Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1954, oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men’s undershirt, umbrella, lace, ribbons, fabrics, and metal on Homasote mounted on wood, with electric light, 89 × 112 × 3 1/2". © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1954, oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men’s undershirt, umbrella, lace, ribbons, fabrics, and metal on Homasote mounted on wood, with electric light, 89 × 112 × 3 1/2". © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1954, oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men’s undershirt, umbrella, lace, ribbons, fabrics, and metal on Homasote mounted on wood, with electric light, 89 × 112 × 3 1/2". © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG'S multifarious art was driven by a restless, self-critical inventiveness that he sustained across an uncommonly long and productive career. This full retrospective at Tate Modern, curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume and Leah Dickerman and covering all six decades of the artist’s practice, came nine years after the artist’s death and nearly forty years since his last major show in the UK, a surprisingly extended absence for such a canonical figure. The exhibition therefore stood as both a rare opportunity to see the full range of Rauschenberg’s work for the first time in this country and a major curatorial statement on his practice.

This was, more or less, a conventional monographic show, and was thus subject to the well-understood risk of the format—namely, its implicit bias toward emphasizing isolated artistic exceptionality. Yet the curators made a sustained effort to sidestep this limitation, opening up the exhibition toward recognition of the communities of practice oriented around shared artistic problems from which most significant artistic work emerges. Such an approach is a particular necessity in Rauschenberg’s case, given the inextricable connections between his art and an extended group of interlocutors and collaborators; writing in 1974, he described his compulsive desire both to make and to share. Indeed, after the show crossed the Atlantic to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it opened on May 21 (just before this issue went to press), it gained the subtitle “Among Friends,” a fitting acknowledgment of collaboration animated by affective bonds.

The curators structured the exhibition according to a hybrid chronological-thematic schema, with each individual room mapped to a particular way of working or individual technique: “Silkscreens” preceded a room of “Live” work, which was succeeded by “Technology,” and so on.This approach emphasized discrete phases of Rauschenberg’s work but also allowed us to observe continuities among the diverse strains of his practice, most obviously his career-long commitment to collage as well as his open attentiveness to the given qualities of his materials across different types of facture (Rauschenberg described his artistic process as a “collaboration” with materials).

This approach also structured the show’s substantial catalogue, which features contributions by a notable group of scholars and curators, several of whom assisted directly with the exhibition. The publication deserves particular mention as an integral part of the show’s achievement, as it does much to synthesize and extend a wide range of recent scholarship on Rauschenberg’s work—scholarship that, moreover, deeply informed the conception and organization of the exhibition itself. A significant omission, however, is any contribution written explicitly from the perspective of queer theory. Rauschenberg’s sexuality, and the importance of his intertwining personal and artistic lives, received brief mention in various wall labels, but overall the issue was treated rather inadequately, even prudishly, given the artistic centrality of Rauschenberg’s lovers and the clear interrelations between their work and his own.

This caveat aside, the show was a major exhibition that did much to consolidate our understanding of the artist. It opened with a densely installed selection of Rauschenberg’s earliest work, combining pieces made after he had studied at the (very different) institutions of Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Art Students League of New York up until his departure from his New York Fulton Street studio in 1955. Here we saw Rauschenberg working through a series of avant-garde strategies with great speed and intensity: the photogram (executed with his then wife, Susan Weil), the monochrome (including Untitled [Black Painting] and the celebrated John Cage–influencing White Paintings, both 1951), and the Dada and Surrealist found object (as in “Scatole personali” [Personal Boxes], ca. 1952–53, which the artist began while holidaying with his then lover, Cy Twombly, and the sparer, manipulable “Elemental Sculptures,” ca. 1953).

The first room also included Rauschenberg’s notorious Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Often understood as a precursor to Conceptual art (for the way its title implies an action whose particular realization is incidental to the work’s meaning), the work in the flesh is striking, owing to how much one can still see of the original drawing, albeit as a faint, indented trace. (This characteristic, noted by Thomas Crow in the pages of this magazine two decades ago, was further emphasized, somewhat superfluously, at Tate Modern by the inclusion of a digitally darkened reproduction of the work on the wall beside it, produced from an infrared scan taken by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2010.) Erased de Kooning Drawing is thus sous rature (under erasure) rather than effacé (erased), and one was tempted to read the work as a declaration of Rauschenberg’s relationship not only to Abstract Expressionism but also, more broadly, to traditional artistic mediums in themselves. Rauschenberg’s later combinatory formats suspend these mediums in relation to their own overcoming, rather than fully negating them. And it is Rauschenberg’s precocious working-through of the various strategies of the historical avant-gardes in his early work that prepared the ground for the full development of the distinctive form of immanent neo-avant-gardism—based on an affirmation of difference—that he produced subsequently, as Branden W. Joseph has shown in his monograph on the artist, Random Order (2003).

Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings, 1953–54, the focus of the next room in the show, demonstrate the artist putting painting, rather than drawing, sous rature. They feature densely worked surfaces fused with collage elements and constitute a profound confrontation with the medium after the monochrome, one that prefigures subsequent inventions. Piling up the debris of commodified everyday life in the pictorial field as they do, the Red Paintings anticipate Rauschenberg’s increasing attention to this material itself, up to and including the point at which it can be considered “sculptural,” in the Combines, 1954–64, that follow.

One of the most successful moves in the show was the inclusion of a gallery sparely hung with a set of his haunting transfer drawings, which the curators situated to powerful effect between the rooms dedicated to his Combines and silk screens. Made between 1958 and 1960 as illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, these thirty-four works represent an essential intermediate step between the Combines’ direct incorporation of collaged elements and the silk screens’ presentation of metareflexive images of images. By virtue of Rauschenberg’s solvent-transfer technique, collaged elements are present in the drawings only spectrally—ghostly, inverted traces of the original newspaper photographs from which they emanate.

In the large room dedicated to the Combines, we found, predictably but satisfyingly, some of Rauschenberg’s most iconic works, including Bed, 1955; Factum I and Factum II, both 1957; Monogram, 1955–59; and Winter Pool, 1959, which were installed among lesser-known pieces. Despite having yellowed with age, like the newsprint that so many of them incorporate, these hybridizing works have lost none of their raw, confrontational force. Their news remains news. (All the more so in contrast with contemporary artists’ attention to the elision of traditional artistic media and the collapse of “real” space into media space.) Similarly, the density and attack of the silk screens—which included Tracer and Scanning, both 1963, and Persimmon and Retroactive II, both 1964—are still tangible today, the works’ surfaces crackling with electrostatic, even as the flickering image flow and particular coloration bespeak a cathode-ray era that is now definitively past. (They also remind us of Rauschenberg’s important collaborations with professional printmakers.)

Clearly cognizant of the well-rehearsed challenges of working with records of performance art, the curators successfully animated Rauschenberg’s significant experiments in the form by presenting them as a wall of projections above a vitrine of related documents. The strategy helpfully afforded the audience different ways to mentally reconstruct particular works and minimized the funereal ambience that can attend archival displays. This “Live” section of the show documented Rauschenberg’s collaborations with Cunningham and Cage, his involvement with New York’s Judson Memorial Church, and his pioneering work using technology to prosthetically supplement the performing body. The last of these moves initially took the form of the various events comprising 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, 1966, realized in collaboration with, among others, the Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver and which subsequently led to the foundation of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization that facilitated important, technically challenging projects for artists such as Mel Bochner, Carolee Schneemann, and Hans Haacke.

Rauschenberg’s own collaborative, technology-based artwork was reasonably well represented: The erratically bubbling, feedback-controlled Mud Muse, 1968–71, received almost an entire room, and the show also featured Oracle, 1962–65, a multipart sculptural sound installation that employs once-cutting-edge remote-controlled transistor radios. Yet the exhibition did not include substantive representation of the E.A.T. organization itself. This felt like a significant missed opportunity, although Michelle Kuo’s insightful catalogue essay on the subject compensates for this omission, and the MoMA iteration does include some works and related material.

View of “Robert Rauschenberg,” 2016–17. From left: Estate, 1963; Persimmon, 1964; Crocus, 1962. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

THE ENTIRE SECOND HALF of the show was taken up by work that Rauschenberg made after he retreated to Captiva Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1971, leaving a New York soon to be riven by fiscal collapse. The decision to equally balance the floor space accorded to Rauschenberg’s early and late career, for all of the latter’s strengths, was not fully compelling, especially because such curatorial evenhandedness gave the first half of the show a relatively compressed feeling; in general, Rauschenberg’s later work is less consistent. Nonetheless, the artist did continue to produce striking innovations and major works. To dismiss this production peremptorily as simply a falling-away in quality—a common enough but often reflexive art-historical trope—would be a mistake.

