Houston

View of “Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces,” 2007, Menil Collection, Houston. Center: Robert Rauschenberg, Castelli/Small Turtle Bowl (Cardboard), 1971. Photo: Paul Hester.

View of “Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces,” 2007, Menil Collection, Houston. Center: Robert Rauschenberg, Castelli/Small Turtle Bowl (Cardboard), 1971. Photo: Paul Hester.

Robert Rauschenberg

The Menil Collection

BORIS KARLOFF IN THE MUMMY. Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Whether inspired by such luminous Hollywood hieroglyphs or (according to Menil director Josef Helfenstein) by a book given to him by Marian B. Javits, wife of the New York senator, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Early Egyptians,” 1973–74, the series ending his cardboard-related works, all quietly glimmer in a gaudy twilight, due to Day-Glo pigment painted on their backsides in orange, yellow, pink, green, violet; situated near the edges of a room, as they were last spring in the Menil Collection’s “Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces,” the sculptures wallflower and radiate. Such artificial sunsets bare sculpture’s solar anus (which many still don’t know what to do with), complicating rote frontality with liminal crepuscular space. Oscar Wilde observed that actual sunsets only flaunt the worst faults, exaggerated and overemphasized, of art; Rauschenberg, having it both ways, sets the mood with Tinseltown special effects and budget magic, slapping the natural on the wrist for its longueurs while making Dan Flavin’s contemporaneous, plugged-in effects look strenuous (and so unecological).

In Untitled (Early Egyptian), 1973, any gaps or seams in the slightly off-kilter stack of five unevenly sized boxes have been occluded by careful mummy swaddling, strips of what appears to be cheesecloth or gauze encrusted with sand, nature’s diamond dust dimly sparkling. Neatly wrapped in sabulous bandages, at times with a bow, like a present or Jackie O. (her early ’70s hiding-behind-scarves-and-glasses look), the column is adorned with a headdress or wig of a bolster—assembled from patterned fabric, red-checked and polka-dotted—which droops over the edges of the top box, a sad, unlikely brioche. Almost hugging the wall, the untitled work activates sibylline, antifreeze-green atmospherics in the no-man’s-land behind it; the happy fact that the sculpture’s back and the backstage goings-on can’t easily be accessed only emphasizes their importance, as if revealing a hitherto untapped pleasure principle, neither simply sculptural, relational, or gestalt, capturing something not easily broached in human language. At a moment when Conceptualism preened, Rauschenberg materialized the mute moods and zones of things.

Sadly, the Menil’s exhibition, which was organized by Helfenstein, included only three “Early Egyptians.” Laid out chronologically, the show opened with the “Cardboards,” 1971–72, the first series Rauschenberg completed after leaving New York and moving to Captiva, Florida. Next the artist experimented with the limits of verisimilitude: The “Cardbirds” of 1971–72 echo the “Cardboards” but are in fact “original collage prints . . . hand-screened, hand-made and hand-assembled,” as described in the mail-order catalogue of Gemini G.E.L., which created the works in collaboration with the artist; the “Tampa Clay Pieces,” 1972–73, uncannily resembling readymade cardboard, are ceramic. Later Rauschenberg would make “Cardbirds” out of bronze as well. For the “Venetians” and, finally, the “Early Egyptians,” he returned to the original found material. Many of the thirty-five works on display at the Menil still belong to Rauschenberg himself. (Unwanted? Unconsidered, or inconsiderable?) While the installation was straightforward, it was also enthralling: Other than the infrequent, piecemeal appearance of select objects in survey contexts, the works had never been seen together since their first gallery presentations in the early ’70s. The cardboard series have become my favorite works of Rauschenberg’s, and among them the “Early Egyptians” in particular—although the exuberant audacity of the Combines, whose referential invention and pack-rat intensity these later works deconstruct with seemingly nonchalant abandon, makes it difficult to choose.

