There is nothing like sneaking things in at the last minute. The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern ends on 2 April. If you’re reading this too late, I apologise – go and look up the catalogue which is a hefty almost two inch thick book jam packed with writings and images. (link here)
But, if you can, get yourself to Tate Modern this weekend to see the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. Eleven rooms filled with work spanning almost fifty years.What struck me most as we walked through was the sheer energy and exhilaration. You never knew what would be waiting in the next room – this man never stopped! He collaborated with dancers, with musicians, he used dirt and found materials. He turned comic books into paintings which were dismissed as irrelevance. He added found objects: socks, ties, window fans, bits of wood, a brightly painted quilt…
And just as you are getting used to this approach of using objects for their own sake rather than representation, we have a room full of the most beautiful, delicate and almost fragile drawings using transfers and quiet subtle colours. Except the whole series is based around Dante’s Inferno and the tiny figures taken from contemporary news images are highly political.
There is a strong sense of the era in which he was creating – JF Kennedy crops up repeatedly. Space travel, references to the Vietnam war and later the restraint upon citizens of China, our position within a consumer world all make their mark.
This is a hugely visual collection of work from an artist who didn’t restrict himself to any particular medium or approach. It also feels like work full of thoughtful consideration – a lifetime of opinions. It bristles with energy that never lets up. There is a record of a performance piece involving (from memory) roller skates, three dancers in wedding dresses, parachutes…. It seems a little out of context to me until I feel it is simply a lively reaction to what is possible.
No point in asking ‘why’ when the obvious answer is simply “why ever not?”
He seemed to move through relationships just as quickly. In 1949 he marries Susan Weil and they have a son, by 1951 he is in a relationship with the artist Cy Twombly and then another art contemporary Jasper Johns. At the time of the Pelican performance piece in 1963 he is living with the dancer Steve Paxton who talked about the idea of incorporating everyday action into dance “We began with this idea of Bob’s that you work with what’s available, and that way the restrictions aren’t limitations, they’re just what you happen to be working with.”
What did I take from it?
Think – take ideas from everywhere, it’s all valid. Don’t think – don’t be obsessed by proper materials or delicacies.
Be aware of your surroundings – use whatever you can. There is no limit. Don’t be precious. Some paintings were completed on stage and stopped when the alarm clock integrated into the canvas went off! Have fun!
Testing. From the early days he sets out to question what the role of art is. Is it new art if I just erase an existing drawing by Willem de Kooning, a process which took many hours and over 40 erasers?
Can I investigate the role of chance by creating two almost identical paintings simultaneously?
It seems his work moved in clear ‘batches’ as he leaps in steady jumps from clue to clue. Almost scientific in approach by following the leads he has already uncovered; so, I’ve done these large brightly coloured ‘funfair’ paintings and combines, what happens if I now create 34 relatively small drawings with very limited colour – what are you looking at now?!
If you’ve ever felt as an artist that you have to have a ‘style’ this blows it out of the water!
However there is a thread and an evolution. By the end of his life, his work using silkscreened images is refined further and the last pieces combine photographs from his own collection. It feels like a cinecamera on quick rewind – quick glimpses of the world, flash backs and always on the move. Isn’t that how we now see things?