Los Angeles

Robert Rauschenberg

Dwan Gallery

One large combine-painting and a group of frottage-drawings constitute this show of quietly attractive post-Biennale, post-brouhaha work. The painting, “New York Bird Call for Oyvind Fahlstrom,” is a pastel-toned collage equipped with the lagniappe of several moveable parts, primarily three tiny, neatly plastic-covered canvases attached to the mother canvas by a long key-chain or hooks. The composition of the main canvas is based on more or less rectangular cut papers, each a separate image and each tidily stapled so as to cover the entire surface. The upper portion, a bird-scape, is plastered together in controlled tachistic disarray; the lower images—silk screened city scenes (some familiar from earlier work, some repeated in drawings in this show) and cloud formations—cut broader sections of the canvas and work against each other with irregular balance. One should note that this new work again contains objects, but of a tame, assimilable, and flat enough character to take them out of the “gap” and put them into a Cubistic order: a tube-ended hockey stick makes a useful diagonal across some birds; an attached trash can cover (folded and beaten flat) adds a double curve and texture, as well as one of several possible allusions to city sounds; isolated metal letters and numbers are absorbed into the collage surface with no trouble. The tiny sibling canvases have the effect of frisky decoration, rather than (as they might have, say, in Johns) the weight of philosophic statements about, for example, “the nature of the picture plane” or “the ambiguous relation of object to image.” The reference in the title is apparently to Fahlstrom’s phonetic bird calls in a work called “Sunrise” and the moveable parts presumably relate to the chance-oriented and Cage-influenced programming of that artist’s work. But since Rauschenberg’s basic format is fixed, he is only toying here with the idea of chance, rather than actually presenting thirteen ways of looking at a bird call—i.e., “the beauty of innuendoes” is chosen in preference to “the beauty of inflections.”

If the surface of the painting-combine is thick with the clustering of image and the physical density of collage, the drawings are, conversely, poetic in their tenuities. The combined effects of frottage, silk-screen, and occasional pale color make even the most crowded agglomerations of scientists, invoices, crowds, beer bottles, fruit, keys, Campbell soup ads, comic strips, juice cans, presidents, credit cards, faces in the crowd, government buildings, watches, and urban-in-need-of-renewal landscapes seem subtle, bodiless, and elegant. Silent interspaces muffle and grisaille effects dominate. These drawings have not much to do with either sensuous apprehensions of modern reality or social comment. If Rauschenberg does not believe that one should “mettre le coeur a nu,” neither does he eschew personality; these bodiless, flickering images have the Daguerre scent (not unpleasant) of nostalgia, and a way of rushing the documented present into the past.

Nancy Marmer