfish need for excess. The Gluts Series were in response to the 1980’s oil crisis of Texas, and it serves as another reminder of our destructive and self-centred needs in the Western world.
Rauschenberg stated in 1985, “It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant… I want to present people with their ruins”. In 2016, we can see how greed has created monsters, and the warning signs were already picked out of the trash decades before. We are now faced with what we laughed at, now leading the free world. Through their votes, those that were left behind have presented themselves – and we must acknowledge their place in our world. The ruins have risen and we have to recognise the rampant greed that has dominated our culture.
The Robert Rauschenberg exhibition is on at the Tate Modern until 2 April 2017
This was originally written for Culturefly in December 2016