New York

Robert Rauschenberg, Music Box (Elemental Sculpture), ca. 1955, wood crate, nails, stones, feathers, traces of metallic paint, 11 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/4".

Robert Rauschenberg, Music Box (Elemental Sculpture), ca. 1955, wood crate, nails, stones, feathers, traces of metallic paint, 11 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/4".

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Music Box (Elemental Sculpture), ca. 1955, wood crate, nails, stones, feathers, traces of metallic paint, 11 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/4".

Nearly twenty-three years ago, Walter Hopps gave life to an overlooked period from Robert Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. At the Menil Collection in Houston, the legendary curator mounted a revelatory exhibition of the artist’s work from the early 1950s, elucidating the rich procedural and conceptual qualities of a body of paintings, collages, and sculptures that had long been overshadowed by the better known and seemingly more systematic Combines and silk screens made over the following ten years. Rauschenberg’s work from the early 1950s does not present an easily quantifiable artistic position; rather, it suggests an openness to the world, to language, to raw material, and to process that remains relevant today. Something of the energy and experimentation of those years was captured in “Robert Rauschenberg: The Fulton Street Studio, 1953–54,” a small, intimate exhibition of fifteen paintings and sculptures recently on view at Craig F. Starr Gallery.

The exhibition revealed an approach to artmaking that was at once heterogeneous and bound by interrelated concerns, bringing together works as disparate in their outlook as Untitled, ca. 1952, one of a second generation of black paintings, which employs newsprint as both a compositional and textural device; Untitled (small white lead painting), ca. 1953, a small, densely painted, roughly surfaced canvas made entirely of white lead paint; two fragile, flickering gold-leaf paintings, each called Untitled (Gold Painting), both ca. 1953; and the utterly basic, yet slightly savage Music Box (Elemental Sculpture), ca. 1955, a modest wooden crate stuck through with nails and holding three smooth rocks that rattle and clank when the box is shaken. If the earlier works in the show seem more focused, that is because they primarily seek to express the inherent properties of a single material element or action, while the exhibition’s more transitional works—see, for example, Untitled, 1954, a black canvas framed on one side by silver paint and on the other by a vertical strip of Combine-like elements (including newspaper clippings, small black-and-white photographs, hair, and glass)—manifest the significatory play that will flourish in the artist’s later Combines.

There are a few actual Combines spread judiciously throughout the show; they attest to Rauschenberg’s omnivorous appetite for collecting and transforming the visual noise of both art history and the contemporary world. In Untitled, 1954, the self-reflexive formalism of a series of square or almost-square elements mounted to a perfectly square wooden box suggests the legacy of Cubist collage practices, yet the messy rawness of the work’s actual content—it includes comic strips, a single clump of dried grass, a reproduction of a Renoir portrait, and brightly patterned fabric and wallpaper fragments, as well as gestural drips and gobs of primary-colored paint—places the piece smack in the middle of 1950s consumer culture with an ironic nod to Abstract Expressionist spontaneity. The 1953 assemblage Soles with its collection of rocklike objects, each carefully wrapped in black fabric and string like a tiny gift, harks back to the slightly earlier “Scatole e Feticci Personali” (Personal Boxes and Fetishes), 1952–53, made during his European sojourn with Cy Twombly, while two Untitled (Elemental Sculptures), both ca. 1953, have an effective violence and physical and procedural simplicity that might presage the phenomenological operations of Minimalism.

Taken as a whole, the works, which are clearly in dialogue with the output of any number of the artist’s friends and contemporaries, including Twombly, Jasper Johns, and John Cage, as well as with Abstract Expressionism and the techniques of the historical avant-garde, are a fresh testament to the collaborative and appropriative nature of Rauschenberg’s practice. They are filled with references that are both intensely personal, as in the allusion to Elaine de Kooning in Elaine’s Party, 1954, and entirely public, as in Will, 1955, with its newspaper clipping showing the famous baseball player Ted Williams, short-circuiting any attempt to place them in one psychic register or another. Drawn from a short period of two and a half years, these examples of Rauschenberg’s work are a welcome reminder that his tendency toward material mutability and interpretive fecundity had started to flourish at the very beginning of his career.

Karen Butler