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Innovation and internationalism on show

05 December, 2016 — By John Evans

Robert Rauschenberg, poster for ROCI Cuba (Museo Nacional site)

TATE Modern director Frances Morris notes that without this artist Tracey Emin “could not have unmade her bed”.

She was speaking about the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and one of the artworks which features in a first major posthumous retrospective, which opens today (Thursday). Bed from 1955, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, partners on the show, is oil, graphite, toothpaste and fingernail polish on pillow, quilt, and sheet.

Though faded, it offers a good clue as to the eclectic nature of the materials used over six decades of trail-blazing output by the Texas-born Rauschenberg, from paintings, sculpture and photography, to his work with dancers and others; his own performance art, silk screens, “Combines” and late inkjet works.

There are early pieces, from Untitled (Double Rauschenberg) c1950, one of a series of blueprints he produced with his wife, artist Susan Weil, made by placing objects (himself here) on light-sensitive paper. From the same time there is The Lily White, oil and graphite on canvas, one of only four pieces to survive from his first solo show, an abstract but with the addition of text inspired by Green Grow the Rushes O.

Nearby is an early “Combine” attempt to merge painting and sculpture, with the addition of paint, mirror, and glass to change a Coca-Cola bottle-rack.

Rauschenberg wrote: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two).”

Co-curator, Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate’s director of exhibitions, has suggested Rauschenberg saw the experience of art as inseparable from the experience of life, so made work from all sorts of materials.

Highlights include the artist’s celebrated stuffed Angora goat, mounted on a painting, encircled by a rubber tyre, and with a tennis ball and the heel of a shoe. Monogram, 1955-59, on loan from Sweden, has not been in the UK since 1964.

Then there is Mud Muse, from 1968-71, a 12ft x 9ft tank filled with 1,000 gallons of bubbling Bentonite clay mixed with water. Also from Sweden, it’s a first for the UK. Frances Morris says that, given the current political climate and Rauschenberg’s commitment to collaboration and internationalism, the show is particularly timely. Shown across 11 rooms, it traces his work – of varying quality and intensity – and that with other artists and performers, among them Susan Weil, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning.

In January the Tate, in its Tanks area, will celebrate the importance performance and dance played in his work with a restaging of Set and Reset, by Trisha Brown Dance Company, using the original set and costumes created by Rauschenberg for her work. A section on travel examines the “Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange” or ROCI (1984-90) and highlights the artist’s trips to Mexico, Chile, Tibet, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Japan, Cuba and more.

A work from an exhibition staged locally was then donated to participating institutions before the project moved on. They were seen by over two million people across the world… and the project was seen by Rauschenberg as a testament to how art can cross political and cultural divides.

• Robert Rauschenberg is at Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG until April 2.


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