Rauschenberg’s Photographies

The first work by Robert Rauschenberg to enter a public collection was a pair of black and white photographs purchased by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department. In light of the noisy Pop assemblages for which Rauschenberg is known, these are straightforward pictures—a buggy and a portrait of his artist friend Cy Twombly: classic American silents with a streak of Surrealism. They also speak of the artist’s early ambition. As a student at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, where  Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind were fellow students, and where Rauschenberg received his first photography instruction from Hazel Larsen Archer, Rauschenberg says he was temporarily tempted to become a photographer. Ultimately he took a less focused course, making art into “the kind of adventure [he] enjoyed, like walking down the street,” often with a camera in hand.

As benefits its subject—a painter, sculptor, photographer, printmaker, dancer, performance artist, theater set designer, fresco painter, Mud Muse-maker, world traveler, new technologies buff and first postmodernist—Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective is a gargantuan show. In New York, it filled both the Guggenheim Museum’s uptown and Soho locations, then spilled over into Ace Gallery, a veritable bunker of commercial gallery space on the fringe of Soho, where The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, a large-scale, Pop-operatic installation that has been unfurling since 1981, was on view. Organized for the museum by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson of The Menil Collection with an important contribution on Rauschenberg’s performance by the Museum’s own Nancy Spector, the curatorial conceit is distinctly Hopps’s. In the catalog (also mammoth), Hopps compares Rauschenberg, to the artist Charles Willson Peale, who, in a well-known self portrait of 1822, proudly pulls back a curtain to reveal his seemingly endless collection of art and artifacts—the first museum in America. (For which, Peale subsidized the excavation of an entire mastodon skeleton.) The same analogy might be extended to Hopps, who staged the first Rauschenberg survey as a Bicentennial event in 1976 for the Smithsonian, and who once again pulls back the curtain, this time on a presentation composed by a lifetime’s intimacy, enthusiasm and full participation in the artist’s love of the encyclopedic. The exhibition is nearly a catalog raisonné in the round. For the viewer, it’s a lot—really too much—to absorb, and no doubt would be better served by fewer works. But for the Rauschenberg devotee (myself included), this was an opportunity to see the work on its own super-abundant terms and to explore in detail the roles and guises of one of its most consistent means: photography.

Rauschenberg was introduced to the photogram technique in 1950 by Susan Weil (their collaborative photograms were included in the 1951 MoMA exhibition). In one of these almost life-sized studies, a woman washed in light clutches a cane as if to keep from blowing away in the wind that is billowing her skirts. It’s a ghostly image, fixing in blueprint the shadows that Rauschenberg originally envisioned flitting across his pure white paintings of 1951. (At the Guggenheim the White Paintings were rendered purely conceptual [really defunct] by barriers on the floor that keep viewers and their unruly shadows impossibly at bay.) Altogether these first works—the prints, photograms, white canvases—are emblematic of Rauschenberg’s indexical approach to representation: non-narrative, radically ephemeral and, in that the pictures practically make themselves, almost un-authored. The presence of Marcel Duchamp—who also liked to play with shadows, to casually mark junctures of time and space and who preferred to leave things open in his art—looms large over these first gestures by Rauschenberg.

What makes Rauschenberg’s work so compelling (and perhaps prolific) is that the opposite impulses—to make pictures, to narrate, to construct allegory, to invent—are equally profound. The critical precedent here—explicitly conjured by early collages and box-like constructions (such as the Scatole Personali of 1952) and later called forth through concert themes—is Joseph Cornell. Both artists create worlds out of ephemera, trash and photography, collected, collated, collages into art. And like Cornell, who compulsively stocked photographs of favorite images, Rauschenberg’s art can also be read in terms of an archive. Over time, images routinely re-appear (the Rokeby Venus, John F. Kennedy, a pail), at first as if through convenience (pictures near at hand), then more rigorously recycled, as if refining the elements in a grand narrative. This has its pragmatic aspect: in 1980 Rauschenberg was sued for copyright infringement. He has since drawn more heavily on his photographs, making the structure of his archive—its limits, its themes—increasingly apparent.

The two not-necessarily-contradictory side of Rauschenberg’s art (Duchamp and Cornell) are famously married early on in the survey, by the mid-1950s, with the “flatbed picture plane.” This is the term art historian Leo Steinberg coined to mark the inception of postmodernism within Rauschenberg’s Combines. “Neither painting nor sculpture but a combination of the two,” the Combines realize the artist’s expressed desire “to bridge the gap between art and life” by importing wholesale to his art the sights, sounds and stuff of the world. There are pictures of things reproduced in snapshots, book and newspaper pages, and the things themselves: chickens, shoes, mirrors, dirt, paint. This in not art as mirror, but art as an index, a plane upon which things land, adhere and resonate. The triumphal arch of all flatbed pictures Monogram (1955-59), stand about one third of the way up the Guggenheim spiral. For photography, look under the taxidermied Angora goat with a tire around its belly and paint daubed on its face to the canvas laying on the floor encrusted with pigment, old boards, signs and other elements of collage. There is a photograph and, nearby it, a footprint inked on paper. As mundane as these might appear amidst the spectacularly shocking surroundings, it is these two indexical items that segue into the next major phase of Rauschenberg’s art: the silkscreen paintings and transfer drawings.

