Collaboration, experiential installations, storytelling: working methods and media that the digital age has forced to the top of creative agendas, surely. Yet visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern, the first major retrospective of his work since his death in 2008, and you’ll find an artist who was grappling with these issues from the 1950s onwards.
Rauschenberg apparently never planned to be an artist. He initially trained as a pharmacist, and while always drawing, only struck on the idea of art as a vocation after seeing the paintings in Huntingdon Library in California while on a leave of absence from the navy (he had been drafted in 1944). He then went to art school, landing eventually at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a radical and unconventional institution.
There are works from this early period at Tate Modern, and Rauschenberg’s experimental approach – in both materials, which included the regular use of everyday ephemera, and ideas – are evident from the off. As is his playfulness and humour. We tend to think of Warhol as being the 60s go-to artist for witty art one-liners and jests but it turns out Rauschenberg can more than hold his own here too.
In 1953, he created the conceptual work Erased De Kooning Drawing, for which he approached William De Kooning, the established master of abstract art, to create an artwork in pencil that he would then, as its title suggests, rub out. De Kooning was game, to a point. He delivered a deeply complex work that took Rauschenberg several weeks to erase, though was less impressed when the younger artist exhibited the piece, with its faint remaining markings: this had not been part of the original deal.
Rauschenberg was subversive elsewhere too. When two of his close friends and collaborators, Susan Weil (Rauschenberg’s former wife) and Jasper Johns (a lover) found their work had been rejected for an annual exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1955, Rauschenberg created Short Circuit, a cabinet-style construction that featured paintings by Weil and Johns behind its doors. And thus they were smuggled in.
Tate Modern displays many of his striking ‘combines’ – works containing a multitude of different materials, a style that Rauschenberg is particularly known for. One, titled Gold Standard (1964) was created live on stage. Other interactive works from this period are more in keeping with classic 60s performance art ideas, including a work which featured a box containing objects chosen by the artist. Audience members were invited to take an object if they then replaced it with something of their own. Rauschenberg decided to stop displaying the work when people began to take items without giving in return, however.
Collaborations of a more formal kind abound too. The show documents Rauschenberg’s long-standing working partnership with composer John Cage and choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, which involved the production of many set designs for theatrical performances and TV shows. In the mid-60s, he co-founded the group Experiments in Art and Technology, which promoted the exploration by artists of the new technologies of the time, and in 1982 he created the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange, a project that was rooted in the idea that artistic exchange could bring different countries and communities together. Over the following decade he visited 11 countries around the world, working with local artists over several weeks to create exhibitions. There feels a slight naivety to these concepts now – sadly – in our commercially driven age, but both projects would undoubtedly still be hugely valuable and relevant today.
Rauschenberg’s art roamed across painting, sculpture, screenprints, digital photography, film, dance … all mediums appeared equal in his quest for artistic expression, and if he were still alive today he would surely be experimenting with the possibilities of VR and other new technologies to portray his ideas.
One of the most striking works in the Tate Modern show comes in the form of a screenprint created for a magazine cover in 1970. A reflection on the turbulent and wearing 60s, it features photographs of JFK and Robert Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King and Janis Joplin, who was to die just months after its creation. The work was rejected as a cover by Time (magazines, eh?) but burns brightly still today, not least for its power to sum up both the vibrancy and the political and cultural turmoil of the time. On looking at it, it’s impossible not to feel once again that we still need Rauschenberg with us, now more than ever.
Robert Rauschenberg is on show at Tate Modern until April 2; tate.org.uk