Gallery visit: Robert Rauschenberg

10th January 2017, Tate Modern, London

I must admit that I knew very little of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) before my visit to this exhibition at Tate Modern. But what an exhibition – a first comprehensive retrospective since his death which tells the story of an amazing artist whose impact on Western art in the latter half of the C20th cannot be underestimated. I came away excited and energised by his energy and creativity and ways of looking at life.

The works are displayed chronologically and each room displays a particular technique or mode of working. All indicate Rauschberg’s fascination with and attempts to make contact with the energy and contingency of everyday life through his restless and tireless experimentation with material ‘things’.

This contact involved collaboration with others, for example in his early career, with Cy Twombly the American painter, sculptor and photographer and the the American abstract artist Willem de Kooning. It also involved an interesting and inclusive contact with the viewer.

An artwork’s significance should bot be limited to the specific intentions or personal felings of the artise….What interests me is a contact, it is not to express a message.Art should demand more from the viewer than recognition and understanding – serving to complcate and intensify perception, keeping mental habits limber and dynamic.” Robert Rauschenberg quoted by Krcma, E Rauschenberg 2016 Tate Introductions

This denial of self-expression and concern to encourage and challenge the viewer’s own perception is demonstrated in his series of White Paintings 1951 canvasses painted in pristine white. their purpose, “Was to heighten the viewer’s minute and contingent activity of the world, usually passing beneath the threshold of perception“. (Quoted in Krcma 2017) Rauschenberg also employed irreverent and iconoclastic tactics to engage dynamically with the viewer. An example is the infamous, Erased De Kooning Drawing 1953, in which over many weeks he erased a drawing that, by arrangement, De Kooning had provided but that Rauschenberg subsequently exhibited as his own work. This iconoclastic move he claimed, “…was nothing destructive. I unwrote that drawing because I was trying to write one with the other end of the pencil… to use the eraser as a drawing tool“. Krcma (2016) comments that Rauschenberg  “As well as posing questions about the nature of authorship , skill and artistic creation as such, Rauschenberg was clearly weighing his own artistic identity in relation to that of the previous generation“. The previous generation being abstract expressionism; he wanted to move out from the likes of De Kooning and Pollock.

From 1954 developed his Combines, large paintings covered with discarded materials, often from skips or tips, which were affixed to the canvas and painted over. Unlike traditional collage or montage where each element is part of the whole, in Combines each material element exists in its own right, remains itself.

Charlene, 1954

In Charlene,above, he has included some reflective material. It was fascinating and fun to see myself reflected in this and for a short time to be part of a Rauschenberg work in an exhibition at Tate Modern!

In the 60’s he turned to another method of making pictures, silkscreen, inspired by a visit to Andy Warhol’s workshop.These enabled him to transfer and enlarge a wide range of photographic material  together with patches of oil paint, mixing abstract and representational elements, which became bold symbols celebrating and offering for reflection many facets of contemporary American life, (see Retroactive II 1964).


Rauschenberg continued to experiment with these an many other methods in the 70s and 80s – high tech installations, set designs, photography, metalwork and discarded materials. In the 1980s he was involved in considerable world travel creating artistic dialogues with other countries, including some with repressive governments,  in what became The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange. He saw this as using the potential of art to communicate across  cultural or political divides.

One of the works I especially liked, possibly because of its resonances with today’s threat of climate change and the ongoing uncertain economic conditions was from a series called Gluts inspired by the oil crisis and socio-economic decline in his home state of Texas.It is made discarded metal parts of the motor industry, gas stations, car parts etc. I was touched by it because my father was a second hand car salesman for much of his working life and there was an ongoing conversation during my childhood about cars, prices, breakdowns, components, customers etc at a time when many people were aspiring to their first car.He is my pen and wash version of Sunset Glut 1987


In 2002 Rauschenberg suffered a stoke but continued to make art until the latter stages of his life. Photography became increasingly important to him and using  digital image storage and the newer technologies of inkjet and laser printing.

Rauschenberg’s work between and across media, his engagements with new technologies, and his drive to engage the social, cultural and political conditions of an emergent globalised wold all have powerful resonances for today. Krcma 2016


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