Robert Rauschenberg (1925 -2008). I had never heard of him before the Tate Modern exhibition. I didn’t know what to expect except I had seen pictures of a goat with a tyre around it – which set off alarm bells. The promotional blurb said he was influential, and that he “changed the course of American art forever”. So I mustered my “do not pre-judge” sensibilities and plunged right in.
Set across a number of themes or periods, there was a lot to take in – too much, but I had left it until the last week so one visit will have to do. I will concentrate on just a few things that particularly caught my attention.
Factotum II and Factotum I. (1957) piqued my interest. Both were painted simultaneously– one is not a copy of the other. I often have more than one drawing on the go, it helps to distance myself to achieve some objectivity, but I have never tried drawing two identical things at the same time. It’s an intriguing thought. The outcomes, although similar, are very slightly different. It’s as though he is trying to point out that not everything is in the artist’s control – slight differences: the flow of the paint; the twitch of a hand; a lapse in concentration; can all lead to variance. I also noted that these are on loan from different museums. So they are not one piece but separate artworks. Or are they? Identical twins separated at birth and brought up by different parents, but with the same DNA.
The thing that next caught my eye were his transfer drawings. Rauschenberg’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno and the circles of hell. 34 illustration of ghostly images, our worst fears only partially revealed – vague tortured, and torturing, souls. The on-lookers appear to be people caught in (snatched from?) daily life. Fashioned with a restricted colour palette, mostly black and white. I have recently been experimenting with using photo images of and with my art, so this has given me further food for thought. I have read about the technique for transferring images but have never tried it.
The mainstay of the exhibition is Rauschenberg’s Combines (1953 – 1964) in which painting is combined with everyday contemporary objects and magazine images (Braque and Picasso had experimented with collage too, and Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages was an influence). These representational images were in direct contrast to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist art movement in America (Honour/Fleming, 2009: 843).
The most famous work within the Combines (and the arresting visual image for the exhibition) is Monogram 1955-59.
It appears to be a real goat, dead (thankfully) and has a tire (tyre) around its neck, standing amid a variety of objects in a glass case. I stared at it reverently as it is an acclaimed work of art but I couldn’t stop thinking that it was funny – and wondered if this was the artist’s intension, or if he would have been offended. I also laughed out loud when I saw an extractor fan randomly (probably not) inserted in one of his works.
At least David Shrigley makes it evident that he means his works to be humorous.
However, no amount of staring at the goat would help me understand the aims of the artist with this piece so I decided to do more research when I got home.
Honour and Fleming (ibid.) refer to Monogram’s “visual puns” and its “hidden and not-so-hidden meanings”. So at least it wasn’t totally inappropriate for me to laugh. They also say it is one of Rauschenberg’s “most daring” works because of its “overt sexuality”, which I must admit escaped me. (Unlike when I looked at Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel – see previous post).
Phaidon’s article by “Rauschenberg scholar” Catherine Crafton, offers some further explanation of the possible meaning of the piece. On the “overt sexuality” she offers that “some observers have proposed that conjoining a goat and a tyre alludes to anal intercourse, making the work a representation of homoerotic themes”. The punning element, it is suggested, revolves around the tennis balls and Abstract Expressionism (and not in a complimentary way). It records “other observers” as seeing fetishistic or sacrificial links. I think I will just stick with finding it funny. But I guess that’s the joy of conceptual art – something for everybody.
Reflection: I cannot fault the man for his energy and inventiveness and willingness to collaborate outside conventional boxes. I feel the need to remind myself of the era that Rauschenberg was active in, particularly his early years. What seems every-day to me now was ground-breaking in the 1950s (before I was born, and I am quite old), including his use of eclectic material and working in collaboration with other art forms (music, dance).
I felt that Rauschenberg’s work was very cerebral, internal even, and I must say masculine (which is an observation not a criticism). I could keep track of his intellectual development, could admire his restless and inventive mind, but I couldn’t quite see where his heart and soul was. Which raises a number of questions for me. Why do I think art should be emotional or spiritual, or at least invoke that in my response to it? Why do I see this as a feminine quality? Do I see this as a feminine quality? Why can’t art just be exploratory/intellectual for me to like it? Is the best art both? More thinking to do I guess.
Some of it particularly piqued my interest (the transfers) from a technical point of view, but I am not sure what I have taken away. His work does stick with me in some way – lodged in my brain somewhere – and, who knows, perhaps in my heart and soul too? I do still think back to some of the things I saw – trying to forget the cardboard boxes stuck on the wall though.