View of “Gloria: Robert Rauschenberg & Rachel Harrison,” 2015. Foreground: Rachel Harrison, Slipknot (detail), 2002. Background: Robert Rauschenberg, Gloria, 1956.

View of “Gloria: Robert Rauschenberg & Rachel Harrison,” 2015. Foreground: Rachel Harrison, Slipknot (detail), 2002. Background: Robert Rauschenberg, Gloria, 1956.

“Gloria: Robert Rauschenberg & Rachel Harrison”

Cleveland Museum of Art

View of “Gloria: Robert Rauschenberg & Rachel Harrison,” 2015. Foreground: Rachel Harrison, Slipknot (detail), 2002. Background: Robert Rauschenberg, Gloria, 1956.

The choice to exhibit Rachel Harrison’s sculpture/painting hybrids and drawings of the past decade or so alongside Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines of the 1950s and ’60s has elicited resistance from more than a few critics. That resistance, in the opinion of curator Beau Rutland, is knee-jerk, stemming primarily from the notion that the pairing is “almost too good to be true.” And it would be too good to be true, were one to read the works of these artists in only the most basic of formalist and historicist terms. Both Harrison and Rauschenberg harvest the expendable, everyday materials of American consumerism, popular media, and celebrity culture, and incorporate them into the genres of traditionally “high” art: oil painting, statuary, and the like. And while it is also true that the 1956 Rauschenberg piece that gave the exhibition its title could have been made yesterday—with a Kardashian swapped in for the eponymous Vanderbilt, perhaps—the interaction of the works of these artists within the intimate Focus Gallery of the Cleveland Museum of Art suggested a conversation rather than a call for a formal comparison. One got the sense that Harrison and Rauschenberg might have gotten along as people. Both artists’ sensibilities—their ways of being in the world, the ways they observed both it and themselves—combine an acute self-awareness with a lack of self-seriousness. An energy reverberated back and forth between Rauschenberg’s midcentury riffs on an America high on the fumes of Fordism and Hollywood (the squarish, medium-size paintings Rhyme, 1956, and Painting with Red Letter S, 1957, both of which joined Gloria) and Harrison’s three twenty-first-century humanoid forms standing at or just above human scale, the enfants terribles of advanced capitalism run amok (two of which, Stella 1, 2006, and Hans Haacke with Sculpture, 2005, were precariously balanced and on the verge of apparent collapse).

Both artists also execute careful and exacting techniques within compositions that deliberately self-sabotage, often to humorous effect. To construct Gloria, Rauschenberg cut three sides of a small, pristine square out of the center of a stretched canvas, then incautiously ripped the fourth side, shellacking the ragged edge ever so imperfectly into place. Harrison’s series of drawings of Amy Winehouse (three of which were on view) pair the beloved but tragically sensationalized contemporary icon of self-destruction with a roll call of art-historical characters—here, notably, the subject of de Kooning’s Woman V. The notoriously unstable singer’s inclusion itself destabilizes these drawings. Harrison’s frequent use of cement-encrusted polystyrene secures and grounds the intentionality of the trash-pop objects that she uses to punctuate sculptures like the figural Stella 1 (which includes a small mirror screen-printed with a photograph of the ’90s band Hanson), but it also gives her works the apparent carelessness of a bad spackle job, a cheap fix half-assedly patched over the steady stream of commercial junk that floods everyday life. And both artists’ technical facility and lofty art-world credentials are smartly compounded by the commonplace, unglamorous iconography that grounds their work. In Rauschenberg’s Painting with Red Letter S, the artist’s deft, almost sublime paint handling is brought crashing down to earth by a bold red letter S lying prone on its side at the bottom center of the canvas. Harrison’s similarly non-hierarchical appropriation of seemingly everything in her path, from boy bands to trash cans to the work of other “lofty” artists (as noted, de Kooning, Haacke, and Stella), here reminded us that art is, after all, stuff that artists make out of other stuff—a pointed leveling of quotidian objects and blue-chip artworks, whose values are inflated by the auction markets in which they circulate.

Harrison’s stance could be read as a smugly cynical commentary about the particular market in which she (somewhat reluctantly) operates—and in which Rauschenberg arguably operated as well. Rauschenberg produced his irreverent Combines at the apex of Abstract Expressionism, the movement that took itself perhaps more seriously than any other in the past century. Thus the viewer could be forgiven for interpreting the work of both artists as intentionally antagonistic toward the art market and its fickle privileging. But the frank and unprecious way that Harrison and Rauschenberg, both individually and together, seem to celebrate the clunky and imperfect world for all its perverse gifts was the first and most lasting impression of their works in conversation.

Brynn Hatton