Robert Rauschenberg has catholic tastes. He’s a bubbling cauldron of ideas – one of which is a literal bubbling cauldron – with little threading them together beyond a ceaseless, sometimes maddening desire to make things.
All kinds of things: a white-painted canvas, sculptures built from salvaged junk – derided as “funfair” fodder by his contemporaries – a doodle on a microchip that was blasted into outer space. He would become briefly, deeply obsessed with a certain type of object, only to tire of it almost overnight and move on to a whole new category of thing.
He went from painting to sculpture to silk-screen prints. He was a pop artist before Warhol, an entirely new breed of abstract expressionist, an avant garde performer (for a “live” piece, he embedded an alarm clock in a canvas and stopped working when the timer rang). In one Tate gallery a roller-skater glides past on a video screen that’s mounted besides a functioning bath/shower made from reclaimed metal. It’s a lot to take in.
Rauschenberg was also a dedicated team-player, collaborating with others throughout his career; in one piece he asked renowned artist Willem de Kooning to donate a drawing, which he then painstakingly erased, eventually presenting the empty sheet of paper. And it wasn’t just artists – he worked with dancers and scientists, craftsmen and the general public. His work defies curation; even the Tate has largely settled for presenting it in chronological order.
Despite all this, I struggle to engage with Rauschenberg on more than an academic level, appreciating the questions he asks more than the answers he provides. His prodigious output – some 6,000 pieces over his lifetime – is mind-boggling. But, for instance, take his series that uses lighter fluid on magazine pages to create transfers illustrating Dante’s Inferno: there’s a sideways genius to the method, but it feels like an experiment that doesn’t lead anywhere particularly enlightening.
His son, Christopher, says his father “opened the door” for proceeding generations, and this feels like Rauschenberg’s defining legacy: a jumping off point for others who took his ideas and made them into icons. His 1955 painted quilt entitled Bed foreshadowed Tracey Emin’s My Bed by decades; his stuffed goat wearing a tyre eventually birthed Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf Prodigal Son. The links are so pronounced it’s almost theft.
Rauschenberg’s work is also a fascinating glimpse into a tumultuous time for art itself. A student at the legendary Black Mountain College, his work reflects the way his contemporaries tore up the rule-book, where the process of creating was as important as the creation itself.
His propensity to switch mediums and styles means you can feel the decades peeling away as you move through the exhibition, from the slightly lofty abstract expressionism of the 1950s, to the playful pop art prints of the early 1960s, and the technology-obsessed works of the late 1960s and 1970s.
It’s one hell of a history lesson; I just wish it gripped the heart as much as it does the brain.
First published in City A.M.