New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Between the photographic and printed works of 1949 and the “Combine Paintings” of 1954, Robert Rauschenberg traversed such a wide variety of media and techniques that an artist could mine an entire career out of any one aspect of his oeuvre. His art is a litmus test for the time, a reflection of his insatiable appetite for contemporary art. Rauschenberg not only visited the most influential and avant-garde galleries but frequented the Cedar Tavern and enrolled in Black Mountain College. Here, among the likes of Joseph Albers, Jack Tworkov, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, the art world was at Rauschenberg’s fingertips. Even in his earliest works, he appropriated, processed, digested, and reinvented the media and forms only then beginning to emerge in the most avant-garde work.

“Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950’s” began by introducing a series of photograms cast on blueprint paper (with Susan Weill) and these were followed by early photographs, paintings, and collages. Between the second and third rooms, one could see the transition from Rauschenberg’s first to second shows—between the work made immediately preceding and immediately following his one-person exhibition at Betty Parsons. The works evolve from the painterly white forms of circles and crosses to the reductivist “White Paintings,” 1951, made of completely uninflected white matte surfaces. This work’s radicality lay not only in its physical characteristics—its infinite repeatability and adaptability to any space or location, as well as the multiple potential combinations of the panels—but in its commentary on contemporary avant-garde art.

The “White Paintings” were a direct response to Barnett Newman’s monochromatic fields exhibited at Betty Parsons immediately prior to Rauschenberg’s own debut exhibition. Rauschenberg’s white surfaces reified the transcendent white void of the canvas’ background, by materializing it as the primary substance of the painting’s surface. The White Paintings were also impressionable: they were meant to acquire dust and reflect the shadows of people as they walked by them, like the shimmering shadows in Plato’s cave. As Rauschenberg himself later said, “They had to do with shadows and the projection of things in a room onto the blank whiteness.” Rauschenberg reinvented Newman’s vertical zips, which were symbolically equated with man, by activating the surfaces with the real presence of the spectator.

Having placed himself at the center of the New York avant-garde, Rauschenberg functioned as a sort of agent provocateur; always at war with the canon of both traditional artistic norms and avant-garde practices. The most infamous example is the neo-Dada manifesto of his Erased de Kooning, 1953. But many of his works were equally critical, if with a subtlety often lost on his contemporaries.

The exhibition read like an entire history of American and European postwar art, all the way through to post-Modernism. We saw paintings commingling Abstract Expressionist gestures and splatters, body prints, serial imagery, and comic and newsprint collages, as well as works that play through reductivist, materialist and informel agendas. Only by leaving nothing sacred was Rauschenberg able to put himself ahead of his artistic competition. At the time, his dissolution of artistic borders was truly conceptual painting. Today, young artists are often amazed to discover how Rauschenberg was copying them 40 years ago.

Kirby Gookin