New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Leo Castelli and Sonnabend Galleries

Coinciding with his Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Robert Rauschenberg’s downtown show of new work was retrospective as well. Rauschenberg’s recent Scales and Spreads are large assemblages that incorporate virtually all the categories of images and objects we know from his pictures of the early and middle ’60s. A necessarily abbreviated list would include anatomical diagrams, athletes, birds and birds’ wings, celebrities, chairs, electronic circuitry, ladders, light bulbs, oars, boats and sails, tires and exotic animals. That Rauschenberg should return to these items is significant, since they had grown faint and intangible as of his Hoarfrost series, and had virtually disappeared (though they were remotely alluded to) in his Jammers group.

This is not to say that Rauschenberg has backtracked; in fact, a good deal of what characterized the Hoarfrosts and Jammers has been synthesized with his primary imagery in the Spreads and Scales; the general style of Jammers has been used to frame and contextualize the famous birds, light bulbs, athletes, etc. Thus broad, vacant sheets of linen and satin are the surfaces on which a page from the Times is silkscreened, or to which a country mailbox is affixed. These luxurious fabrics stand for the present in Rauschenberg’s work, which has gradually given over its earlier melancholy to a kind of purity paradoxically achieved through affluence; the opulent present dominates the past. In the Spreads and Scales Rauschenberg’s thickly layered collages are confined as vignettes to parts of the larger constructions—sectioned off by swaths of fabric so that, like objects of memory, we may leave and return to them freely.

Memory is represented here in another way as well. Rauschenberg has set mirrors at angles to a number of the Spreads and Scales so that a reflection of a piece becomes a part of that piece. He uses polished metal rather than glass, so that the image is not sharply literal, but vague and insubstantial in degrees that vary with different points of view. Rauschenberg treats other objects in a comparable manner. His light bulbs, for instance, are brand new, are not frosted but transparent, and hang in pristine brass fixtures from freshly made cords. The pathetic, forlorn, encrusted bulbs of his work of 15 years ago have thus been redressed in the richness of the present. Unmarred by use, they are foreign objects that would have to be battered in order to be owned. Memory, which improves the past while holding it in storage, nevertheless fails to deter us from retrospective longing and from the sense that the present is too strange to live in.

In the Spreads and Scales Rauschenberg not only reminisces about his personal history but about the history of his period. The works are filled with his contemporaries’ stylistic idiosyncrasies, suffused and re-presented in the silken sheen which is Rauschenberg’s own. Lichtenstein’s dots appear a number of times, as do graphs, and amiably satirical versions of Stella’s stripes. In Narcissus Convoy, a row of mirror-backed silk pillows gestures obliquely at Johns’ Target with Four Faces. All these references are swept in together, along with Rauschenberg’s old imagery. Because of their magnificent size and craftsmanship, the Spreads and Scales seem to signify the end, and the capping, of an era. The Jammers marked Rauschenberg’s achievement of recognition and affluence and his overcoming of melancholy; competition, antagonism and uncertainty are now forsworn as well. The current show is a summation, a finale at which everyone is present.

I suspect that, consciously or unconsciously, Rauschenberg has deliberately produced a retrospective of his own to stand beside MoMA’s retrospection on him. The Spreads and Scales are a recapturing, a re-presentation of the past. They constitute a man’s own retelling of his story, as opposed to the public’s historicizing of it.

Leo Rubinfien