Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 https://adamkhan.net/rambles/its-a-somewhat-rauschenberg-world
hen a name starts popping up here there and everywhere I am grateful; the coincidences feel like the fates are speaking to me again and it would be sad if I ignored them. Recently that name has been Robert Rauschenberg, a seminal figure in modern art whom I confess I had not heard of up until a few months ago.
For a few weeks I had not left Brighton, working on a job in my cabin and fetching and bringing kids. I needed a bit of time and refreshment. Tate Modern, I set myself on. So I was walking towards it on the Millennium Bridge in the fog and saw the big sign atop the iconic museum: “See Rauschenberg”. Of course. Turns out it’s the biggest retrospective of his work since his death in 2008. They’re moving it to New York in May — London got it first.
I perform my exhibition ablutions. I’d had no breakfast and decide to keep it that way, eating only the warm candied almonds and peanuts bought on the bridge — nuts agree with me. Then a coffee at one of the museum cafes after the annoyance of being snubbed in the queue by the servers. Then a decision: this exhibition — just this particular one, mind — warrants a mild tobacco rush. I went hunting around for a newsagent to buy some, and eventually did. One little roll-up standing on the leave-strewn grass outside hit the surprisingly insistent spot.
A visit to the unisex museum toilet and I was in. First room: “Experimentation” I think it’s called. The refrain in my mind: “Alas, it speaks to me not.” There’s a somewhat interesting big blue painting of two figures superimposed. All in all, tat and rubbish.
Second room. A big brown collage with an explosion of colors and Lady Liberty small at the bottom right and it’s comprised of separate frames combined. No, “composed” seems a better word; it has proportions. A circular fan dominates at the top right. Charlene. I end up buying a postcard of this one, and use it to illustrate this article. But also in this room is Dirt Painting for John Cage and I think: “Honestly…” with an internal eye roll as big as I can muster. A work is unworthy of all involved when it requires being in a gallery with others and having a famous name on its label to warrant any attention beyond that of the person sweeping up.
Third Room. Another collage — combines, he called them — and I love this one with a necktie, Rhymes. It’s 1956 and it’s great.
The stuffed goat in Monogram. Well, I don’t like it, I just don’t like this use of animals, like Damien Hirst’s. It’s unacceptable. Flippant. Unserious. Disgusting. Inconsiderate. Exploitative. Disreputable. He has splashed paint on the goat’s face. He trafficks in indignity; why oh why not a stuffed man? Or a child? This I might grudgingly respect. It’s like the transgressive bravery of mocking Mormons and Christians but fearing to even publish cartoons of Mohammad because Muslims will actually react. I do wish upon the artist a similar fate after death when I see such works. He could not have asked the goat for its permission so he should not have assumed it was granted. With this, it seems to me, the artists, who are supposed to be our betters, are no better — and indeed worse because their task is to set the example — than commercialists who profit from the organized suffering. Sculpt a sculpture if you want to venerate that lovely round tuggy behind, you unskilled poseur. And the random tire around it. Happen to have one lying around, did you? Ah well, it’s only a goat, there are millions more.
In Rauschenberg’s defence there is the Akedah / Binding of Isaac argument that the artist is illustrating my point, showing the indignity of trafficking in other animals, in treating them like inanimate objects. In Genesis:22 our protagonist Abraham (just about) performs child sacrifice in order for us to be shown child sacrifice is not okay. But I don’t buy it. You are no Abraham, sir.
Another collage: the sock and parachute. My first impression is that it’s daft, redeemed by the visual balance up top with the dripping paint and cut-out image of sheep. I guess back then dripping paint was a fabulous breaking of taboo, and I get that, and it’s impressive. And the parachute’s strings drooping off the frame is genius, as is the painting’s main emptiness. Interesting that I was about to say “image” but these paintings are more than images.
Gift for Apollo is another outrage. Initially it is a detestable thing, the world’s worst, slowest-looking chariot. Another necktie in here — a motif, it seems. Of anything? It is certainly a nice shape. Maybe being the 1950s where these were probably more of a uniform than now it was a reaction against them and an effort to denigrate their role around people’s necks. There’s a bucket chained to the thing — oh what a clatter it would make if it were to ever heave along. What a big shouted-out “fuck you” to the gods, ancient though they may be. (Cowardice again, since there are no more ancient Romans?)
Short Circuit maintains Americana and even has someone else’s painting within — what an outrageous arrogant appropriation of someone else’s inferior work, I think, but the label explains instead that it was in fact his generous way of sneaking his friend’s work into an exhibition, by making it part of his. This may be so. This man may be beloved and nice. But that’s history outside the art that can disappear. The fact is, an actual painting by someone else is utilized as a found object in one of his Combines. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, eh.