In his essay for the fine, comprehensive catalogue that accompanies the show, Yve-Alain Bois writes that the “Cardboards” address three contexts: “[Rauschenberg’s] own past production, modernism in general, and the contemporary scene.” Regarding the last, Bois cites a 1972 review by Robert Pincus-Witten, which “mentioned Dorothea Rockburne, who had been the artist’s assistant,” and continues: “But he could have named Mel Bochner as well (then Rockburne’s companion, and also a friend of Rauschenberg), for this artist used corrugated cardboard as a superlatively workmanlike material (a ‘material-is-not-the-issue’ material) in both his Standard and Measurement series of 1969.” Bois blandly concludes that these works “provoke us, in celebrating the humblest and most conspicuous material, to be more attentive to our surroundings.” I take this analysis as a proper—to the point of piety—dominant mode of current art-historical exegesis and wonder what it disregards. The “Cardboards” and related pieces number eighty-seven mostly large works done over a three-year period. William Blake found the world, with much less trouble, in a single grain of sand . . . and the sand around Captiva is, um, plentiful.

The cardboard works are containers for nothing, recalling almost everything, literally and metaphorically: not only Rauschenberg’s past or other artists’ works, but all the other stuff—fruits, trade goods, cleaning products; their union-sanctioned and illicit transports; the various commodifications complicating art’s raison d’être. For example, the staple-and-cardboard-scrap-dappled left side of Castelli/Small Turtle Bowl (Cardboard), 1971, balances an almost unblemished right side displaying the warehouse address for the LEO CASTELLI GALLERY, negotiating the blurred and blurring signs of public (art dealing, artmaking, and art shipping) and private (along with owning kinkajous, Rauschenberg had a pet turtle, Rocky, whose name adds resonance to the acronym ROCI, for Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange); the relation between the two realms invert: Boxes that art was shipped in become art, denying and including their own signage, as no label guarantees a box’s contents.

Before he left for Captiva, Rauschenberg had lost his way. His relationship with choreographer and frequent artistic collaborator Steve Paxton had fallen apart; he was downing “more than it seemed possible for a man to drink and stay alive”; in the middle of the road of his life, he found himself in the dark, often shaky. When Barbara Rose asked him, in 1987, why he had left New York, the artist replied: “I was beginning to feel that so many of my friends . . . were having so many problems with happiness that perhaps I was responsible for some sort of evil spirit. I got so depressed in New York that I went to an astrologer. His assessment of my situation was right on. . . . The advice was to not ever go to the mountains—I have told you how I hate rocks because they are traps—and to head for the sun and sea.”

“So many problems with happiness”—a moving, complicated phrasing by the famed, self-described “Libra cusp on Scorpio”: It softly glosses the happiness that wasn’t available and the happiness, so-called, that was. The Vietnam War was entering its attenuated bitter end. The “Early Egyptians,” frequently body sized, recall sarcophagi and stelae—and the plain boxes in which bodies are shipped home from war (FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, indeed); they are often accompanied by the reliquary items (bicycle, bucket, rope) of a lived life, which might be of use in one of another kind.

It is in this state of mind and heart that Rauschenberg reflected upon his work, and life, in a psychic self-portrait published as “Note: Cardbirds” in the first pages of the 1971 Gemini G.E.L. catalogue. The printed text is a facsimile of Rauschenberg’s handwriting, all in capital letters:

For over five years I have deliberately used every opportunity with my work to create a focus on world problems, local atrocities and in some rare instances celebrate men’s accomplishments. I have strained in collecting influences to bring about a more realistic relationship between artist, science, and business, in a world that is risking annihilation for the sake of a buck. It is impossible to have progress without conscience. In doing this, I have had to concentrate almost exclusively on gloom and filter joy, investigate cruelty and suspect all changes. This is my responsibility, but it is exhausting.

After a while + the resistance a desire built up in me to work in a material of waste and softness. Something yielding with its only message a collection of lines imprinted like a friendly joke. A silent discussion of their history exposed by their new shapes. Labored commonly with happiness.

Boxes

Consider that it is not only “with happiness” that the cardboard works are made but also, in a sense, “happiness” that will be boxed—in a place or container, to house it or have done with it. Rauschenberg draws a simple perspectival sketch of a box in outline below the word boxes, before signing the text with his initials, as if all he has just noted and more—“a collection of lines imprinted like a friendly joke”—can be seen or stored in boxes, for better or for worse. Boxes to be checked. Life on the tick.

