Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Untitled (Spread)’ (1983) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
“I really really feel sorry for folks who consider issues like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” Robert Rauschenberg after stated, “because they’re surrounded by factors like that all day extended, and it have to make them miserable.” Ordinary things produced Rauschenberg content — objects such as the rubber tyre with which he ringed a stuffed goat, purchased for $ 15 from a utilised furnishings store and placed on a painted canvas stuck with magazine clippings. He explained that the goat and tyre, interleaved like letters in a monogram, “lived happily ever after” together: art and life awkwardly, optimistically, enchantingly combined.
“Monogram” visits the UK for the very first time in 50 years — can it even be that old? — to star in Tate Modern’s irresistible new retrospective of the American artist, who died in 2008. Alongside the shaggy, insouciant angora goat hangs the wooden frame enclosing a quilt, sheet and pillow slathered in oil, toothpaste and nail polish, “Bed” — which hints at blood and violence but was named by Rauschenberg as “one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted. My worry has constantly been that a person would want to crawl into it” — and the painted trolley with metal chain, bucket, washer and door knobs known as “Gift for Apollo”.
All date from the 1950s, celebrate beauty in the each day, and sweep you up in a generous democratic vision that pulls art out of the studio and on to street level. Even if you have not the slightest sympathy with the conceptual art that reverberated down the decades from Rauschenberg’s innovations — and Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” and Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde zoo so clearly pick up threads from the celebrated pieces here — these seldom loaned “Combines” are a joy: fresh, bright, emotionally engaging, intellectually curious, quickly accessible because “a image is much more like the genuine planet when it is made out of the genuine world”.
“Oracle” (1962-65), a multi-component scrap-metal installation containing wireless microphone systems, turns sculpture into a sound piece. The industrial allusions recall David Smith but where Smith was an elegant abstractionist, this is a messy, screeching, garrulous sprawl evoking the factory floor. Brushwork is noisy, also: “First Time Painting”, which involves a plastic exhaust cap and curling metal springs, was developed as a efficiency on stage in Paris in 1961 with a microphone attached to the easel to amplify each and every brushstroke. Rauschenberg stopped painting when an alarm clock in the canvas went off.
Tate superbly chronicles how, with lightness of touch, an exuberant insistence on the arbitrary and youthful irreverence, Rauschenberg collapsed painting, printmaking, sculpture, performance, into hybrid collaborative types. Operating in a studio with windows thrown open and the television always on, Rauschenberg by means of the 1950s and 1960s, it appears, could do no incorrect. At monumental scale, painted silkscreens such as “Retroactive II” collaged images from Television stills including the not too long ago assassinated President Kennedy and space travel. Uniting disparate printed material with paint, Rauschenberg distilled the beginning of the all-over visual noise of late-20th-century life. The silkscreens won him the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Biennale — the first American to be so honoured, and signalled pictorial invention was shifting from Europe to the US.
‘Bed’ (1955) © New York Image: The Museum of Contemporary Art
This is a marvellous moment for American art in London. Though Rauschenberg’s use of located objects goes back to Duchamp, and his collages to Kurt Schwitters, his experiments develop right away out of a response to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose gestural painting he adopts and adapts while radically rejecting individual expression. Tate shows the iconic “Erased de Kooning Drawing” in which Rauschenberg painstakingly rubbed out the marks of the father figure. The ghosts of Abstract Expressionism everywhere right here send a single back to the Royal Academy’s excellent exhibition (to January 2), and the contrast is fascinating. Even though the RA’s show ends with performs from the 1970s, the movement’s deep-felt imperatives of the person and spiritual feel remote from today, compared with Rauschenberg’s laconic tone and debt to mass-production.
On the other hand, the RA show illuminates Rauschenberg’s early function at Tate: the all-black and all-gold paintings with bubbled surfaces made from scraps of newspaper embedded in paint, homages as properly as pastiches of Abstract Expressionism, and the six-metre “Automobile Tire Print”, made by driving a vehicle over 20 sheets of paper, which parodies Newman’s zip paintings and anticipates the industrial imagery of “Monogram”. Despite quite a few efforts to attach it to canvas, the goat, he mentioned, “refused to be abstracted into art” till he transformed it by adding the tyre.
‘Monogram’ (1955-59) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Transformation and collaboration remained important to Rauschenberg’s vision, evident in later work here which includes the 1970s grids of cardboard packing boxes, alluding to globalisation, 1980s posters for the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange project, and 1990s ink-jet photographic prints. Produced after Rauschenberg left New York to reside on Captiva Island, Florida in 1971 and became a public rather than avant-garde figure, these lack excitement, the connection to urban expertise. They wilt in comparison to the earlier work.
A richer coda is on provide in Mayfair at Offer Waterman, which brings collectively an exceptional choice of transfer drawings from 1958-69, made by dissolving newspaper photographs and text with a solvent, then rubbing them on to paper with pencil or pen, sometimes adding gouache and watercolour. Mass-developed imagery is seamlessly combined with the handmade intimacy of drawing, and political themes evoked.
‘Triathlon (Scenario)’ (2005) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
With pictures from Listerine mouthwash to a radar station, “Orange Body” characteristics examples of 1960s Americana at microscopic and cosmic scales, arranged to surround the caption “Deadlines Scrapped over Desegregation” amid rushing helmeted heroes: baseball players, astronauts. “Headline”, first owned by Andy Warhol, is a blur of politicians’ faces, the pro-slavery Confederate flag and auto licence plates from Mississippi all revolving round a nevertheless square of calm with a reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.
These careful, thoughtful collages of protest extend our understanding of the most private group of performs on show at Tate, the 34 illustrations to Dante’s “Inferno” designed by the exact same transfer technique. Right here, on surfaces luscious, smoky, scratchy, flickering, Dante is a shorts-clad athlete from Sports Illustrated among wrestlers and weightlifters, his celestial messengers are astronauts, demons are the riot police, and handless clocks symbolise eternity. All these unfold via fragile, fugitive veils — “Inferno” is Rauschenberg’s most homoerotic perform — musing on discomfort, conflict and suffering in an ancient narrative with which Rauschenberg nevertheless achieves his life-long aim: “to ennoble the ordinary”.
‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Tate Modern day, London, to April two, tate.org.uk
‘Rauschenberg, Transfer Drawings’, Offer Waterman, to January 13, waterman.co.uk
Photographs: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation New York Image: The Museum of Modern day Art, New York/Scala, Florence