At Tate Modern

Hal Foster

Hal Foster reviews the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern.

‘He has created more than any artist after Picasso,’ Jasper Johns said of Robert Rauschenberg, his one-time partner, and the Rauschenberg retrospective now at Tate Modern (until 2 April) fully attests to the sheer abundance of his six-decade career (he died in 2008). There are impressive inventions here, such as his extravagant combinations of painting, collage and sculpture, as well as mixed experiments, such as his rambunctious forays into new media technologies, but there is a lot of recycling and wheel-spinning too. No review can take it all in, so I will focus on one early phase, a key moment when, after a brief sojourn in Rome and North Africa with Cy Twombly, another close friend, Rauschenberg returned to New York in spring 1953 and set up a studio on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan.

Before his tour abroad Rauschenberg had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where, with teachers such as the former Bauhaus master Josef Albers, he absorbed as many avant-garde experiments as he could. By contrast Fulton Street was a period of reduction and redirection. It was then that Rauschenberg elaborated his materialist reinterpretations of the monochrome, known as the White and Black Paintings, as well as his rudimentary arrangements of found rock, scrap metal and old twine, known as the Elemental Sculptures. What motivated such austere works? What prompted his interest not only in material process but also in conceptual gestures? It was during this time, too, that Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning, whom he greatly admired, for a drawing, which he then laboriously erased. This is a bizarre collaboration, but a collaboration nonetheless, and this distinctive aspect of his artistic practice was also developed on Fulton Street.

Although the White and Black Paintings qualify as monochromes, in other respects they are opposed. Applied with rollers on panels, the Whites have little inflection, and Rauschenberg said they could be repainted, even remade (as some were in 1965 and 1968), while the Blacks have almost too much texture: built up of newspaper strips dipped in paint, glued to canvas, then coated with more paint, they appear worn and fragile, and some show a range of colour and tone too. The Whites appear pristine, empty, flat and serial; the Blacks look rough, full, encrusted and singular. This makes the Whites seem porous to the world and the Blacks closed to it, which is largely how they were received. In keeping with his own desire to suppress authorship and to invite indeterminacy, John Cage called the White Paintings ‘airports’ for ambient accidents of light, shadow and dust. ‘If one were sensitive enough that you could read [them],’ Rauschenberg added, ‘you would know how many people were in the room, what time it was, and what the weather was like outside.’ For their part the Black Paintings insist on objecthood in ways that go beyond ravaged surfaces; tacked directly to supports, they were presented without frames, and Rauschenberg often photographed them among everyday things. As the curator Walter Hopps commented, they also underscore ‘the fact of a new urban surface’.

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