Robert Rauschenberg review – the combine master, uncut
This thrilling retrospective gives us Rauschenberg whole, from his collages to his ballets to his own wild performances
Laura Cumming , The Guardian
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) is America’s Leonardo – ceaselessly inventive, a mind in perpetual revolution. That is the revelation of this exhilarating show. If all you knew of him was the famous goat girdled in a tyre, or the collages of JFK raising a warning finger, then think again. Rauschenberg changed artists’ ideas of what painting, sculpture and even drawing might be. He turns out to be the fons et origo of 60 years and more of art, Warhol to Hirst.
The first gallery at Tate Modern covers only two years – 1950-2 – and yet it feels like the big bang. How to make everything new? Use newspapers instead of pigment, create paintings out of latex, dirt and clay, make sculpture out of scrap metal and self-portraits by lying on light-sensitive paper. Work with what you’ve got; work with your friends. Rauschenberg invites John Cage to drive a car across yards of white paper, making the elegant black print that surely sends up Barnett Newman’s zips. Cage is credited as both the printer and the press: typical of Rauschenberg’s collaborative heart.
What can a painting contain? The stuff of life itself, not just its depiction: Rauschenberg’s early canvases incorporate postcards, umbrellas, ties, socks and lightbulbs. A shining, all-white canvas gives back reflections of the world around it. Wooden doors open in one canvas, revealing other substrates beyond. A gorgeous shrine-like work, dripping with red and ochre pigment, is formed from the paint cans as well as the paint.
If this sounds more like sculpture, then what’s the difference? Rauschenberg simply called these objects “combines”. It is wonderful to see his ladders clambering upwards to painted expanses; his cock-eyed canvases trailing deflated tubes; his high-chrome collages sprouting parasols as if ready for sunshine. His poor little trundling machine, tethered to a bucket like a beast to its owner, is assembled from bric-a-brac painted with abject drips and dabs. A thing fallen on hard times, it’s wryly titled Gift for Apollo.
These creations have extraordinary force of personality, even when the source is entirely mysterious, partly because Rauschenberg finds life’s flotsam transcendent. The sacred goat – boxed in plexiglass as no artwork before at Tate Modern – is a stuffed secondhand critter. But standing on a painted pasture of urban decay, a grey creature in a shadowy world, its face tribally painted in Rauschenberg’s colours, it appears outlandish and haunting. Many interpretations have been advanced, not least because the title, Monogram, implies personal identity. But ringed in rubber, the goat is irreducibly tragicomic. Rauschenberg’s genius for combination surpasses immediate comprehension.
There are, however, clear sources for his work. Growing up in Depression Texas, Rauschenberg’s family was so poor his mother used to sew shirts out of scraps; she even made a skirt from the back of her dead brother’s burial suit rather than waste the fabric. Rauschenberg made much of cloth; sewing strips together to make paintings, stitching snippets into canvases. One room of this show is devoted to his marvellous material sculptures – poles and sheets in different configurations implying jousting tournaments, ships and pavilions.
Swiping and flashing, jump-cutting through images and associations, they channel-hop and net-surf decades in advance
Bed, also enshrined in plexiglass, looks peculiarly medieval. A narrow thing, upended, the quilt covered in toothpaste, nail polish and scrawled paint, the sheet and pillow in pencil marks somewhat reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s lover, Cy Twombly, it feels both violent and richly intricate. Some people find it frightening – like a crime scene preserved – but the association he draws between quilt and paint, bed and canvas is intimate and somehow comic; as if there were very little distance between getting down to work and messing about in bed.
The idea that art could be made out of anything is not exclusively his; Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters linger like ghosts in this show. But around 1958, Rauschenberg enormously enlarged the quantities of stuff that got into his art when he began to use printed pictures and photos. First, he produced the transfer drawings – soaking images in solvent, then transferring them to the page with pen or pencil, so that they appear in reverse, and surrounded by hatchings, as floating vignettes.
It would be hard to think of another artist who takes you so far from this world while remaining so completely within it
He put this technique to sensational use in the 34 illustrations to Dante’s Inferno, here shown for the first time in Britain. Smoky, spacey, miasmic, drifting: each page perfectly conjures Dante’s circles of hell, figures seeming to loom quite suddenly out of the transfer mist. And skimmed from the press, these figures are superbly apt, from bureaucrats to politicians to US spooks. There are even two wigged British judges.
Rauschenberg made hundreds of transfer drawings (there are more on show at Offer Waterman Gallery, including one not coincidentally owned by Warhol) before he applied the technique to canvas. These huge painted collages are rightly positioned at the centre of this show. Moon landings, night lorries, water towers, sinister in the gloaming; JFK in mid-speech, tomorrow’s weather, Liberty raising her torch, street signs pointing far into the distance; the American dream, the American flag, Vietnam, Titian. They feel like history paintings now, and yet they live in our time too. Swiping and flashing, jump-cutting through images and half-thought associations, they channel-hop and net-surf decades in advance.
And that goes to the core of Rauschenberg’s art. It isn’t just made out of anything; it doesn’t just last a minute or for ever, fusing the stuff of life and art; it runs in parallel with life – everything is happening all at once. Which is why this first posthumous retrospective is so valuable, because it gives you Rauschenberg whole in just the same way. Other shows have focused on perhaps one or two of his inventions. Here, you can walk from his collages to his ballets to his own wild performances; from his seething soup of mud, burbling and bubbling at the whim of a time machine in fabulously gloopy music, to his beautifully disciplined vision of Venice in elegantly looped ropes fraying below as if underwater.
It would be hard to think of another artist who takes you so far from this world, while remaining so completely within it. Rauschenberg emphasised his dyslexia as a metaphysical advantage, possibly abetted by hyperactivity. He didn’t stop until the very last minute. This show opens up like the codex of his mind, constantly churning up new ideas, combinations, intuitive visions; celebrating our physical reality. Time may pass – clocks tick, buildings collapse, calendar pages count down in his art; there is even an x-ray of his own body in a late collage. But paint glues it all back together, like a novelist’s narrative. What is it like to be here, Rauschenberg asks, first to last, what is it like to be here and alive?
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