It’s a drizzly day in London when I go to see the Rauschenberg exhibition, which only makes it more surreal when I walk through the door and see Monogram (1955-59), a taxidermied Angora goat standing on a collage, in the middle of the room. The Combines form the first section of the exhibition, and are an affronting, energetic introduction to the work of the man who defined the art of a generation. To say that Pop Art owes a lot to Rauschenberg would be an understatement, and finally coming face to face with these iconic pieces is electrifying. The combines are totemic and vital, and have an almost tribal symbolism to them.
Rauschenberg described Bed (1955)—seen behind Monogram in the picture on the right— as “one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted […] My fear has always been that someone would want to crawl into it.” It is exactly this sort of platonic ‘friendliness’ that lends this type of piece its timeless relevance, its identity as utterly singular yet firmly rooted in a community, a movement. Throughout the exhibition there is a sense of sublime ridiculousness, which only lends more poignancy to the more meditative pieces of Rauschenberg’s later career.
In another room, Ace (1962) fills the far wall. It is another combine but less ostentatiously so. It maintains the inter-dimensional qualities of the earlier combines but, in my opinion, it exceeds the space on the canvas in a way that is truly exciting, almost moving to behold. On the far left the use of paint invokes suggestions of climate and space that is similar to the Celtic painters of the post-war period here in Britain. The inclusion of scrap materials, however (cardboard, an alarm clock, a lampshade, and so on) keeps us firmly in 60’s New York streets, alleyways, nightclubs and apartments, where an entirely new species of art — of identity — was forming.
In the years 1958-1960 Rauschenberg created 34 extraordinary drawings illustrating the 34 cantos of Dante’s Inferno. The drawings are made up of lighter fluid transfers, lending them a muted quality, which in turn invites the audience to inspect and engage with each piece in a way that feels very intimate. Using magazine clippings, the angels become baseball players and astronauts, the giants bodybuilders, and so on. Dante himself is sometimes represented by JFK, and the dead are ominous figures of war, memorably soldiers donning gas masks in the illustration for Canto XXI.
The assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War, among other seismic events in the 60s and 70s, play heavily in the dominant body of Rauschenberg’s work. Toward the later pieces there is a sense of disillusion, although the work never loses its vitality. The filmed performance pieces, screened directly over the notebooks and sketchpads documenting their invention, are especially joyful. Ballet dancers, surreal costume pieces and live props (one including a large number of desert tortoises), create dynamic, funny, extravagant pieces that give the viewer some idea of what it must have been like to physically interact with the artist and his work simultaneously. The interactivity of the exhibition is one of the most poignant aspects, and it is here that we see how well the curation of this exhibition is executed.
The mosquitos in Almanac (1962) and Scanning (1963) show the artists’ engagement with the world and the problems facing it. They seem to represent the parasitic nature of popular culture and capitalism, and hover ethereally over the other imagery in the screen prints. Retroactive (1963) is emblematic of both Rauschenberg and of the 60’s, with a portrait of JFK merging into a pattern resembling a barcode, created by dragging the image during the screen printing process. In the following room, the first piece of art to go into space, Moon Museum (1969), sits tiny in a glass box. It is 3/4 by 1/2 an inch in size. Rauschenberg’s contribution, alongside those of Warhol and Oldenberg among others, was a single straight line. The audacity of this gesture, combined with the magnitude of its context, speaks of the surreal drama and elation of the time. In the same room a massive tub of clay bubbles arrhythmically, drawing allusion to the growth of the horror movie industry, the elementary messiness of everyday life, and Rauschenberg’s intense engagement with the physical world all at once.
Rauschenberg said in the 80’s, “It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant […] I want to present people with their ruins”. Like all iconic art of the 20th Century, our ruins are presented to us in a way that confronts us without being isolating. It remains hopeful, with an almost childlike exuberance that in no way detracts from the complexity, the beauty, or the intense engagement that it holds with the world and with its audience. Mirthday Man (1997), is one of the last pieces of the exhibition. It re-uses Rauschenberg’s own X-Rayed body which can also be seen in Booster, 30 years its junior. The Birth of Venus sits comfortably screen-printed among various recycled urban and wild images. It is clever, moving, confessional, funny, brave, and all of the things that make this exhibition such a joyful experience.