The “Cardboards,” 1971–72 (wall reliefs made from unfolded and reconfigured cardboard boxes that Rauschenberg found on his travels), and the “Jammers,” 1975–76 (wall-propped or hung combinations of rattan poles and brightly colored fabrics inspired by Rauschenberg’s visits to India), are simple, elegant pieces that looked good spaciously installed in the largest room in the show. Yet they strike rather limited notes. They are intriguing, certainly, but principally suggest a lighthearted, sand-between-the-toes response to urgent developments in Minimalism, anti-form, and process art in the New York that Rauschenberg had left behind (or been left behind by).

In contrast, however, the “Gluts,” 1986–89/1991–94, a series of found-metal sculptures that Rauschenberg fabricated from crumpled and detourned road signs and other scrap metal, engage in a thoughtful retroactive dialogue with Nouveau Réalisme and offer a quasi-ethnographic critique of a deindustrializing America. Rauschenberg’s silk screens on metal panels from the 1980s put forward a related if even darker vision of the state of the nation. Dense layers of varnishes and patina-producing chemicals yield obscure, agglutinated imagery that refuses easy legibility and instead seems to offer only foreboding portents fashioned from the wreckage of historical representation. Here Rauschenberg repaints the ’60s silk screens in gray on gray: While the bright colors of the original works always represented a heavily qualified form of postwar optimism, there can be little doubt about the overwhelming pessimism here, stemming as it does from the works’ recognition that an earlier and more hopeful form of life has grown old. Both of these series also take on a new timeliness in light of Donald Trump’s disingenuous Reaganite promise to “Make America Great Again.”

A lighter vision returns in the series “Anagrams (A Pun),” 1997–2002, where Rauschenberg explored the possibilities of digital scanning and ink-jet dye-transfer printing to produce a new type of large-scale photo-montage from his personal archive of photos of everyday objects and scenes. Printing with water-based inks, Rauschenberg was able to manipulate the images using water and a brush, creating a looser provisionality that recalls the transfer drawings but at the scale of the silk screens. Here we get a suggestive kind of history painting from below, but one that is, quite literally, a paler version of its precedents and whose evocation of watercolor perhaps overvalorizes the amateur.

Yet if this series represents only a minor development from earlier achievements, then Rauschenberg’s late “Scenarios,” 2002–2006, and “Runts,” 2006–2008, suggest new horizons. Made in the wake of two strokes that left the artist with limited dexterity, these works feature images that he commissioned friends to take for him of deliberately uninteresting source material. They are based on grids with very little of the superimposition, overpainting, or other forms of reworking that characterize Rauschenberg’s previous treatment of his imagery. Instead there is a pared-down focus on homologous and heterologous relationships between representations that the viewer must attempt to decipher. At this point, Rauschenberg dispenses with residual questions about traditional media sous rature, and instead rigorously brackets the relational ontology of (digital) photographic images for investigation.

In the show’s closing work, Untitled (Scenario), 2006, made near the end of the artist’s life, we see him elaborating a visual paradigm that indexes the internet, rather than the televisual, era. Here, the work is oriented by the network of links that it establishes between images, rather than by the individual images themselves (which are bland and often banal). Rauschenberg’s late work is not at all painterly or iconic; rather, it is drained of obvious visual impact, the better to render its meaning dependent on the audience’s attentive interpretation. This is work to mentally click through rather than scan.

In concluding with Untitled (Scenario), the curators underscored not only Rauschenberg’s career-long reliance on collaboration—on being “among friends”—but also his prescient understanding of the significance that society’s rapidly transforming means of communication hold for art. Made in collaboration with materials and with friends and lovers, Rauschenberg’s works reveal themselves as both deeply social and profoundly technologically enhanced. The show presented an artist whose exceptionality inhered in his willingness to disperse artistic agency across multiple actors. In so doing, it brushed the monographic format suggestively against the grain, delivering a singularly plural vision of Rauschenberg that emphatically demonstrated his achievement but did not overheroize or individualize it. Instead, the show situated Rauschenberg in the stuttering flux of collective history—revealed as subject to the very forces and relations that his work so effectively visualizes.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through September 17; travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 18, 2017–Mar. 25, 2018.

Luke Skrebowski is a lecturer in contemporary art at the University of Manchester.

Visit our archive at for a collection of essays published on the occasion of Robert Rauschenberg’s death (September 2008) and for Thomas Crow’s essay “This Is Now” (September 1997).