The first time I saw the film Casablanca, I must have been about twenty years old. I was sitting in my grimy student flat watching it on an old computer with my friend, when they turned to me part way through and said something strange. The film was incredible, they acknowledged, but the dialogue was making them cringe. Casablanca of course is now, and probably forever will be, famous for its incredible wealth of iconic lines. From Rick’s sad lament about ‘all the gin joints in town’ to perhaps the zenith of the picture’s dialogue as he and Ilsa say goodbye at the airport, it is responsible for some of the most memorable exchanges and suave one-liners of any film in history. But in reality, my friend wasn’t really commenting on the dialogue in Casablanca as much as the subsequent dialogue around the film. So much of it has become fodder for parody, imitation or even just general praise that even its most ground breaking moments have become over-worn clichés for many, making it hard to encounter the original film without a lot of distracting baggage. It begs the question, how does one say something interesting, original or relevant about work which has long been established as part of the canon?
Robert Rauschenberg is the quintessential ‘Iconic American Artist.’ His career, which spanned almost seven decades, traversed the spectrum of medium and method, and he has long resided as a prominent reference point in the history books of twentieth century American (and by extension Western) art. For a large museum such as Tate Modern in London to present an exhibition of his work that bills itself as the first full-scale retrospective since his death in 2008, a cynical viewer might think that the odds are very much against the curators being able to avoid the obvious pitfalls of re-treading the artist’s long established mythology. Exhibitions such as these in particular are almost always organised chronologically at Tate, frequently trading the opportunity to explore darker corners of the artist’s practice in favour of a more accessible narrative approach.
In the case of Rauschenberg, one immediate impression this raises is just how many significant American art figures the artist crossed paths with during the early stages of his career, both personally and professionally. By the time you enter the third room of the exhibition, the accompanying texts have already name-checked Susan Weil, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as well as Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers. These diverse influences, from his time at Black Mountain to his travels in Southern Europe and Northern Africa, are reflected in the different materials and working approaches which Rauschenberg explored throughout his life.
Some of the most exciting examples of this are the Combines, ostensibly paintings but augmented with objects and found elements to create incredible three dimensional collages. Arguably the most famous of these is Monogram 1955-59, a sculptural work which incorporates a stuffed Angora goat framed by a rubber tire amongst a host of other esoteric materials. Aside from being some of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition, they also act as a gateway into Rauschenberg’s work with Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This involved working with sets and costumes with increasingly levels of artistic confidence and freedom, leading to ever more complex physical works that existed as both sculptural pieces and performance props.
Arguably it’s the work which Rauschenberg began to make in the mid-1960s (after controversially winning the prize for painting at the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964) which accounts for the exhibition’s most fascinating section. After leaving Merce Cummingham Dance Company in 1964, Rauschenberg co-founded the Judson Dance Theatre. Here he actively started to create his own performance work, culminating in 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering in collaboration with Billy Klüver in 1966. Featuring 30 Bell Lab engineers working with a host of artists, the success of the piece led to the creation of ‘Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) to further explore the melding of science and the arts. The selection of works documents the early years of E.A.T collectively suggest not only an open and exploratory approach to concepts of medium and collaboration, but also improvisation and development.
These are further illustrated by Mud Muse 1968-71, one of the strongest sculptural works in the whole exhibition, and a synergetic meeting of Rauschenberg’s attitudes to both material and technology. The work features a metal tank containing roughly 1000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with water, which bubbles and coughs in response to the sound generated by the bubbling. At play here is both the technical element of the work’s construction, as well as a refreshingly subtle but acute incorporation of sound as a medium. The work is also noted in the accompanying text as addressing the concerns of the era, in terms of both the formless nature and industrial attributes of the objects themselves.
Of the final rooms, one of the most interesting sections of work relates to the ‘Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange,’ or ROCI, which took place from 1984-1990. During this period, the artist travelled to a number of countries viewed at the time as having repressive or closed off systems in an effort to posit art as a communicative social and political tool; works from Mexico, China, East Germany, Cuba and the Soviet Union are on display, though the selection of countries is not exhaustive. The artist’s collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown on Glacial Decoy from 1979 is also a major highlight. Here his sculptural approach to set design incorporated photographic projections that slowly changed as the performers moved across the stage. The work was later revisited in 1985 when Rauschenberg went to China as part of the ROCI.
In his final years, Rauschenberg returned to the kind of photographic collage elements which could be found in his earlier work with silkscreen printing from the 1960s. In these later pieces, the pieces are tinged with an almost nostalgic hue, as the increasingly frail artist (he suffered two strokes towards the end of his life) looked back over his life and work. Walking through this collection of later pieces, I had a fleeting sense that there was less of the energy that made much of the rest of the exhibition feel new, in spite of how familiar so much of the work is. In fairness however, that may well have been a distorted appraisal that unfortunately mirrors my friend’s reaction to the dialogue in Casablanca. When viewed in the context of his career, the works reflect not only Rauschenberg’s continued interest in technological developments (in this case digital printing and image storing), but also a keen awareness of what his practice meant in a wider sense. While perhaps visually colder in their largely digital essence, they undoubtedly round off the curator’s intended narrative of relentless development and experimentation.
Is the retrospective overly reverent? Certainly, though it’s difficult not to walk through these galleries and understand just why the artist is so prominently featured in the Western canon. As with many previous large scale artist retrospectives, that kind of justification may well be considered a successful end in itself. Brief moments of cynicism aside, there is no question here that the artist’s work was both ground breaking and highly influential, and to have access to so much of it in one space is a rare and rewarding opportunity.
By Will Gresson