New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Castelli Gallery downtown and Sonnabend Gallery

Robert Rauschenberg is entering his third decade of artistic prominence. He continues the practice which first achieved that prominence, appropriating the images and objects of life directly into art. The work remains a seductive accumulation of familiar materials, objects, and images from magazine, newspapers, postcards and occasionally other art. In this most recent exhibition, held in the spaces of both Castelli downtown and Sonnabend, Rauschenberg combines cloth and objects into wall pieces, extending the possibilities of a few works seen last year in a Castelli show shared with Cy Twombly. Using a chemical solution, he transfers his usual selections from the popular press to silk, satin, and semitransparent nylon, layering them over each other, cardboard and more strongly colored, striped or dotted pieces of fabric. Sometimes he transfers crumpled, folded pages from the Wall Street Journal to create a gray, creviced, crazy-quilt pattern. Often a pillow or a small box is placed behind or between the layers, causing the fabric to protrude or swell gently outward. Hanging from few tacks, the translucent fabric makes the materials drift and sag, seeming to float through the various layers. Rauschenberg has long worked with the layering of semitransparent fabrics and images, all usually embedded in the surfaces of paintings. In these works it seems as if he has simply eliminated the relatively heavy canvas support. The new works seem lifted off the surfaces of old ones, and the layered imagery now droops in actual space. This makes many of the new pieces less visual than earlier ones, while increasing the importance of the images. The images are the most tangible part. Often only their graphic imprint makes their fabric ground visible. The narrow vertical proportions of many pieces and the pillows bring to mind a specific earlier work: the painted linens and quilt of Bed of 1955. But the pieces, in their immateriality, seem more like enlarged, slightly washed-out versions of earlier drawings.

The best pieces are those which give us something to get hold of: a strong color or pattern, some tangible material, a deliberate kind of composition. In one of these a “T” configuration is formed by two satin rectangles printed with images. Over the vertical section is a piece of cheesecloth; they are sewn together midway down creating a bag. This fact is made clear by a rope which extends from the lower-left corner of the top section, droops down and ends coiled up in this pocket, forcing the cheesecloth forward. Other pieces using cardboard, paper bags, a strong marigold yellow and a red and white striped fabric are also somewhat more assertive than most in the exhibition. Too often the pieces form large sagging rectangles which drift and fade into grayness. Images blend together as the entire exhibition blends together offering only slight variations on the same indistinct floating grayness. With few exceptions, the work lacks either the physical tautness of Rauschenberg’s earlier paintings or Combines, or the light fineness of his drawings; most look like limp material trying to look immaterial.

Rauschenberg’s work has always looked a little unfinished—a quality which brings him close to much Abstract Expressionist work, which he initially parodied. He involves us in his work by making us feel that it is in a vital, almost transitory state; a second ago none of this was art and now it all is. Part of that vitality is the exuberance with which he accepts the things he sees around him, using them in ways that sometimes, although less and less, make us see them anew. But similarly this exuberance is a lack of self-criticism, and Rauschenberg has chronically accepted, much too tolerantly, the products of his creative activity. This exhibition would have been much more interesting one-third its size. As it is, one suspects that in the attempt to fill the cavernous spaces of Castelli and Sonnabend, spaces that could accommodate a small museum retrospective, Rauschenberg has let more out of his studio than he should have.

Roberta Smith