This isn’t going to be a review of the Tate’s Rauschenberg show. I’m more than a little disappointed that it includes so few of his “Combine” works from the fifties. I was hoping for many more in order to justify my long-held belief that Rauschenberg possessed a genuine visual talent, a “good eye”, which I had hoped seeing more of his best paintings would confirm. I think he had a natural gift for putting all sorts of stuff together that shouldn’t really go together, in a manner that challenged some of the orthodoxies of abstract painting, making things that looked good and worked in concert. Despite all the oddball stuff he got up to both before and after the “Combine” period, I’ve held on to this opinion for a long time, based upon things of his I’ve occasionally seen around, but also upon reproductions. And of course I was hoping that the Tate show would afford the opportunity to confirm my view in front of the real things. Some chance, and the fact that it doesn’t is indicative of the low priority all things visual get these days. Tate gives equal weighting to all the different phases of Rauschenberg’s career, which might be thought of as only reasonable and objective, were it not for the fact that most stuff before and after the “Combines” is poor, and mostly non-visual; so that, in fact, a more objective appraisal would necessarily have privileged the “Combines”. Obviously it would be out of the question for Tate curators to make such a call on their judgement.
Here’s a selection of some Rauschenbergs from the fifties that are NOT in the show (click to enlarge):
I like the look of all of these, in reproduction; but the only “Combine” that I like that is actually on view at Tate is “Charlene”:
Rather annoyingly, this work features an electric light that flashes on and off. If you get someone to stand in front of the light and mask it from sight, you can get a measure of how coherent this work is, despite its seeming incongruities. In my opinion, Rauschenberg successfully integrates all the “found” elements in this piece into the pictorial content of the work. Rauschenberg may possibly owe much to de Kooning’s work from this period, but it seems to me that the achievement of “Charlene”, in particular the large centre-left panel, is something well beyond the achievements of de Kooning, even at his best:
The problem I always have with de Kooning – which applies to all his works now in the RA show – is that no matter what mode he is in, figurative or semi-abstract, his work is dependent to a very large degree upon drawing. He’s forever slathering the paint about with a brush in a linear fashion (even in the big “abstract” landscapes it happens, albeit with a bigger brush). I’ve never really got on with this in any artist, figurative or abstract. Now look at “Charlene” again and note the complete absence of drawing, the total integration of spatiality of different kinds, as colour upon colour melds itself into form in a properly painterly and pictorial manner.
The one really interesting large painting in the show, “Ace”, 1962, makes for a good comparison (available now in London) with the large multi-panel Joan Mitchell at the RA Ab-Ex show, “Salut Tom”, 1979:
Whilst I think the Rauschenberg is eminently criticisable, not least for some of its rather unintegrated empty spaces, it seems to me more exciting, radical and whole than the Mitchell, which has a rather bloated and unconvincing look of acres of canvas being just barely filled, with compositionally over-calculated shapes (mainly rectangles), with the areas of paint and its handling dictated to by a rather vapid aesthetic (I’ve elsewhere on Abcrit already compared this Mitchell to the adjacent Hofmann, and criticised “her sloppy and supposedly ‘expressive’ brushwork”). I’d rather have “Ace” to look at because it opens out spaces in a much more diverse and uncalculated way – perhaps even a much more abstract way – than the Mitchell.
Beyond that, I can’t say too much more that is positive about the show. Rauschenberg’s sculpture is embarrassingly bad throughout, and his “eye” seems to work exclusively in pictorial mode. But that’s fine, and you can get glimpses of it still in operation right through to the end of the show – but by then the real involvement with the nitty-gritty of painting-making has gone. He becomes detached from the materiality of stuff and detached from the “shoot-from-the-hip” decision-making that he seemed to have excelled at when making the best of the “Combines”. With the Ab-Exes in town, what a good moment it would have been to see more of these works. I can only really speculatively suggest that they would have been quite a challenge to the stifling pompous formality of Newman, Still, Rothko et al. Perhaps even to Hofmann.
They might also have proved a lesson for the paramount artist de nos jours, Helen Marten. It seems to me her work is extremely indebted to Rauschenbergs “Combines”, though I haven’t seen it mentioned in any reviews. And though we can’t blame him for Marten’s extreme shortcomings in the sculpture department, that debt ought to be noted. It also needs to be said that she is completely without the visual talent that I see operating in Rauschenberg’s best work. Her work certainly has an aesthetic, but that’s never enough, and I’ve read too that it has complexity and meaning; but what makes it fall dead to my eyes is the lack of engagement that so typifies the “Combines”, wherein the decisions made “live” are seemingly embodied in the work, and simultaneously made to operate “all of a piece”. That may or may not be an illusion, but it seems to me vital to communicate a sense of human content and endeavour to the work. Without it, Marten looks like nothing more than an overcomplicated Surrealist, full of weird juxtapositions that don’t gel. Her decision-making is not visual.
Rauschenberg doesn’t escape criticism. Some of the few “Combines” that ARE at Tate don’t work for me at all; and then there is the big question of why he didn’t stick at it. He seems to have been a rather garrulous and eclectic sort of a chap, and I guess the fashions of the day took him away from where I think his real talent lay. Fashion in art makes for all sorts of anomalies. Here’s a Rauschenberg from 1959, “Summerstorm”, that I think looks terrific, perhaps one of his best. I would love to have seen this work for real. Incidentally, I haven’t mentioned colour hardly at all, but I think the colour in this painting is great:
Out of interest, I follow it with work by other artists from the same year, 1959, upon which I make no comment at this stage. Perhaps other commenters will feel some comparisons are called for…
Rauschenberg website: http://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/series/combine
Rauschenberg at Tate Modern runs to 2 April 2017: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/robert-rauschenberg