Wearing Flared Trousers

Go back to take another look at the Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern and, despite having had quite a few days to mull it over, I have to confess that I’m still a bit fuzzy as to my reactions to the exhibition.  In fact, the only thing I can say for certain about the show is that I think I’ll have to go back and take another look in a couple of weeks’ time.  The problem is that I’ve exited the exhibition on both occasions unexpectedly underwhelmed and with the sort feeling that somehow I must have missed something or perhaps not concentrated quite hard enough when I was walking round the dozen or so rooms looking at all the artworks.  And I can’t help feeling that maybe if I return to take another view, play closer attention and take care to read all the explanatory wall panels and labels a bit more thoroughly then perhaps I’ll finally be able to pull everything into better focus and feel more certain when expressing my opinions of the artist and his output, and also about the way the Tate has curated the show.


I wonder if part of the problem is that I first came across Rauschenberg’s work as a teenager, scanning through art books way back in the 1960s, when his works made an instant impression on me as representing the very embodiment of a sort of wonderful potential existential artistic freedom that might be found one day somewhere beyond the bounds of my juvenile bedroom walls.  And then when I finally got around to reading some of the writing in those art books, rather than just gazing at the pictures, the importance of his role in the development of art history – bridging the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art – seemed to support my initial instinctive enthusiasms and confirm his status for me as one of the key artists of the second half of the 20th century.  And, I think it’s fair to say, that in subsequent years, whenever I’ve seen further examples of his work, they could always be relied upon to confirm the sureness of my original evaluations of his creative abilities to impress and intrigue.


All that being the case, I was really looking forward to visiting this retrospective exhibition and seeing the full range of Rauschenberg’s output gathered together and laid out in a neat historical progression, confident that it would provide a comfortable celebratory affirmation of the strength of one of the iconic cultural heroes of post-war Modernist art.  Alas, rather annoyingly, having gone round the show twice now, while there are good things to see – and the show is very definitely worth visiting – the sum of the artistic parts does not perhaps quite add up to the spectacular blockbuster whole with which I was eagerly expecting to enjoy an enlightening encounter.  All of which raises a few questions as to whether I may have overestimated the skills and talents of the artist in the first place or maybe the Tate, by way of its display, has somehow failed to do justice to the Rauschenberg’s legacy; or perhaps there’s something else going on that I’m having a bit of a struggle figuring out.


Well, writing these blogs sometimes forces me to think a bit harder and engage in a bit of laboured philosophical analysis and ruthless personal introspection so maybe by the end of the next half a dozen paragraphs I will have sorted out my thoughts and properly solved this particular cultural conundrum.  So, where to begin?  I guess the best place must be along with young Rauschenberg at the start of his artistic career sometime in the early 1950s.  At this point, the centre of the artworld had only recently shifted away from Europe in general, and Paris in particular, relocating to America in general, and New York in particular, and Abstract Expressionism – as usefully documented in the recent Royal Academy show of that name – was by far the dominant style having just kicked off this new geographical epoch of Modern Art history.  In fact, according to the great critic and cultural commentator, Clement Greenberg, Modernism had just about reached its apogee, culminating with this perfect new form of flat, painterly non-figurative expressiveness.  Of course, in much the same way as when the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote his book proclaiming The End of History, Greenberg’s hubristic assertions of finality were met with a similar, and equally inevitable mocking nemesis.  And so to the first rooms of the Rauschenberg exhibition – which, in some ways, are perhaps the most interesting – as they show him initially playing with some old Surrealist ideas:  making small paper collages of items cut from old books; boxing up random twigs and pebbles; wrapping up boulders in bits of fabric; and generally making fetishistic assemblages of odd bits and bobs of rusting urban detritus and the like.  But he also tried to subvert the status quo more directly by making his own very Abstract but very deliberately non-Expressionistic monochromatic paintings, as exemplified here by a large glossy wrinkled black canvas and a group of wood panels coated in a smooth matt white finish.


