Tate Modern explores the many sides of Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern, London, 1 December - 2 April 2017

by Ben Luke 

Robert Rauschenberg had a knack for explaining his work. “Painting,” he once wrote, “relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” One of the ways he mined that gap was to use the humdrum things around him. “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” he explained.

His use of found objects connects him back to Duchamp and forward to Pop art, and it is through those prisms—as Neo-Dada or proto-Pop—that Rauschenberg is often viewed. But the latest career survey of his work at Tate Modern, which tours in 2017 to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, seeks to capture a much broader artist, active for six decades and always on the move, geographically and temperamentally. 

Rauschenberg was a harbinger of the 21st-century artist. He leapt between painting, sculpture, conceptual art, photography and performance, and was always fascinated with new technologies. He explored the world widely and absorbed his travels into his art, especially after visits to China and India. He sought out collaboration with artists like Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, among others. “I personally love the sensual contact of collaborating,” he said. “Ideas are not real estate.”


The exhibition will satisfy those in search of Rauschenberg’s biggest hits. It includes a White Painting from the early 1950s; the Erased de Kooning drawing of 1953, an emblem of an era beyond Abstract Expressionism; and the Combines of the early 1960s, which are paintings, collages and sculptures at once. Just as fascinating are the less celebrated works. A room of his 1970s Jammers paintings, inspired by vividly colourful Indian fabrics, will likely be a serene moment amid a pacy show.

Among Rauschenberg’s most impressive qualities was his fleet-footedness. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while in the midst of his Combines, he managed to tour the world with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating several performances. He also found time for the silk-screens, created in an extraordinary burst of activity lasting barely 18 months. More minor artists have based their whole careers on far less.


Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983 - © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Foto courtesy Tate Photography



The venue: Tate Modern. The Tate’s last survey of Rauschenberg was in 1981.


The key works: The Tate has appropriately made a fuss over Monogram (1955-59), the Combine featuring a stuffed goat, which was not in the 1981 retrospective. But other works like Retroactive II (1963) from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago—a silk-screen with images of a not-long-dead John F. Kennedy and a parachuting astronaut—are similarly significant. 


The numbers: More than 200 items. The largest is Automobile Tire Print (1953), a collaboration with John Cage in which Rauschenberg asked the composer to drive his Model A Ford—its rear tyre had gone through a pool of black paint—across 20 sheets of paper. It stretches nearly 7m wide. The smallest works are illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, at around 30cm wide.


The museum says: “It is above all Rauschenberg’s role as a defining figure for contemporary practice that makes a retrospective of his career so timely now.” (Catalogue foreword by Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, and Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art.)



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