Robert Rauschenberg is Tate Modern’s Big Autumn show and is the first posthumous retrospective, and the largest exhibition of the artist’s work, for more than 20 years. Just glancing into the first couple of galleries, and seeing the vibrancy, the colour, the vigour and the audacity, it is well worth the wait. This is a joyful and exciting show, and one can sense the fun he had experimenting with different mediums and collaborating with other artists, like Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly and Susan Wiel, or avant garde dancers and composers like Merce Cunningham and John Cage.
He seemed to be a man without a comfort zone to be out of, allowing him to produce innovative and startlingly original ideas; he was at the forefront of twentieth century art for six decades. Looking around today’s contemporary art scene, one realises not just what a colossal influence he was, but also, how little is original, from Tracey Emin to Damien Hurst.
Not only was he was one of the painters to veer away from Abstract Expressionism, having spent some time under the ex-Bauhaus tutor Josef Albers, he became one of pre-cursors and founding fathers of Pop Art in America and used media, trash and found objects in his work, being labelled a Neo Dadaist on the way, along with Jasper Johns. In 1990, he created the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RRF) to promote awareness of the causes he cared about, such as world peace, the environment and humanitarian issues.
Rauschenberg became well known for his “Combines” of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations. Rauschenberg was both a painter and a sculptor, and the Combines were an amalgam of both, but he also worked with photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance art, particularly with Cunningham and Trisha Brown Dance Company. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1993, and he became the recipient of the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts in 1995 in recognition of his more than 40 years of art-making. The Tate exhibition celebrates each stage of his varied career, from his early experimentation with everyday materials, textiles, photography using light-sensitive blueprint paper, basic drawing, transfer drawing, silkscreen, and, as Albers taught, ‘open the student’s eyes to the phenomena around him and to his own living, being and doing.’
He embraced technology and formed ‘Experiments in Art and Technology’ (E.A.T.), a non-profit foundation that fused the interaction between engineers, artists and the science industry,and, within three years it had attracted 2000 engineers, and as many artists, across the globe. He was invited to witness the launch of Apollo II by NASA, and was asked to create a drawing for a microchip that would travel to the moon. His contribution was a straight line, while Andy Warhol drew a penis-shaped rocket, or it could have been a rocket-shaped penis. Such was his fame, he was asked to design covers for Time Magazine,and albums for his friend David Byrne of Talking Heads, although one design for Time, featuring Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, space exploration, the Vietnam War, race riots and Janice Joplin was rejected on the grounds that it was too down-beat, showing a dystopian view of the end of the sixties.
After being disillusioned with what was happening to his world, in 1971, he moved to Captiva Island in Florida, where he set up both home and studio, and from there, set off on many global travels. He went to the textile city of Ahmedabad in India, being captivated by the colour and texture of silk. In his Jammers series he produced new, rather than found, materials, and their lightweight nature and strident colours were immediately easily transportable, recalling his set designs of the 1950s for Merce, and they worked together again over twenty years later. He was asked to visit the oldest paper mill in the world, in the Anhui Province of China, and created the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, in response to the many restrictions placed on Chinese citizens. In 1985 he visited his home state of Texas, and, produced a series of metal signs, oil cans and car parts, called the Gluts, following the oil crisis of the 1980s, which epitomise Pop Art, with their high-gloss paint finish and strong graphic content. He never gave up innovation, and, even after a couple strokes 2002, he continued to produce prints, using assistants and his enormous bank of digital imagery.
There is an unnecessary debate in the art world about his sexuality and why he was not ‘outed’ in his lifetime. He married Susan Wiel early on and had a child, but he also lived with both Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, although what effect that had on his work is somewhat spurious. One critic even went so far as to say that the his iconic Monogram, depicting an Angora goat with a car tyre around his belly was a sure sign that he was gay. Suffice to say that we are thankful that his output was so enormous and wide-ranging. He is playfully quoted as saying, “All I’m trying to do is get everyone off the highway, and if anybody follows my lead, they will soon be lost too”.
Rauschenberg lived and worked in New York City, as well as on Captiva Island, Florida, until his death from heart failure on May 12, 2008.
Robert Rauschenberg is at Tate Modern until 2 April 2017; admission £18.50.