Painter, sculptor, printmaker, photographer, performance artist. Robert Rauschenberg, one of art world’s most prominent outsiders and individualists, worked across movements and disciplines between 1950 and 1998. Both an abstract expressionist and pop artist, his work is colourful, vibrant and experimental, with the single shared purpose of reaching out to the viewer, whether using 3D collages or responsive technology.
With such a huge body of work, it must have been a challenge for the Tate to bring it together in a cohesive way. Spanning 11 rooms, the exhibition is vast with surprises around every corner, from videos of troupes of dancers to painted taxidermy goats wearing car tires. The result could have been chaotic and overwhelming, but it just turns out to be extraordinary, an exhibition so rich with artistic variety and experimental flair that it reflects one of Rauschenberg’s works itself.
What is clear about Rauschenberg is that he was an artist bursting with ideas. As we learn in the first room, he described the themes of his work as ‘multiplicity, variety and inclusion.’ There are two canvases of opaque black and white which represent objectivism and purity respectively. With the white canvas we see Rauschenberg begin to play with the idea of representing the audience through the shadows of passers-by appearing on the canvas. We also see the famous Erased de Kooning Drawing, where Rauschenberg use forty erasers over one month to erase a whole drawing, to see if that itself could become art. Squinting to see the lines of the previous drawing on the page gives the piece a sense of intrigue, as well as perfectly representing Rauschenberg’s tendency to reconstruct and reinvent that he builds upon in the proceeding rooms.
Rauschenberg certainly wasn’t interested in just mastering and refining a single skill. You can almost feel his restlessness as you walk through, there is a whole room dedicated to his love of using the colour red because of the difficulty to control it, and he had a tendency to stick mirrors, lights and scrap metal on canvases just to see if it changed anything. Rauschenberg wanted to counter the stillness of a canvas, choosing to display the real by using found objects and making them protrude out of the canvas. Combines is arguably the most eccentric room, with Monogram standing in the centre, a stuffed Angora goat on a canvas with a tire, like something you’d stumble upon in a particularly eccentric antique shop or junk yard. Placed oddly on the wall is Bed, covered in splats of paint and indicating a sense of intimacy. The majority of these pieces attempt to engage the viewer (quite ironic when you consider the large alarmed space that separates you from them) with ladders lodged between canvases, mirrors and shoes hanging from paint-splattered screens that dare you to reach out and touch.
An obsession with experimentation and going one step further was perhaps Rauschenberg’s primary passion. His combines attempted to, as he famously said, ‘bridge the gap between art and life’ and he attempts to fulfill this in multifarious ways. His silkscreens are perhaps his most famous and accessible works, bringing together iconic images from popular culture including the moon landing, John F Kennedy and the Vietnam War, placing them chaotically together overlaid with abstract brushstrokes. These enormous pieces are a quintessential example of the pop art style emerging at the time, taking images from popular culture and transforming them into colourful, larger than life prints. Despite some of the powerful and resonant political images included, Rauschenberg’s silk screens feel like scraps randomly combined together, capturing the American spirit in a consciously distorted manner.
Veering sharply away from the canvas, Rauschenberg experimented with movement and responsiveness. His performance art work began after being incorrectly credited as a choreographer for a performance and deciding to give it a shot anyway, choreographing performances such as Pelican where he and another dancer skate with parachutes on their backs. This interest in how humans can control and interpret movement further influenced some of the most interesting and experimental pieces in the exhibition such as Oracle, a 5 piece metal assemblage including a running water fountain and eerie distorted music playing in the background. Mud Muse presents water mixed with bentonite in a large vat, which bubbles when it senses the sound of people walking around it. These works suggest that Rauschenberg saw the act of using many different types of material and adopting modern technologies as a way in which to generate both emotional and physical reactions from the viewer.
Although the variety of Rauschenberg’s work is certainly engaging, you wonder whether there was much else to his work than the idea of experimentation itself. There are instances where we see some of Rauschenberg’s cultural and political inspirations shine through, such as his colourful muslin cloth canvases created after falling in love with textiles on a trip to India, and his use of gas canisters to express his frustration at the 1980s oil crisis (by which he wanted to ‘show people their ruins’). An artistic life of pulling things apart and sticking odd objects together certainly leaves you with unique results, but doesn’t necessarily give any clear artistic direction, and sometimes his work leaves you wondering how he could have developed on each of his chosen mediums.
The question of ‘what is art?’ is about as divisive of a topic as it gets, and this exhibition documents the career of an artist who saw art in absolutely everything. Rauschenberg was a pioneer of using every kind of material possible, combining it together to create unique effects. The result is a visually stunning and wonderfully eccentric exhibition that considers how art has the ability to not just reflect but pervade our reality through the possibilities of experimentation.
Robert Rauschenberg runs from 1 December – 2 April 2017 at Tate Modern. Tickets are £16.80 with concessions available, find out more here.