"Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces"; Menil Collection, Houston

Article excerpt

BORIS KARLOFF IN THE MUMMY. Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Whether inspired by such luminous Hollywood hieroglyphs or (according to Menil director Josef Helfenstein) by a book given to him by Marian B. Javits, wife of the New York senator, Robert Rauschenberg's "Early Egyptians," 1973-74, the series ending his cardboard-related works, all quietly glimmer in a gaudy twilight, due to Day-Glo pigment painted on their backsides in orange, yellow, pink, green, violet; situated near the edges of a room, as they were last spring in the Menil Collection's "Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces," the sculptures wallflower and radiate. Such artificial sunsets bare sculpture's solar anus (which many still don't know what to do with), complicating rote frontality with liminal crepuscular space. Oscar Wilde observed that actual sunsets only flaunt the worst faults, exaggerated and overemphasized, of art; Rauschenberg, having it both ways, sets the mood with Tinseltown special effects and budget magic, slapping the natural on the wrist for its longueurs while making Dan Flavin's contemporaneous, plugged-in effects look strenuous (and so unecological).

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In Untitled (Early Egyptian), 1973, any gaps or seams in the slightly off-kilter stack of five unevenly sized boxes have been occluded by careful mummy swaddling, strips of what appears to be cheesecloth or gauze encrusted with sand, nature's diamond dust dimly sparkling. Neatly wrapped in sabulous bandages, at times with a bow, like a present or Jackie O. (her early '70s hiding-behind-scarves-and-glasses look), the column is adorned with a headdress or wig of a bolster--assembled from patterned fabric, red-checked and polka-dotted--which droops over the edges of the top box, a sad, unlikely brioche. Almost hugging the wall, the untitled work activates sibylline, antifreeze-green atmospherics in the no-man's-land behind it; the happy fact that the sculpture's back and the backstage goings-on can't easily be accessed only emphasizes their importance, as if revealing a hitherto untapped pleasure principle, neither simply sculptural, relational, or gestalt, capturing something not easily broached in human language. At a moment when Conceptualism preened, Rauschenberg materialized the mute moods and zones of things.

Sadly, the Menil's exhibition, which was organized by Helfenstein, included only three "Early Egyptians." Laid out chronologically, the show opened with the "Cardboards," 1971-72, the first series Rauschenberg completed after leaving New York and moving to Captiva, Florida. Next the artist experimented with the limits of verisimilitude: The "Cardbirds" of 1971-72 echo the "Cardboards" but are in fact "original collage prints ... hand-screened, hand-made and hand-assembled," as described in the mail-order catalogue of Gemini G.E.L., which created the works in collaboration with the artist; the "Tampa Clay Pieces," 1972-73, uncannily resembling readymade cardboard, are ceramic. Later Rauschenberg would make "Cardbirds" out of bronze as well. For the "Venetians" and, finally, the "Early Egyptians," he returned to the original found material. Many of the thirty-five works on display at the Menil still belong to Rauschenberg himself. (Unwanted? Unconsidered, or inconsiderable?) While the installation was straightforward, it was also enthralling: Other than the infrequent, piecemeal appearance of select objects in survey contexts, the works had never been seen together since their first gallery presentations in the early '70s. The cardboard series have become my favorite works of Rauschenberg's, and among them the "Early Egyptians" in particular--although the exuberant audacity of the Combines, whose referential invention and pack-rat intensity these later works deconstruct with seemingly nonchalant abandon, makes it difficult to choose.

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In his essay for the fine, comprehensive catalogue that accompanies the show, Yve-Alain Bois writes that the "Cardboards" address three contexts: "[Rauschenberg's] own past production, modernism in general, and the contemporary scene. …

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