Robert Rauschenberg, the sly printmaker
The artist’s work in printmaking is not as well known as his painting, but it’s just as informative.
The art of Robert Rauschenberg is a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, mixing the energetic brush strokes of the former with the quotidian, mass-produced images of the latter.
The artist, who died in 2008 at age 82, is best known for his “Combines” of the 1950s and ’60s, painted assemblages of everyday objects and images that challenged the traditional distinctions between painting and sculpture, fine art and real life.
His work in printmaking is less well known, although it is arguably just as potent an expression of Rauschenberg’s cross-disciplinary interests. The medium’s ability to combine hand-drawn and photographic imagery in a reproducible form was a perfect fit with the artist’s eclectic aesthetic.
“Rauschenberg at Gemini,” at the Armory Center for the Arts through March 21, features 51 works produced between 1967 and 2001 at the famed Los Angeles printmaking studio Gemini Graphic Editions Limited (G.E.L.). Organized by Armory curator Jay Belloli, this lively, eye-opening survey demonstrates how printmaking was integral to Rauschenberg’s practice and presents a more intimate side of the iconic artist.
To be sure, some of the works are what you might expect — flatter, less raucous companions to Rauschenberg’s paintings and collages. More exciting are pieces that reflect his serious engagement with the medium and his exploration of its limits.
Rauschenberg’s first print at Gemini challenged the medium’s traditionally modest scale. “Booster” from 1967 combines lithography and silkscreen in a life-size self-portrait. X-rays of Rauschenberg’s entire body are overlaid with a star chart, assorted media imagery and brushy scratches and scrawls. The effect is both monumental and personal — literally a view “inside” the artist.
Other works — including two small, oddly shaped white boxes that open up like altarpieces — are not really prints at all. Part of a series called “PUBLICONS” from 1978, they contain simple but inscrutable objects — a brick suspended on a chain, a golden oar with a blue light bulb affixed to its paddle. Lit from within, the boxes are lined with different-colored and patterned fabrics that create a subtle, numinous glow reminiscent of color-field painting. Rauschenberg had wanted to become a minister when he was young, and these works seem to be mysterious, secular altars to modern art.
The versatile artist also played with printmaking’s ca- pacity for reproduction and verisimilitude. Most striking in this regard are works in the 1971 “Cardbird” series, assemblages of cardboard printed to look like, well, cardboard. In a move reminiscent of the “Combines” — only more utilitarian and funny — Rauschenberg covered a standard interior door with pieces of cardboard collaged with paper that had been meticulously printed to resemble the color, texture and labeling of cardboard boxes. The piece, which could actually function as a door, looks like a random accumulation of discarded boxes, complete with mailing labels and “this end up” arrows.
The redundancy of disguising cardboard as cardboard evokes the absurdist sensibility of the early 20th century Dada movement (Rauschenberg was labeled “neo-Dada” early in his career) but also recalls Picasso’s collages, with their marvelous play on trompe l’oeil effects and the deflated, useless household furnishings of Claes Oldenburg. The piece also tinkers with our expecta- tions of the multiple because despite its ad hoc appearance, it is one of several identical “prints.”
Works like these — where we see Rauschenberg experimenting and having fun — are the highlights of the exhibition. Although his rough collage aesthetic no longer looks as fresh as it once did, his indefatigable willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of perception and technical achievement are still impressive.
ON DISPLAY: From 1974, an offset lithograph and screenprint transferred to a collage of paper bags, silk chiffon and silk taffeta that Rauschenberg created at Gemini G.E.L.