Dec 05, 2016

Robert Rauschenberg Tate Modern Review: The Man Who Changed American Art Forever

The Tate's all-encompassing Robert Rauschenberg retrospective in London is the show of the year
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The Tate Modern’s journey through the career of the unconventional artist Robert Rauschenberg has everything.

Yet as the most comprehensive survey in 20 years of one of the most prolific, diverse and increasingly important artist’s work it has to. A stuffed goat with a face coated in almost tribal paint. White paintings seemingly of nothing, yet so engrained in history that they were actually one of the main influences behind the composer John Cage’s silent work 4’ 33”. These are just two examples of the rich plethora of important pieces that the Tate has managed to compile together for this groundbreaking retrospective.

The exhibition moves quickly through a life and career spanning six decades, from the late 1940s to the artist’s death in 2008. Yet the speed at which you are whisked along feels right, and a suitable tribute to Rauschenberg’s refusal to stand still and his insatiable appetite to collaborate. Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, Andy Warhol and John Cage are just a few of the collaborations that stand out during his overwhelmingly productive career. His curiosity pushed him forward, made him prolific and kept him ahead of the rest.

This after all is the man who pioneered pop art a decade before Andy Warhol. It's a man who is credited with influencing the emergence of Neo-Dada, Minimal, Conceptual, Post-minimal, Process and performance art and a man whose influence in the contemporary art world is perhaps stronger than ever.

Among his many achievements, Rauschenberg is credited with having led the reaction against the dominant art form of the era: abstract expressionism. Through his lighter work and sometimes through an almost direct mocking of abstract expressionism he rejected its angst and seriousness. ‘Automobile Tire Print,’ a print produced when John Cage drove his car over 20 sheets of paper and ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing,’ where Rauschenberg rubbed out his friend’s drawing perhaps show this rejection best.
But it is the aforementioned ‘Monogram’ (1959), which consisted of a stuffed angora goat, a tennis ball, paint, a shoe, a tire and a police barrier, and the highly controversial ‘Bed’ (1955) that changed the course of modern art. Through these works he created a new kind of art that combined painting and sculpture together with collage and printing. He dubbed these works ‘combine paintings.’ Between 1954 and 1964, Rauschenberg made 162 combines, which remains the most highly regarded body of work by the artist.

As the 60s progressed he reverted back to two dimensions, using magazine photographs to create silkscreen prints. Politics, mass media imagery and street scenes entered his work. The large scale Retroactive II, which portrays a recently assassinated John F. Kennedy, is a wonderful example of his art during this time.
Entering the 70s, you notice an increase in Rauschenberg’s adoption of even more media into his work as he continues to explore new possibilities. It is during this time that it is widely thought that Rauschenberg entered an alcohol-fuelled decline, failing to achieve the heights of his critically acclaimed earlier work. Yet this exhibition suggests refinement rather than decline and a continuation of discovery until his later years. Very large inkjet transfers onto aluminum and polylaminate show his ability to experiment and uncover more possibilities with new textures never waned.

While the exhibition doesn’t delve into why or how a man that once imagined himself as a minister or a pharmacist came to define and reinvent art, it is an accomplished whirlwind journey through the 50s and 60s, where Rauschenberg was at his most impactful, until the modern day.

I would not be the only writer to consider this the show of the year. Rauschenberg’s limitless energy takes you back to a time filled with hope and uncertainty and the curators Achim Borchardt-Hume and Leah Dickerman have captured the intensity of this mood skillfully. As you move between painting, sculpture, photography, print-making, technology, stage design and performance, it’s possible to really sense the feel of the time you are in and to be transported back through the eyes of such an important artist is a highly rewarding experience.