In the first room of Tate Modern’s rich and strange Robert Rauschenberg show – the first major survey since the artist’s death in 2008 – there is an unobtrusive photograph that pointed to his work’s amazing lightness and brio. Taken in 1952, it shows the composer John Cage sitting in a 1920s Model A Ford. The composer is in profile, half turned away, hardly there. The photograph is really all about the twin aspirant curlicues of the car’s gleaming door handles: the sort of mundane, available matter and form that, time and again, insists in Rauschenberg’s extraordinarily diverse and genial art.
The following year, the pair made made Automobile Tire Print: a 22-foot-long streak of black house paint on typewriter paper, laid down by the Model A’s tyres. It’s a pivotal work for both artists: a sportive index of everyday movement and duration, from which intention and touch have been subtracted. A year or so after Automobile Tire Print, the poet Frank O’Hara famously called Rauschenberg ‘the enfant terrible of the New York school’. By which he meant: the artist who was overturning abstract expressionism before its very principals had quite done with it; who, in the same instant, seemed to push the new painting beyond itself, subject it to antic parody and shrug off the whole profound and athletic painterly adventure. What a tireless and varied 1950s Rauschenberg had. At Tate Modern, there is one example of the large-scale blueprint photographs he made with his wife Susan Weil. There are drawings and prints from the end of his time at Black Mountain College, where he first met Cage and Merce Cunningham. And there are sly, delicate sculptures he made while travelling with Cy Twombly in 1952. These last, the Scatole Personali (Personal Boxes), have a blithe demeanour inherited from Duchamp’s readymades, but a sinisterly ritual aspect too, their interiors bristling with thorns and pins and desiccated bugs.
Of course the real drama, then as now, is happening on the walls. If he had done nothing else in the 1950s, Rauschenberg would surely be valued today for his divergent takes on the painted monochrome. The seven vertical panels of his White Painting (1951) inspired Cage to devise 4’33” (1952); the composer thought of such paintings as ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow – like his own ‘silent’ work, they were anything but vacant. The monochrome for Rauschenberg was as much an invitation as an affront. When he asked Willem de Kooning for a work he might erase, it was in a spirit of collaboration and admiration. Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is at Tate Modern too, along with an infrared image of the original composition. The unworked work, which consumed several weeks and over 40 erasers, is less an anti-art or neo-dada gesture than it is a spectral tribute, a sedulous act of exaltation.
As O’Hara noted, the enfant terrible had also ‘a gentle and just passion for moving people’. The second room in the exhibition is devoted to colour and included Rauschenberg’s black monochromes, made of oil paint-soaked newspaper slapped onto canvas: though all evidence of the artist’s brushstroke has vanished, the wrinkles in the paper have the status of sublime events, voids roiling inside the void. But it was in his ‘Red Paintings’ (1953–54) that Rauschenberg properly began to sunder his canvases and insert all manner of materials, including articles of clothing, mirrors and reflectors, electric lights and prior works of his own or Weil’s. ‘A pair of socks’, he said at the time, ‘is no less suitable to make a painting than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric.’ As so regularly in Rauschenberg’s best work, a painting such as Charlene (1954), with its exuberant central panel of abstract marks and its competing compartments made of so much stuff, completes a tendency in his work, killing it off with a flourish and issuing a reckless demand for more – more and different.
The ‘Red Paintings’ established what Brian O’Doherty later called Rauschenberg’s ‘vernacular glance’. The artist himself said: ‘My interest wasn’t so much in rubbish as it was in […] availability.’ The available found its happy apogee in the next phase of his production: the ‘Combines’ that occupied him from the mid-1950s until the mid-’60s. Having energized and freed the wall-hung painting so that it dispatched electric fans and stuffed birds into the gallery’s airspace, Rauschenberg now flipped the picture plane to become a horizontal, flatbed platform for sculptural invention and gleaning. A lot of this work is open and inviting, but the most remarkable piece is the most esoteric and self-involved. Monogram (1955–59) is the equivocal heart of the Tate show: a floor-bound collage of oil paint, fabric, reproduced magazine pages, rubber, metal and wood, on which stands a stuffed Angora goat with a painted face, encircled by a black and white tyre. We know that Rauschenberg spent four years trying to find a role for the silvery goat, a way in which it could truly inhabit a work: the resulting Combine has the unexpected effect of keeping the viewer at a distance, as though approaching some gorgeous, doomed ceremonial beast.
If Monogram is the real (though occulted) pivot of this broadly chronological show, the avowed centre was a room full of Rauschenberg’s better-known silkscreens of the 1960s. These are well represented and given adequate space: from the monumental black and white Crocus (1962) to the JFK-astronaut-old-master mashup of Retroactive II (1964). A room devoted to Rauschenberg’s work in performance and his collaborations with the likes of Trisha Brown, Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer feels, by contrast, constrained and oddly austere, so that you have to struggle among the archive photographs and documents to properly compass the wit and invention of his choreographic excursions. I found myself ignoring the Jean Tinguely-influenced sculptural gathering Oracle (1962–65), which dominate the space, and poring instead over typewritten programmes, looking for moments of eccentric joy in works such as Elgin Tie (1964): Rauschenberg descending via rope from a skylight, pausing to munch a sandwich and ending up in a barrel, while a cow wandered past.
It is easier, in fact, to get a sense of the Apollonian wit of Rauschenberg’s dance experiments in a room devoted to his 1970s work with fabric and cardboard. In Travelogue, for example – a 1977 collaboration with Cunningham – the dancers become so many mere effectors of multicoloured pleats and veils. Rauschenberg had left New York for Florida in 1971 and found a new seam or skein of the lightness that is everywhere in his work, but perhaps less visible in the politically heated (and fame-filled) late 1960s. Now he made his ‘Jammers’ – banners of coloured fabric, much of it Indian, named for the sails of ‘Windjammer’ merchant ships – and ‘Hoarfrosts’: solvent transfers onto vast gauzy fabrics, which recall his illustrations for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c.1308–20) from the late 1950s. He returned to indifferent, available materials, this time with an environmentally clued-in edge: his arrangements of subtly coloured found cardboard boxes are among the spare delights of the latter part of the show. Rauschenberg carried on, of course, rediscovering photography and making his assertive ‘Glut’ (1986–89/1991–94) sculptures out of garish scrap metal. But the fabric works of the 1970s, serenely arrayed here, seemed like the definitive late statement of his joyous strain of discovery and invention. As O’Hara put it in his poem ‘For Bob Rauschenberg’: ‘paper rubbed against the heart/and still too moist to be framed.’
Main image: Robert rauschenberg, Triathlon (Scenario) (detail), 2005, inkjet dye transfer on polylaminate, 2.2 x 3.1 m. Courtesy: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York