Bed is cute but ultimately the quilt is a bit ratty for me to enjoy this in the living room. No wonder they cover the thing with acrylic — for us, not for it.
Factum II. This is the first one — I mean two — that I love instantly. I love it philosophically. This is the same painting twice, but the subtle differences are absolutely everywhere, because this is a painting. It’s so alive, so unlike the spot-the-difference children’s games on the iPad.
I’ve lost track of room numbers. Ace is huge and holy moly, it really is ace. This one feels like it is a fabulous living room itself. I do love Gold Standard, which is a Japanese screen painted gold while the artist was on live Japanese television. At first glance it seems too disparate to be a work — something sticks out front like the cantilever and there’s something else on the floor in front of it, but within a few moments when you get your head around it all being a single work, a supremely elegant composition arises. Emptiness; balance; this is the West learning the gracefulness of emptiness from the East that until modernism it so sorely lacked, compelled to fill everything to the brim. There are six panels, and only half of one of them is full.
I feel my own limitation as I view, that all I am able to glean here is balance and proportion; surely there is much more at play. Well, there is texture, physicality. But again, these seem to me to only serve the repose. He has acquired his aesthetic values and there is no end to how he can let them play out in each new work. Though in this same room are Pantomime with two actual electric fans sticking out of the thing; and First Time Painting. And I don’t love either of these and am beginning to tire of the whole found objects thing. One Way is fun with numbers. But all this aesthetizing of everyday stuff makes me think that he should perhaps have been an architect. Well I suppose we maybe didn’t need another architect but did need someone to build a bit of a bridge between architecture and painting.
The labels explain that the artist tired of the Combines, it got too easy, he could churn them out on stage — Gold Standard was the final one — and it’s well-timed because we are a bit tired of it too. So it’s to the silkscreens, and the usage of images rather than objects as the components. This is less elemental perhaps, less physical; we are moving away from the grinding physicality of WW2 and into the image-dominated televised world of the 1960s and he is at the vanguard of this wave. Scanning is a corker, with an image of dancers backed by an antenna dish separated by a splash of blue paint and balanced up top with a triptych of mosquito images. Kite is a patriotic extravaganza, making the most of the exquisite shape and path of an army helicopter transporter, and perhaps a farewell to a previous more heroic time. The companion Tracer is more grounded, more busy and I like it less, though maybe because I come to it after Kite. Next to them is Retroactive II, the iconic one of JFK at the podium and his wiggling hand floating in whitewash and I think he has already been shot when this is made, and it’s inexplicable but I think this image is one for the ages and although I don’t think I ever saw it before I am guessing that I am pretty typical and my recent exposure to it reflects the larger culture’s popularization of it and it will stay. It owes much to pop (or is it the other way around?) but also seems more serious and grounded than pop.
On the perpendicular wall are a series of other silkscreens and one of them has a classical painting of a woman in a mirror, the sort of yawny stuff from before the advent of the steam engine.
In the next room there are videos of dance — something completely different — but it’s so tedious that I’d rather look at the metal grooves in the museum bench. (Perhaps this is a sign of the artist’s success, as he has awakened the viewer to the fascination of utiltarian objects?) Also a big installation of bubbles in mud because he was such a collaborator and apparently people wanted to work with him, and he certainly lived a life in full: his New York studio, wife and family, homosexual lovers, traveling the world with a dance troupe, then moving to the Caribbean. But I think he moves on to other things because he bores of what he’s doing because it is a tad… boring? How many decades of meaning can be squeezed out of pieces of junk?
Well, there’s a final hurrah in Material Abstraction with wall sculptures made of regular old cardboard boxes, and I like these. The Indian canvasses are boring because they are just Indian canvasses, but Albino Jammer with four poles painted partially white to complement the white textile is beautiful. And Sunset Glut, a crumpled car dashboard with yellow strips of metal is some glorious devastation.
“Final Works”. This room deserves a sit-down. The artist died in 2008 but was working right up to the end. A big one Untitled from 2006 is elegant as always but now cold; well, he’s soon to leave. And I love the final big one, so rich; two ice creams not three, another necktie, quiet Americana, and a fanfare of bloody well everything, elephants, an illustrated tiger, a child’s swing, and a New York fire engine.
Clearly this is a man who contributed to the modern aesthetic that today we take as natural. I suppose I must join everyone else in forgiving him the goat, as we seem to forgive all people involved in animal exploitation. I’m grateful to live in a milieu shaped at least somewhat by the aesthetic that Rauschenberg pioneered: rustic modern, for want of a better term (though his found objects go beyond the rustic): amalgamated rough physical objects aesthetized by exquisite balance or by their machine-facilitated geometric perfections.