New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Sonnabend Gallery

Like Jackson Pollock’s drips and splatters, Robert Rauschenberg’s art has been a kind of cultural graffiti, a gesture of defiance in which traditional ways of looking at the world are defaced. At the center of that art is a reproduction of the Old Masters which Rauschenberg has pasted onto his canvas and smeared over with paint. The campaign against figurative imagery begun there is continued in Rauschenberg’s latest project, which is a series of configurations of his own photographs placed edge to edge. There is in these new works no layering over or veiling of the photograph as there has been in the past. But the purpose in the arrangement of each group of prints is once again to obliterate the figurative. The literal description of reality that each photograph contains is submerged in the overall pattern of the grouping. The pictures’ individual meanings are swallowed up in the whole like chunks of rock in space whose mutual attraction forms a new planet.

The groupings are held together by a kind of visual free-association, and, at least in part, the experiment Rauschenberg conducts here is to see just how tenuous and slight he can make these associations. Rows of fluorescent tubes in a picture of a broken advertising sign metamorphose into the fault lines in a block of ice in the picture underneath. In a sequence of five pictures stacked one on top of another, the swirl pattern of a carpet in the top picture goes through sea changes in each picture below until it becomes a swerving print of a bicycle tire in the bottom photograph. Neither the photographs nor the associations are all in straight lines, however. In at least a couple of cases, the imagery in one photograph is cut out partially so that it extends beyond the edge of its own picture into the next. A towel on a clothesline suspended from a metal standard hangs down into the picture below it, one of its folds linking up with a tie rod jutting out of the broken concrete at a demolition site. A bicycle seat comes up from the picture below into proximity with a seat-shaped chunk of the concrete from which other tie rods radiate. The frame of the bicycle in the bottom picture is somehow reminiscent of the metal standard in the top picture.

In other configurations, the photographs have been put into crossing bands like the blacked-out spaces in a crossword puzzle. Sometimes a picture is curiously shaped with one oblique side. A picture whose sides don’t all meet at right angles, or whose imagery protrudes into the next picture, makes explicit a strategy that really underlies every one of these configurations. Rauschenberg wants to violate the edges, to destroy the four-square integrity of the individual photographs in each of the groupings he has made. The attempt to do this is seen as well in the associations of shapes established by the juxtapositions of the pictures. The juxtapositions alone violate the edges and make us lose our grasp on the particular realities the photographs represent. They become part of a new, purely esthetic reality.

The subjects of many of the photographs include crude hand-painted signs or textiles with muzzy, indistinct prints on them. The vagueness of these shapes is a corollary to the tenuousness of the associations on which Rauschenberg’s groupings are based. Yet in a sense his photographs have no content and certainly no iconography. The abstract game of shapes Rauschenberg plays here is all that’s going on. These works are exercises in formalism alone. As such, they are less than great. When played by a genius like Rauschenberg, a visual game is bound to be fascinating. But from talent of this magnitude, I would rather see more substantial work. The least beneficial aspect of Picasso’s heritage is the license his career seems to give all modern artists to spend a lot of time tossing off casual, minor projects, producing ephemera. It may be unfair to classify Rauschenberg’s configurations of photographs that way, but I still can’t help feeling that they are merely études. They tell us something about how the mind of an artist works, but I’m not sure that it’s anything terribly significant. That artists have a constant, nonchalant experience of the world as an analogy of forms, rather than as the everyday reality we see, goes without saying.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.