New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, Cooper Union

This documentary exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s contributions to performance works of various types included sets, costumes, audiotapes, photodocumentation, and written description of works from the period 1954–83. The material fell into three parts. The period during which Rauschenberg worked with Merce Cunningham (1954–65) was covered somewhat cursorily through photographs hung outside the gallery itself, in the hallway. His time with the Judson Dance Theater (1963–67)—when he created nine performance pieces of his own—was the central focus of the show. Rauschenberg’s recent attempts to revert to his original position of set and costume designer pure and simple, starting with a revived collaboration with Cunningham in 1977 and continuing through his recent design for the Trisha Brown Company (of which he is chairman of the board of trustees), formed an addendum.

The decision to focus on Rauschenberg’s own pieces from the mid ’60s was unquestionably the right one. As a subordinate collaborator Rauschenberg is just not impressive, hardly even credible, but for a while he was an important later carrier of the venerable performance tradition—Futurist, Constructivist, Dadaist, Surrealist—that more or less did it all before 1920, then fell into desuetude for 30 years or more. Rauschenberg’s major pieces of this type were represented richly, both by photographs and by objects redolent with the reality of their use and still fresh in their presence. In Spring Training, 1965, 30 turtles moved about the stage with flashlights attached to their backs, while women dressed in bridal veils and short white dresses passed out saltines among the audience. Rauschenberg wheeled a shopping cart of ticking clocks through the aisles while his son tore out the pages of a New York phone book rigged for sound to amplify the tearing noise enormously. Steve Paxton moved around with a large tin can attached to his knee and finally Rauschenberg, master of ceremonies in white dinner jacket, dropped dry ice into a bucket of water slung round his waist on a window-washer’s harness till all disappeared into a sorcerer’s mist while hula music played. Comments on the forced audience participation, introduction of random elements, antiesthetic gesture, and other classical themes of the ’20s avant-garde are unnecessary. The visitors to Cooper Union saw the can from Paxton’s knee, tore pages from a similarly amplified phone book, and fingered the bridal veils, while wondering where the saltines had gone—and where, for that matter, the turtles. The shopping cart filled with ticking clocks could be wheeled around as much as one liked.

And so it went. One saw the anklets with Coke cans that were filled with steaming dry ice while Rauschenberg, flashlights attached to his knees, walked about mysteriously in Map Room I, 1965; the word cards held up by four blindfolded men in tuxedos in Map Room II, 1965, forming sentences like “Myrna Loyis bearded hands” (the first man held up mostly proper nouns, the second verbs, the third adjectives, the fourth common nouns); part, not all, of Deborah Hay’s costume for Map Room II (it had live doves inside it once); the shoes embedded in Plexiglas made for Rauschenberg by Arman and echoed some years later by Laurie Anderson’s skates in ice, as well as the neon tube (like her bow) that he carried about while wearing them; and the amplified bedsprings that Trisha Brown rolled around on and that Paxton and Alex Hay rolled right over on automobile-tire shoes. From Linoleum, 1966, the last of the great pieces, one saw the 10-foot-long wheeled chicken coop in which Paxton, lying on his belly among live chickens, wheeled himself around the stage while Simone Forti, in an antique wedding dress and sitting on a throne, threw cooked spaghetti about.

As absurdist happenings Rauschenberg’s work during these years often surpassed that of more famous masters, eclipsed historically though it was by his artworks to be hung on walls. In the late ’60s the pieces distinctly lost vitality, becoming celebrity lists including everyone from Frank Stella to Brice Marden to Mel Bochner. Then, after a long hiatus (1967–77) during which Rauschenberg was occupied with other things, came the supposed collaborations of recent years, which on the whole might better not have happened.

Thomas McEvilley