Robert Rauschenberg: Tate Modern, London

By Skrebowski, Luke | Artforum International, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Robert Rauschenberg: Tate Modern, London


Skrebowski, Luke, Artforum International


ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG'S multifarious art was driven by a restless, self-critical inventiveness that he sustained across an uncommonly long and productive career. This full retrospective at Tate Modern, curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume and Leah Dickerman and covering all six decades of the artist's practice, came nine years after the artist's death and nearly forty years since his last major show in the UK, a surprisingly extended absence for such a canonical figure. The exhibition therefore stood as both a rare opportunity to see the full range of Rauschenberg's work for the first time in this country and a major curatorial statement on his practice.

This was, more or less, a conventional monographic show, and was thus subject to the well-understood risk of the format--namely, its implicit bias toward emphasizing isolated artistic exceptionality. Yet the curators made a sustained effort to sidestep this limitation, opening up the exhibition toward recognition of the communities of practice oriented around shared artistic problems from which most significant artistic work emerges. Such an approach is a particular necessity in Rauschenberg's case, given the inextricable connections between his art and an extended group of interlocutors and collaborators; writing in 1974, he described his compulsive desire both to make and to share. Indeed, after the show crossed the Atlantic to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it opened on May 21 (just before this issue went to press), it gained the subtitle "Among Friends," a fitting acknowledgment of collaboration animated by affective bonds.

The curators structured the exhibition according to a hybrid chronological-thematic schema, with each individual room mapped to a particular way of working or individual technique: "Silkscreens" preceded a room of "Live" work, which was succeeded by "Technology," and so on. This approach emphasized discrete phases of Rauschenberg's work but also allowed us to observe continuities among the diverse strains of his practice, most obviously his career-long commitment to collage as well as his open attentiveness to the given qualities of his materials across different types of facture (Rauschenberg described his artistic process as a "collaboration" with materials).

This approach also structured the show's substantial catalogue, which features contributions by a notable group of scholars and curators, several of whom assisted directly with the exhibition. The publication deserves particular mention as an integral part of the show's achievement, as it does much to synthesize and extend a wide range of recent scholarship on Rauschenberg's work--scholarship that, moreover, deeply informed the conception and organization of the exhibition itself. A significant omission, however, is any contribution written explicitly from the perspective of queer theory. Rauschenberg's sexuality, and the importance of his intertwining personal and artistic lives, received brief mention in various wall labels, but overall the issue was treated rather inadequately, even prudishly, given the artistic centrality of Rauschenberg's lovers and the clear interrelations between their work and his own.

This caveat aside, the show was a major exhibition that did much to consolidate our understanding of the artist. It opened with a densely installed selection of Rauschenberg's earliest work, combining pieces made after he had studied at the (very different) institutions of Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Art Students League of New York up until his departure from his New York Fulton Street studio in 1955. Here we saw Rauschenberg working through a series of avant-garde strategies with great speed and intensity: the photogram (executed with his then wife, Susan Weil), the monochrome (including Untitled [Black Painting] and the celebrated John Cage-influencing White Paintings, both 1951), and the Dada and Surrealist found object (as in "Scatole personali" [Personal Boxes], ca. …

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