Robert Rauschenberg

K20 Grabbeplatz

No one’s work has embodied what is fascinating about art as much as Robert Rauschenberg’s works of the ’60s did. His placement of real objects both in and in front of the image, his witty combinations of materials and media, represented a break with academic traditions of artmaking and produced an independent order of the image that seemed to affect a seamless union between art and life, the polar opposites the avant-garde strove so hard to unite.

In this survey of work, it was easy to place the early assemblages, like Quote, 1964, in relation to his later works from 1987–92, which were shown downstairs in the temporary exhibition galleries, and came from the series “Gluts,” 1986–88, “Shiners,” 1986–90, “Galvanic Suites,” 1988–90, and “Urban Bourbons,” 1988–92, among others. Arnim Zweite, the curator of this exhibition, believes these assemblages originated in Rauschenberg’s visit to Texas, the catastrophic economic situation there, and his artistic reaction to it. Or, as Rauschenberg said, “I just want to give these people a present from their ruins.” At another point Rauschenberg remarked that he was interested in the reality of surface, which is evident in these works and perhaps to a greater degree than he intended. The real objects are flattened out so that they no longer make reference to their previous function; they simply become parts of a stage set. The more recent works, such as Blind Rosso Porpora Glut (Neapolitan), 1987, or Balcone Glut (Neapolitan), 1987, seem to have lost their edge, relying on a simple deconstruction of binaries: horizontal and vertical, open and closed form, smooth and textured, dull and shiny.

Zweite also defines Rauschenberg’s method as a process of “registering, remembering, and combining.” The later works, however, follow a completely different path, comprised as they are of a loose connection of formal elements: spectacular stretchers (of copper or aluminum), technically complicated collage techniques, acid washes, a mirroring of strongly gestural sections, as well as numerous imagistic elements. The real objects, unorthodox juxtapositions, and layerings were a means of bridging the gap between internal and external reality—even of dissolving it. In the more contemporary works they become crutches. These seemingly disjunctive elements and their frequent repetition become nothing but an effort at legitimation through self-citation, a means of compensating for the arbitrariness of the structure.

A decisive element in Rauschenberg’s works was always the avoidance of the esthetic. The objects were forms and colors but also real objects that bridged the distance between the work and everyday life. Today Rauschenberg tries to achieve this effect by using mirrors. Mirrors were also used in his earlier works, such as in Icon, 1962. The mirror is only one of the elements he employs to expand the boundaries of the image, but his contemporary works fail to establish the necessary relationship between space and the viewer, between the world of real objects and the reality of the image. The mirroring is little more than a surface effect that does not really affect the image or the viewer’s perception of it.

Rauschenberg was once asked what his greatest fear was. He replied that it was the world becoming insufficient. It seems, however, that it is his art that has become insufficient. The grand statement in the press material about Rauschenberg’s works being designed to promote international understanding and peace is absurd in light of his view of the world as material and surface. Is this the culmination of the avant-garde’s dream?

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.