Christmas has come early for Robert Rauschenberg fans. With a retrospective that spans six decades of relentlessly prolific output, the Tate has laid on the works with a rich, indulgent, and only slightly gluttonous, visual feast.
While his early monochromes offer up much food for thought, Rauschenberg is best known for his combine paintings, and the Tate has managed to secured loans of some of his most iconic works. Big, beautiful, messy, irreverent, democratically colourful hybrids of genre; prescient masterpieces or childish folly depending on who you ask. The Texan trailblazer strode confidently against the cult of the action painters, rejecting their existential rhetoric and intensely subjective approach (“It was all about suffering and self-expression and the state of things. I just wasn’t interested in that”). He foregrounded instead the material life and commodified culture surrounding him. Where the abstract expressionists sought harmony and purification of the pictorial space, his neo-avant-garde instead aimed to diminish the authorial role of the artist and bridge the gap between art and life. Which is why the timing of the Tate’s exhibition couldn’t be better. Where the RA’s abstract expressionism show is grand, awe inspiring, palpably emotive and hauntingly sublime, the Rauschenberg show offers a welcomed chaser, equally sweet and salty, to heady waters imbibed across the river. This isn’t to say the work is any less important. Rauschenberg was a pivotal figure in course of art history, challenging not only prevailing notions of artistic identity, but also the function of the picture plane and the very experience of viewing art work.
Composer and collaborator John Cage once said, “There is no more subject in a combine then than there is in a page from a newspaper. Each thing that is there is a subject… anyone of them could be removed and another come into its place.” He suggests that a certain multiplicity and temporality exists in the experience of a combine, that to appreciate the them one must approach from a perspective that breaks with conventional modes of viewing. Largely comprised of found objects and images, visual detritus, the very stuff of experience, the content of Rauschenberg’s combines is often mistaken for their underlying subject. To Cage’s newspaper analogy: there is no suggestion that value of the broadsheet is mitigated by the transience of a headline, just as the banality and interchange-ability of Rauschenberg’s image/objects don’t undermine, but perhaps even heighten, their identity as aspects of material culture. The subject matter here is more than an amalgam of this “stuff”, but an operational process which unfolds before the viewer. For Rauschenberg, the picture plane had to react to the temporal nature of contemporary culture and thereby be experienced in a similarly durational mode.
Many of Rauschenberg’s combines exist not so much as cohesive compositions as they do receptacles for data; work surfaces upon which processing and tabulation occurs. This temporal unfolding is enforced by very fact that his combines resist visual assimilation- the eye is constantly roaming the picture plane. In contrast to the traditional verticality of the renaissance picture plane, which is dependent on head-to-toe correspondence with the viewer, with his combines Rauschenberg introduced the “flat-bed” plane and in doing so completely reoriented the pictorial surface so that it was no longer representative of a world space, but an analogue of operational processes. He transferred the focus of the painting from nature to culture. The surface in a combine becomes a levelling field in which all objects take on equal density and value. And the so-called arbitrary selection and assemblage of “subjects” in his combines have significant repercussions in terms of our viewing experience; he engages us in a perceptual challenge in which our attention and stamina tested to keep up with the ever-evolving surface of the work. “Listening happens in time. Looking also had to happen in time.” He wants us to scan rather than stare.
Cage later said of Rauschenberg’s paintings that, “Perhaps after all there is no message. In that case one is saved the trouble of having to reply.” But Rauschenberg’s paintings very much demand a reply. They exist as a challenge to our perception in which our gaze must rapidly respond. Rauschenberg offers art as affirmation of our material lives rather than presenting a transcendental experience (oh irony that the Tate has enshrined these works in Perspex!). He engaged his picture plane with all elements of contemporary culture, and reflected the effects of a complicated, capricious, commodity driven society and its implications for art. Rauschenberg’s paintings undermine our collective need for immediate visual consumption and declare a certain instability of signification. Inviting meaning to incoherence? Timely subject these days.
Words By Sarah Millar
Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern, London, 1 December 2016- April 2 2017.