Or­a­cle of chaos

Robert Rauschen­berg, quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can artist, was also a mas­ter of ‘bright doom’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT

new york — The enor­mous Robert Rauschen­berg ex­hi­bi­tion on view at the Mu­seum of Modern Art reaches a mo­ment of high drama, or per­haps low com­edy, with a work called “Mud Muse.” It is a large rec­tan­gu­lar vat made of alu­minum and glass, 9 feet by 12 feet, open on top, filled with a slurry of clay that bub­bles and pops at the com­mand of com­pressed-air sys­tem un­der­neath. It was a col­lab­o­ra­tive project be­tween Rauschen­berg and a team of en­gi­neers from the Tele­dyne com­pany, and it seems to do ev­ery­thing the artist wanted his work to do: ex­ist and evolve in real time, re­sist def­i­ni­tion, elude in­ter­pre­ta­tion and defy the lines be­tween paint­ing and sculp­ture.

Con­structed be­tween 1969 and 1971, “Mud Muse” re­called much ear­lier works by Rauschen­berg, when he pressed a 1951 can­vas cov­ered in as­phalt into gravel to pick up traces of earth, or put dirt, seeds and grass in a box to pro­duce his 1953 “Grow­ing Paint­ing.” But like the best of his work, it has dark­ness in it. Is it pro­tean or apoc­a­lyp­tic? A view of the pri­mor­dial Earth be­fore some­one gave it form, or is this the fi­nal soup of the world, burp­ing a few last times in the frigid empti­ness of space?

We are com­ing up on al­most a decade since Rauschen­berg died in 2008 at the age of 82. He is a beloved fig­ure whose vast legacy, if care­fully cherry-picked, can pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion to al­most any con­tem­po­rary artist. He had his con­cep­tual twists, his col­lab­o­ra­tive en­ter­prises, he en­gaged in per­for­mance, me­dia ven­tures and in­ter­na­tional out­reach, and never en­tirely for­sook mak­ing two-di­men­sional im­ages you can hang on the wall. If Amer­i­can artists are meant to be rest­less, vi­sion­ary, boldly trans­gres­sive and glee­fully high-spir­ited, then Rauschen­berg is the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can artist.

“Robert Rauschen­berg: Among Friends” in­cludes more than 250 works and is de­signed to take ac­count of “the im­por­tance of cre­ative di­a­logue and col­lab­o­ra­tion” in the artist’s work. John Cage, Merce Cun­ning­ham, Jasper Johns,

Cy Twombly, Tr­isha Brown and a host of oth­ers are in­cluded in this evolv­ing story of Rauschen­berg’s work across mul­ti­ple me­dia. The cu­ra­tors cel­e­brate his col­lab­o­ra­tive ven­tures, de­sign­ing sets pieces for dances chore­ographed by Cun­ning­ham and Brown, and his life­long in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment with close friends and lovers, in­clud­ing Twombly and Johns. But there is a ten­dency, in art schol­ar­ship, to fetishize col­lab­o­ra­tion, per­haps be­cause trac­ing how net­works op­er­ate gives schol­ars some­thing to do. There is, how­ever, no rea­son to as­sume that col­lab­o­ra­tion is by it­self a good thing, and plenty of ev­i­dence that it can lead to group think and in­su­lar­ity.

Through­out the six decades of work on view, Rauschen­berg re­turns to a ten­sion he felt since his stu­dent days at Black Moun­tain Col­lege, in the late 1940s. He came to the free­wheel­ing and un­ortho­dox school in North Carolina seek­ing, and re­sist­ing, dis­ci­pline, and he found there a teacher, Josef Al­bers, who de­manded a dis­ci­pline that Rauschen­berg couldn’t or wouldn’t muster. “Al­bers’s rule is to make or­der,” said Rauschen­berg. “As for me, I con­sider my­self suc­cess­ful only when I do some­thing that re­sem­bles the lack of or­der I sense.”

At its best, Rauschen­berg’s work cre­ates a pic­ture or anal­ogy of the dis­or­der he saw in the world; at its worst, it merely lapses into dis­or­der. The line be­tween the two isn’t al­ways ob­vi­ous, but one senses dead ends in some work and pro­duc­tive re­cur­rences in oth­ers. In 1964, while vis­it­ing Japan, he was in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in a pub­lic tele­vised in­ter­view and re­sponded, in­stead, not with an­swers to given ques­tions, but with a per­for­mance, cre­at­ing a work called “Gold Stan­dard” live for the au­di­ence. It was one of the last of his “Com­bines,” a form he had cre­ated that mashed up sculp­ture, as­sem­blage and paint­ing into sui generis works that he called “free-stand­ing paint­ings” that were baf­fling, in­trigu­ing and gid­dily three-di­men­sional.

But “Gold Stan­dard” is not a great com­bine and serves more as a warn­ing to fu­ture artists: As­sem­blage with­out thought will lead to mere con­cate­na­tions of trash. And yet, in the same and nearby galleries with “Gold Stan­dard” are a half-dozen works from around the same pe­riod in which the ma­te­rial that Rauschen­berg brings to­gether holds to­gether, mean­ing­fully en­gaged, caught in well-de­signed vec­tors of ten­sion be­tween the parts. Two fans are in frozen di­a­logue in the 1961 “Pan­tomime,” while the 1962 “Ace,” a wall-size work on five pan­els, jux­ta­poses and lay­ers fab­ric, card­board, wood and paint to sug­gest a bright, ebul­lient cat­a­logue of the messy world, from its cos­mic small­ness in space to its gi­ant, in­eluctable par­tic­u­lar­ity when seen close at hand.

