Robert Rauschenberg liked to keep the television on. You’d see it in a corner of his studio, or a nearby room; no sound, no subtitles, just an endless parade of images on the screen. In its silence, the flow had little discernible content or logic, but that never bothered him. ‘I have a peculiar kind of focus,’ he said in 1958. ‘I tend to see everything in sight.’
At the time, Rauschenberg lived in New York and was working on the ‘Combines’ – large multimedia assemblages that bustled with two- and three-dimensional visual noise. (In Canyon, 1959, for instance, there are scraps of fabric, a photo of the artist’s son; a stuffed bald eagle looms out.) But in 1970, when he moved south to Captiva Island, just off the Florida coast, the artist began thinning his work, shearing it of density and weight. The ‘Cardboards’ (1971–72) are made of salvaged boxes; the ‘Jammers’ (1975–6), textiles from an Indian trip.
Rauschenberg’s next series was the ‘Spreads’ (1975–83), now on show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London. They recapture some old ground, halfway between East Coast fluster and Gulf Coast ease. To take Clipper (1979), one of the liveliest: the immediate draw is the newspaper pages, solvent-transferred onto large wooden panels and joined by pictures of surfboards, skater boys, piles of ripening fruit. But here are zones of off-white emptiness too, contented blanks where the ‘Combines’ would have lusted for paint. On the left panel of the composition, meanwhile, large pieces of vibrantly-coloured fabric sit in tidy parallel.
Rauschenberg told Leo Steinberg that he’d use a certain textile just because it was ‘lovely’, but the ‘Spreads’ were curated with a professional eye. The overlaps between photos are gentle, the transfers are sharp and clear, and you’re welcome to inspect each spread-out world as closely (or not) as you wish. Looking at Half a Grandstand (1978), I eventually worked out which Pioneer and Voyager missions took the pictures of Jupiter and Saturn; on the other hand, the ‘Fish ‘n’ Find Chart’ halfway up Untitled (1982) is still a funny little mystery to me.
The title of the series, ‘Spreads’, suggests various kinds of expansion. In 1977, Rauschenberg gave as definitions both large tracts of farmland and the act of stretching a thing out wide. (He added, less plausibly, ‘also the stuff you put on toast’.) Given the presence of clippings from newspapers and magazines, a more technical sense might be that of a print ‘spread’: two facing pages to be flattened out and read in tandem, their local visual rhythms simultaneously forming parts of a larger design.
This is how a work such as Clipper, several moods on a single board, exemplifies Steinberg’s concept of the ‘flatbed picture frame’, in which Rauschenberg’s big, busy assemblages are ‘work surfaces’, with their elements arranged in a studiedly informal way. The ‘Spreads’ can be seen as perpetual drafts, imaginary layouts with the luxury of never having to justify themselves to anyone else.
In the 1950s, the ‘Combines’ had the virtue of novelty, but the ‘Spreads’, I think, are richer. They combine their predecessor series with the supreme hallmark of maturity: being inquisitive but equanimous. Rauschenberg’s works are big Floridian daydreams, pictures of thinking left unresolved and much the happier for the irresolution. Facing a picture like Palladian Xmas (1980), with its wan electric light, its trailing cable, its cheap cloths and washboard and pictures of back-to-front clocks, I found it a glorious, many-minded, all-American mix. Not only did I like it, but I think I knew how Rauschenberg felt.
Robert Rauschenberg, 'Spreads' runs at Galere Thaddaeus Ropac, London, until 9 February 2019.
Main image: Robert Rauschenberg, Half a Grandstand (Spread), 1978, solvent transfer, fabric, acrylic, collage on plywood panels with objects, 183 × 640 × 5 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London/Paris/Salzburg © Robert Rauschenberg/DACS; photograph: Glenn Steigelman
First published in Issue 201