I’m always left in two minds about Robert Rauschenberg. On the one hand, there is his enormous influence on the course of today’s contemporary art. Everywhere you look, you see things that came from him. He is a prophetic artist in all sorts of different ways: installation, junk sculpture, fascination with new technologies, performance art, collaborations – all these in different ways seem to point towards what we have now thanks to Rauschenberg’s prodigious powers of innovation and self-invention.
At the end of his career, thanks to his eponymous Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange Program (otherwise called ROCI, and pronounced ‘Rocky’ after the artist’s pet turtle), he was a celebrity in China, and also in Chile, where the façade of Santiago Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes featured a portrait medallion of him, in the company of similar portraits of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. In Moscow, during the dying years of the Soviet Union, young people queued in long lines to see his work at the Tretyakov Gallery. In Cuba in 1988 he was offered no fewer than three major exhibition spaces for a show of his work and Fidel Castro hosted a dinner in his honour at the Museo de la Revolución, the former presidential palace in Havana. And in the Venice Biennale of 1990, with the Soviet regime now at its last gasp, his work appeared in the Russian pavilion.
Despite this, his work does not have quite as much of an echo today as that of some of his contemporaries – for example that of his one-time lover Jasper Johns. In auction room terms it tends to lag just a little behind not only the prices for Johns, but also to the bids offered for the work of his contemporary Andy Warhol.
The new, very comprehensive retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern tends to explain much of this without the need for too many words. Rauschenberg’s work clearly leads straight on to what we have today. Often there’s not much, if anything, to choose between what you might have seen in a recent Turner Prize show and the kind of thing Rauschenberg was already producing in the late 1950s or early 1960s. One ought to be surprised by this synchronicity, but somehow one isn’t. And often both kinds of production, rather than looking excitingly radical, today tend to look a little bit tired. Rauschenberg offered new ways of harvesting and presenting vernacular images, but somehow the presentation has lost much of its force.
Rauschenberg’s work clearly leads straight on to what we have today.
The major difference is that the artistic children and grandchildren of Daddy Bob now tend to be grindingly political and full of their own radical righteousness, as they endlessly preach to us, their captive converted. Rauschenberg doesn’t sin in that way, though his work often looks rather lightweight in all senses, despite its ambitious scale. The huge sail-like Jammers of the mid-1970s are a case in point.
Rauschenberg’s work, like that of Johns, is often presented as a kind of bridge between Abstract Expressionism on the one hand and Pop Art on the other. It has the verve and untidiness of Ab Ex, and the recognizable demotic imagery typical of Pop. Yet in fact, when one looks more closely, Rauschenberg seems to have little in common with either of these flanking styles, but much that links him to Dada and, specifically, to Kurt Schwitters. He borrows freely from the popular imagery he saw all around him, and found new ways, not just of appropriating it, as Warhol did with existing publicity photographs of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, but of turning it into something else
I have to confess here that the section of the show that impressed me most – and maybe this indicates my own tendencies to intellectual snobbism – were Rauschenberg’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno. The basic technique used in these fairly small works on paper involved, as the exhibition catalogue tells one “clipping images from the printed mass media, moistening them with lighter fluid, placing them face down on a sheet of paper, and rubbing their backs with and old ballpoint pen, forcing he printed ink from the magazine page to the sheet blow.” The blurred results are magically suggestive of the verbal images in Dante’s text.
Another work I liked, which I‘d seen before in the Swedish museum that owns it, is the famous Monogram of 1955-59, which consists of a stuffed Agora goat encircled with a car tire, standing on top of a collage, which, in turn, is mounted of casters. God knows why this concoction haunts my imagination, but it does.
The truth is that, fascinated as I was by Rauschenberg’s restless experimentalism, I would have liked to be haunted a little more often.