Robert Rauschenberg, “Ace”, 1962
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):
Cy Twombly, Victory, 2005
Cy Twombly Foundation Gifts 5 Sculptures to the Philadelphia Museum of Art
‘Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the museum, said, “Like the artist’s ‘Fifty Days at Iliam,’ this remarkable group of sculptures evokes the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War and offers a profound meditation on both classical history and the nature of modernity.” He added, “They represent an enormously important addition to our holdings of work by this great artist, who is a key figure in the history of contemporary art.”’
They obviously think very highly of Twombly at the Philadelphia Museum, as they seemingly do in museums all around the world, but as Carl Kandutsch recently asserted on Twitter, he is a vastly overrated artist. And how exactly, one might reasonably ask, do these dull sculptures evoke “the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War”? Is it a case similar to the politically wishfull thinking behind Motherwell’s Elegies, only with far worse work?
Robert Rauschenberg, “Collection”, 1954-55, SFMOMA
The genre of the painting-relief/construction has been around for some time. Recently, however, this hybrid category has become more prominent, almost suggesting that, at a time when ‘pure’ painting struggles for relevance, the medium’s best chance of survival could depend on forming a coalition with the object.
There’s nothing very new about work in this category. Major exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both at the Whitechapel in 1964, made an impressive case for merging the characteristics of two separate disciplines.[i] But the terms of the partnership favoured painting. Both artists developed their careers in the era of Abstract Expressionism and their gestural painting style derived its authority and confidence from that movement, even though they deployed it in a semi-satirical manner. Partial irony didn’t reduce the power of the painterly force that overwhelmed and absorbed the heterogeneous elements that their works contained.
The results were cluttered and palpable enough to be classed as ‘objects’, but they weren’t covered by the critique of literalism that the slightly later work of the minimalists received. Frank Stella’s paintings also manifested object-like tendencies but were exempt from this same criticism. Michael Fried argued that the pictorial activity of the ‘depicted’ shape, established their credentials as paintings by ‘defeating objecthood’.