Initiated by Dante’s Inferno (1958-60), an ambitious illustrative picture cycle tucked away in a side gallery, these images are certainly less cumbersome and crude than the Combines. Driven almost exclusively by photographic reproductions transferred onto paper and canvas as rubbings and montage, the work of the 1960s might be seen as the platonic union of the index and the construct. However, in her catalog essay (the only one primarily on photography), Rosalind Krauss detects a step away from the non-literal flatbed approach and recourse to old-fashioned allegory with its attendant associations and narratives. The smoking gun is Rauschenberg’s straight photography, which Kraus describes in damning WPA terms (“the frontality, the relentless focus”) thus underscoring what she finds to be the conventionality of his work in general. (“We would sooner expect him to share a sensibility with Robert Frank,” she writes.) Krauss’s essay is compelling reading (moving effortlessly and pointedly from Breton to Richter) and yet, in the end, seems overdetermined, pinning its subject into a tight analytical corner that the work—by way of its generous movement and strong visual intelligence—patently resists.

Returning to Rauschenberg’s photography one finds more than just refried Walker Evans. Starting in the late ‘40s, and continuing to the present is a body of work that on one hand informs and on the other stands independent of the artist’s assemblage. At The Guggenheim, the photographs were grouped in side galleries along with other works on paper and primarily served the role of fueling the Combines and silkscreens installed out on the ramp with fresh batches of images. But in a concurrent New York exhibition at Pace/Wildenstein/MacGill Gallery, Rauschenberg’s straight photography was allowed to stand on its own. RR Fulton Street Studio, NYC, a studio interior of 1951, is practically a Combine before the fact: fetish-like found objects on a shelf, postcard reproductions and a scrappy fabric curtain come to rest on the plane of the studio wall. Moving out of the studio, recurrent motifs are staircases, hand-painted signs, empty streets and headless bodies. These together, with the kind of strange juxtapositions and framing devices that give rise to a sense of the uncanny in everyday life, evoke Surrealism in general and Henri Cartier-Bresson in particular. Both artists were inveterate travelers, who quested further and further afield to fuel their pictorial appetites. Rauschenberg has spent great portions of the past two decades on extended exotic sojourns—for example, the Rauschenberg Oversees Culture Interchange (or ROCI), the artist’s personally incorporated adventure to encourage international exchange, took him to Tibet, Chile, Russia, among other places—collaborating with local craftsmen, taking pictures and making great souvenirs.

It’s difficult not to be dismissive of much of the late work—large-scaled and expensive-looking—on view at the Soho Guggenheim. It doesn’t appear to demand the kind of looking (or, for that matter, thinking) required by the earlier work in the retrospective. These are big easy gestures, drawing on familiar photographs, at their best sweepingly cinematic (the tarnished Night Shades, 1991), at the worst simply inflated (the brassy Boreali, 1989). The photographically-minded spectator will want to tap any reserve energy for viewing the artist’s films and performance documents. Early choreography, such as Pelican (1965), shows the artist at his most intense and potent, an innocent and true believer in the power of art to draw participants (viewers, other artists, dogs, chickens…) into life. Something of the reverse is also true, when one starts to measure Rauschenberg’s influence on other artists: Gerhard Richter says he felt permission to paint after seeing Rauschenberg’s contribution to the 1959 Documenta; and, as far as younger generations, there is precedent in Rauschenberg’s work for artists as diverse as Matthew Barney, Jason Rhoades, Jessica Stockholder and Wolfgang Tillmans, to name but a few.

Given the nearly constant presence of photography and photographic reproduction throughout the 40 years of work on view, one might argue that Rauschenberg never abandoned his initial ambition to be a photographer. (For that matter, the inquisitive and accumulative Rauschenberg seemingly never rejected anything that came his way.) He simply refused photography’s departmentalization, and with it, at times, art’s own marginalized status in society at large. (In 1987 he designed a wine label for Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago, testified against Judge Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, and initiated a new body of work when he discovered a new technique for bleaching photographs.) In the work of Rauschenberg, a consummate sampler, photography gives way to photographies: what better means of fulfilling the desire to make art that is simultaneously abstract and allegorical, autobiographical and global, archival and indexical, in the museum and of the media, enduring and ephemeral, actual and fictitious. What better way to do all this and walk down the street at the same time?