The dy­namic in Rauschen­berg’s work of­ten seems to be be­tween re­fusal and open­ness, be­tween hid­ing and ex­po­sure. He was in­vited to con­trib­ute a por­trait to a 1961 ex­hi­bi­tion or­ga­nized by the gal­lerist Iris Clert in Paris; ap­par­ently he ne­glected or for­got the com­mis­sion, and so re­sponded with a telegram that read: “This is a por­trait of Iris Clert if I say so.” This is re­fusal, and a triv­ial work per­haps in­spired by a su­per­fi­cial aware­ness of the “word games” ideas of Lud­wig Wittgen­stein. But just around the cor­ner, be­gin­ning in the fall of 1962, were his mag­nif­i­cent silk-screen paint­ings, which won him the paint­ing prize at the Venice Bi­en­nale of 1964. In th­ese works, the vis­ual lan­guage of Amer­i­can cul­ture is mixed and remixed in ways rem­i­nis­cent of the static and snip­pets of lan­guage and or­phaned melodies one hears flip­ping through the AM ra­dio dial in no par­tic­u­lar or­der. For an artist who sought through­out his ca­reer to sub­vert (or refuse) the two-di­men­sion­al­ity of the old painted im­age, his re­turns to the tra­di­tional, wall-hung can­vas im­age were al­most al­ways openly pro­duc­tive and en­gag­ing.

Early in Rauschen­berg’s ca­reer, in 1954, his com­bines were shown along with other works at a gallery in New York. Among the vis­i­tors were Ju­dith Malina and Ju­lian Beck, founders of the ex­per­i­men­tal Liv­ing Theatre. Malina cap­tured their con­tra­dic­tory re­sponses: “What Ju­lian sees as full of vi­tal­ity I see as full of death. It is a bright doom that hangs over th­ese paint­ings.” It is a mag­nif­i­cent de­scrip­tion, a “bright doom,” and once you’ve heard it, al­most im­pos­si­ble to get out of your head as you tour the ex­hi­bi­tion. It might also be a de­scrip­tion of Amer­ica at the mo­ment that Rauschen­berg rose to promi­nence. Never was the coun­try more pow­er­ful, and never more men­aced by the tech­nol­ogy upon which its power was de­pen­dent.

Two works from this show re­main in­deli­ble. One of them is among the most fa­mous things Rauschen­berg ever cre­ated, a com­bine called “Mono­gram,” in which a taxi­der­mied An­gora goat with brightly col­ored paint on its face wears a rub­ber tire around its midriff, in a way that now sug­gests a very real en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem: the en­trap­ment of liv­ing crea­tures in hu­man trash. The other, made some 30 years later in 1986, is called “Ur­ban Katy­did” and con­sists of scratched and twisted metal street signs scat­tered over a re­flec­tive sur­face. They are both com­pelling pic­tures of chaos, of be­ing lost in the world, a crea­ture lost in a for­lorn space, and a vis­ual map of lost­ness con­densed into Bor­ge­sian irony.

Yes­ter­day’s chaos al­ways seems less threat­en­ing than the chaos that con­fronts us to­day, if only be­cause we have sur­vived it. For ev­ery frus­trat­ing dead end in Rauschen­berg’s work, there are th­ese mo­ments, in which he seemed to have orac­u­lar power, tran­scend­ing his own par­tic­u­lar age of chaos with an un­canny sense of how that chaos would ex­pand, evolve and come down to us to­day. Decades be­fore we pro­nounced our­selves ter­mi­nally ad­dicted to the cheap vis­ual chaos of Amer­ica, that goat was al­ready wan­der­ing among a jum­ble of use­less signs. “Robert Rauschen­berg: Among Friends” is on view at the Mu­seum of Modern Art in New York through Sept. 17. For in­for­ma­tion: www.moma.org.

©ROBERT RAUSCHEN­BERG FOUN­DA­TION

Among the Robert Rauschen­berg works at the mas­sive Mu­seum of Modern Art ex­hi­bi­tion is the poster for his “ROCI Cuba” show in Ha­vana in 1988. For the Rauschen­berg Over­seas Cul­ture In­ter­change (ROCI), he trav­eled to coun­tries where artis­tic ex­pres­sion had been sup­pressed, to start a di­a­logue about the cre­ative process.

©ROBERT RAUSCHEN­BERG FOUN­DA­TION

THE MU­SEUM OF MODERN ART/©ROBERT RAUSCHEN­BERG FOUN­DA­TION

COURTESY ARCHIVIO UGO MULAS AND GALLERIA LIA RUMMA/©UGO MULAS HEIRS

TOP: In “Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy” (1968), an off­set litho­graph work on three pan­els, Robert Rauschen­berg used sym­bols, im­ages and pho­tos of him­self to il­lus­trate his per­sonal his­tory. ABOVE: Alex Hay, Steve Pax­ton and Rauschen­berg re­hearse a scene from the 1965 per­for­mance piece “Spring Train­ing” in the artist’s Broad­way stu­dio. The work in­volved tap danc­ing, stilts, dry ice, per­form­ers car­ry­ing each other like tim­ber and other un­con­ven­tional chore­og­ra­phy. BE­LOW: “Signs” (1970), a color screen­print, was com­mis­sioned by Time magazine for a cover im­age but re­jected. The as­sem­blage of events and per­son­al­i­ties from the late 1960s re­flected the dis­cord and won­der of the time.

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