I rather fell in love with the work of Robert Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern yesterday. It made me feel nostalgic for homemade playgrounds and hippie communes where everything is recycled and has paint on it. It feels like a relentlessly joyful artist has been let loose in a junkyard and made everything much more beautiful and greater than the sum of its parts.
OCA tutor Bryan Eccleshall’s enthusiasm for this show was infectious and justified. He explained in advance that Rauschenberg sits in the space between abstract expressionism and pop. For Bryan, the former is a rather dangerous place based on high-brow purity and an increasingly reductive approach, an easy vehicle to promote capitalist elitism. The apparent chaos was actually very controlled in the search for universal truths.
RR said: “You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist and, er, I think I always considered that a waste.”  Instead this work is buzzing with ideas and exchanges with ‘multiplicity, variety and inclusion’ being the stated themes of his art.
The chronological curation of the show seemed a bit pedestrian given the dizzy heights of Rauschenberg’s innovative and eccentric approach. I always find it a bit depressing seeing the last room before the gift shop entitled ‘Late Works’ or similar. I look around with my OCA hat on and try to ascertain how the artist has developed and improved through their assignments over the years. In this case, the final room is dominated by the huge three-panel Port of Entry (1998) which I found to be one of the most appealing works.
“Working with photographs printed on transparent sheets enabled him to experiment with multiple arrangements on the work’s three large adjoining panels, overlapping and repeating imagery as needed to create a layered yet unified composition.” 
- RR had considered becoming a photographer and his blueprints with Susan Weil revealed this early interest. In later years photography became very important again and was a key element of Rauschenberg’s proactive way of looking at the world.
- The viewer was always of utmost importance and RR played with scale to “collapse the division between the space of the viewer and that of the painting”. He used actual depth, illusion and reflection.
- RR wanted to counter the ‘stillness’ of paintings. His work comes off the wall, engaging the viewer often in a sculptural way and in some cases via performance.
- The ‘Combine’ works feature scavenged materials and celebrate everyday objects for their own form or texture or beauty. Spatial tensions are essential here.
- RR wanted to work in “that gap between art and life”. His use of mirrors and everyday objects such as neckties or umbrellas goes towards bridging that gap. The inclusion of reflective materials also signifies RR’s desire for collaboration.
- Travel was crucial – not least escaping the non-artistic environment of Port Arthur, Texas. RR seems to have been an exceptionally curious person, determined not to be stuck in a creative rut. Once he knew he could do something he would move on. Having won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he had all his remaining silk screens destroyed to avoid the possibility of repeating himself. He later embarked on a lengthy cultural exchange, visiting oppressed peoples in various countries.
- Most of the work on display has a narrative element but not necessarily a hierarchy, central focus or even a starting point. In the collages, the images and elements all vie for attention and allow the viewer to prioritise and interpret and respond in a very personal way. He also uses grids to encourage comparisons and new readings and to experiment with accidents (eg in Factum 1 & 2). Here we are reminded how the smallest details can change the whole rhythm of an image.
- “…the end of the 1960s found him weary and disillusioned. Senator Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been murdered; the Vietnam War was dragging on; and the country was torn apart by riots in the struggle for Civil Rights. Rauschenberg was increasingly tired of both technology and New York.” (from exhibition booklet)
- Like with Georgia O’Keeffe, a sense of place was important to RR. His response to NYC is evident in much of his art and his move to Captiva Island in 1971 gave him a renewed energy and fresh approach to work.
- In 1970 Time magazine commissioned RR to produce a cover image for the new decade. The end result was rejected. Signs “was conceived to remind us of the love, terror, violence of the last ten years,” Rauschenberg explained, “Danger lies in forgetting.” 
The use of layers of transparency/opacity. Shades (1964) is made of six lithographs on plexiglas with a light source within to create depth and atmosphere. Spectacular:
Collaboration was critical to RR’s career. He worked closely with his friends and lovers John Cage, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham and Susan Weil.
The use of scrap and the links via rope or wire – extension of the space and a sense that the art needs to be chained up or weighted or grounded adds to the kinetic energy. I need to stop thinking of my photography in isolation from the other types of art that I make and experiment more with mixing media and taking a proactively ‘inter-disciplinary’ approach.
How would Rauschenberg be using new tech and social media if he were in his prime today? “A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”