And then after these exploratory early works comes his sort of breakthrough moment as he smashes the perfect two-dimensionality of the picture plane – first by laying an undercoat of newspaper cutting collages and then, after applying a messy red top coat, sticking on a variety of household objects, starting off with a pair of parasols and a winking light bulb.  As is so often the case with these Modernist innovations, it’s possible to find an earlier reference in the work of the great Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.  And 40 years earlier he’d already made a play in this direction with his final painting Tu m’, in which a bottle brush pokes its way out from a deliberate awkward tear in the otherwise traditionally flat canvas.  While Duchamp typically ended his experimentation with this idea after just one single play, Rauschenberg took the whole concept of multi-dimensional collages, or combines as he called them, many stages further over the next few years, culminating in the wonderful absurdity of his Monogram sculpture, wherein a stuffed Angora goat wears a rubber tyre round its girth and poops out a tennis ball onto a platform of clippings from Sports Illustrated.  If these series of works generally fall into a sort of semi-Surrealist form of absurdist playfulness then it was Rauschenberg’s next move, into the medium of silkscreen collaging, that brought him up-to-date and perfectly in time with the start of the pendulum swing of 1960 permissiveness.  Coating canvases with cut-out images from newspapers, posters and adverts meant the reintroduction of figuration to Modern Art in a quasi-documentary format that seemed appropriate to mirror an age when there was a sudden boom in the multiplicity of multimedia images, from commercial TV breaks to colour supplement magazine covers and the growing ubiquity of billboard advertising posters.  At least, all that kind of stuff was bursting into fruition over in the States.  It would still be another couple of years before this colourful new dawn would start to spread slowly out into the suburban outskirts, where I was growing up.  But then, sure enough, sometime in the mid to late ‘60s some kind of enlightenment reached the backwoods where I was resident and even I started wearing flared trousers, buying groovy LPs and flicking through art books with colour plates in them.  And at some point during this odd exciting transition era I guess I must have turned a page and found that there was an artistic world outside that of the one exemplified in the pages of the Penguin Modern Painters series where the dour seriousness and boring classicism of Henry Moore bronzes and John Piper paintings seemed so very irrelevant.  Imagine, after that lot suddenly coming across a picture of Rauschenberg’s outrageous stuffed goat or the prints of President Kennedy with an astronaut, an eagle and a helicopter all jumbled up together.  And then learning about the Happenings – the crazy, senseless precursors to Performance Art that Rauschenberg also choreographed and which involved various combinations of roller-skaters and tennis players, bowls of spaghetti and flocks of live chickens engaged in all sorts of exuberant silliness for the entertainment of a bemused audience of art aficionados.


It’s probably not too hard to imagine just how much fun discovering all that kind of artistic nonsense was to a young man, such as myself, all those years ago.  Despite having to worry about acne and O-levels and the usual angst that accompanies adolescence, perhaps it may really have been blissfulish to be alive at that time and maybe being young really did mean approaching some kind of state of heavenliness.  Who knows?  It certainly seems a very long time ago, a thought reinforced by now looking at some of the grainy Happening videos playing in the Tate show now.


I think it’s fair to say that, not uncommonly amongst visual artists, there is no great late third act to Rauschenberg’s artistic life and so no great late works, just a steady continuation and refinement of the ideas and efforts he evolved in his early years and that I’ve tried to outline above.  The work is still interesting but inevitably gets less exciting and innovatory as the exhibition progresses and then slowly peters out to a relatively quiet conclusion.  And I suppose it’s this diminuendo, combined with some of the feelings of nostalgia for my own personal temps perdu, that provides the reason for the slightly melancholic sensation I’ve felt both times on leaving the show.


One response to “Wearing Flared Trousers

  1. Recently saw a documentary in which his ‘third act’ was a kind of idealistic global mission – destined to failure but kind of heroic. Melancholia inducing certainly. Is there nothing of that in the show?

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