The works are the result, in part, of a breakaway (as much as a breakdown). Despite their luxurious material promiscuity, hardly any of the Combines use flattened cardboard, even fewer intact cardboard boxes. A compelling exception, obviously not in the Menil show, is Trophy V (For Jasper Johns), 1962. A cardboard box—painted silver, flipped over, and baring its bottom—centers the work; Rauschenberg juxtaposes it (to mark an equivalence or correspondence?) with a metal window frame, slightly opened. Made at the point of his breakup with Johns, call it Fresh Widow: escape from and container for the remaining effects of so many problems with happiness. Now look at National Spinning/Red/Spring (Cardboard), 1971 (the only cardboard work in the Menil’s permanent collection), in which a vehicular group of boxes—a truck with piggybacked cargo—loosely linked by string to a single straggling box, journeys across a large, flattened shipping box emblazoned with the patriotic branding of the National Spinning Co., Inc.: On a vibrant field of red diagonal lines, a blue-outlined map of the United States, now vertically upended, is centered by a logo of the company’s name encircling a spread-winged bald eagle; nearby, from within the North Carolina borders, blue arrows ray out from the state business headquarters in distribution routes across the nation. In his description of this work, while disdaining attaching “too much importance to the linguistic content of the dross printed or written on the surface of the boxes,” Bois notes the varied printed inscriptions, handwritten additions, and labels, and sums up that “one can only feel a pang of nostalgia for a world in which such a poetic mode of recycling could still carry a promise of hope.”

But perhaps before slouching into nostalgia we should consider what makes up the work, which thematizes some kind of moving on. Two other artists’ intertwined histories, as much if not more than Rockburne’s or Bochner’s, and immediate transactional occurrences, irradiate this work: The year 1971 is when Peter Ludwig purchases Johns’s Double White Map, 1965, for a record price. In a moment when the catchphrase “The personal is political” renews its consequence, Rauschenberg’s history is not anyone else’s. By appropriating the textile firm’s trademark, he allows the box to carry an additional load as it resonates with Johns’s trademark icon—a second, almost allegorical method of appropriation. “A silent discussion of their history exposed by their new shapes”: Rauschenberg doesn’t just suggest playing with the meaning of the found printed materials and contexts of this work, he compels it. The epicene and proper have never been his domain, and the Cagean silence deafens.

Did Rauschenberg want to tranquilize or expose his past? “Did he want to empty space, or fill it?” Wayne Koestenbaum posed this question in relation to Andy Warhol and his time capsules. Ask it about Rauschenberg’s cardboard works, and the answer is the same: “With a time capsule—a cardboard box stuffed with ephemera—he could accomplish both tasks.” A “non-brand-name solution to his time/space conundrum” that “was also a pill (like a time-release Tylenol capsule) that he could swallow to avoid the past, sealing it off from sight,” Warhol’s time-capsules project, Koestenbaum suggests, “may have originated when Andy moved his studio in 1974 from 33 Union Square West to 860 Broadway (a few blocks north); the cardboard cartons, in which stuff was stashed for transporting to the new premises, were rechristened ‘time capsules,’ and left unopened—abstract sculptures awaiting posthumous réclame.” Circa 1974, and for almost a decade before, Rauschenberg and Warhol shared representation by both Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. National Spinning, like most of the “Cardboards”-related works, is a Rauschenbergian time capsule, newly shaped, something at once emptied out and filled up. Rauschenberg’s version traffics in and goes public with a resonant materiality—recall the fleshy libidinal valence of “a material of waste and softness.” He turns commercially manufactured boxes into the goods of the personal and the erotic, delivering a more bodily politic.

The “Early Egyptians” enchant the pure povera effects of earlier cardboard works by arranging their melancholy concerns in testimonial tableaux, transforming rather than appropriating materials to become more sculptural and performative. Moody and flamboyant as the sphinx, they question—soft monuments twilit in the desert of the real, awaiting a response whose consequence will not be random.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.