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Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective

November 21, 1998 – March 7, 1999

Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective encompasses the full breadth of this artist's remarkable achievements. The exhibition unfolds chronologically, highlighting Rauschenberg's painting and sculpture while capturing his practice of working simultaneously in diverse mediums. Featured also will be Rauschenberg's work as a draftsman, photographer, and printmaker, as well as his significant collaborations in the performing arts and technology-based work. Finally, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece will be seen for the first time in an uninterrupted space.

Rauschenberg's art was always one of thoughtful inclusion. Working with a wide range of subjects, styles, materials, and techniques, Rauschenberg was called a forerunner of virtually every postwar movement since Abstract Expressionism. He remained, however, independent of any particular affiliation. At the time that he began making art in the late 1940s, his belief that painting relates to both art and life presented a direct challenge to the prevalent Modernist aesthetic. The celebrated Combines begun in the mid 1950s brought real-world images and objects into the realm of abstract painting and countered sanctioned divisions between painting and sculpture. These works established the artist's ongoing dialogue between mediums, between the handmade and the readymade, and between the gestural brush stroke and the mechanically reproduced image. Rauschenberg's lifelong commitment to collaboration with performers, printmakers, engineers, writers, artists, and artisans from around the world is a further manifestation of his expansive artistic philosophy.

The artist was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, and died in Captiva Island (Florida), in 2008. He began his formal art education following his discharge from the United States Navy in 1945. At Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, he studied with former Bauhaus master Josef Albers. It was also there that he solidified friendships with the composer John Cage and the dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Between 1949 and 1954, Rauschenberg introduced the mediums, materials, and motifs that have continued to occupy him. During this fruitful period, he worked in photography, made his first monoprints, and became involved in performance, participating in Cage's Theater Piece #1 in 1952. Early paintings, sculptures, and drawings already reflected what would become his long-standing commitment to extracting materials and images from his immediate environment.

Having settled in New York in 1949, Rauschenberg was introduced to the work of the Abstract Expressionists and began to incorporate free brushwork into his own paintings. Rauschenberg's first solo exhibition was held in May 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, which represented many of the Abstract Expressionists. Mother of God (ca. 1950), one of the few extant works from this exhibition, reveals Rauschenberg's concern early on with expanding the abstract idiom to include representational subjects such as maps, diagrams, and numerals.

In his white and black paintings, made between 1951 and 1953, Rauschenberg further explored the Abstract Expressionist mode but deviated from its pictorial purity with references beyond the canvas. Pebbles and dirt were impressed into the dark pigment of the Night Blooming paintings (1951); the uninflected White Paintings (1951) became screens for light and shadow, responding to the conditions around them; and newspaper collage formed the ground of the black paintings (1951-53).

While traveling with the artist Cy Twombly in Europe and North Africa in 1952, Rauschenberg made collages on Italian shirtboards that introduced his method of combining disparate subjects and contain many of the motifs that have remained central to his work: animals, body parts, modes of transportation, fine art reproductions, lettering, and diagrams.

For Rauschenberg there was a natural progression from the Red Paintings to Combines, as two-dimensional collage and eventually three-dimensional objects came to the fore. Expanding upon Marcel Duchamp's concept of the readymade, Rauschenberg gave new significance to such ordinary objects as a patchwork quilt or an automobile tire by juxtaposing them with unrelated items and placing them in the context of art. Rauschenberg was sustained through these years by an intellectual dialogue with Cage and Cunningham, as well as with the artist Jasper Johns, who shared his interest in deriving art from the commonplace.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the found image had become paramount in Rauschenberg's visual vocabulary. Reproductions from newspapers and magazines were incorporated into his drawings, prints, and paintings as he perfected techniques of solvent transfer, lithography, and silkscreening. The transfer drawings, produced simultaneously with the Combines, brought the element of collage onto a two-dimensional plane: found images were continuous with the picture surface and were mixed with freely drawn and painted areas. This admixture of figuration and abstraction remains a hallmark of Rauschenberg's style to the present day.

By 1962, Rauschenberg was exploring the transfer technique in his editioned prints. He made his first lithograph at ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions), West Islip, New York, during that year and in 1963 won the Grand Prize at the prestigious International Exhibition of Prints, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. Printmaking remained central to Rauschenberg's art-making practice due to the medium's inherent reproducibility and the wide range of effects it enables him to achieve.The silkscreened painting series made between 1962 and 1964 used a commercial means of reproduction and emphasized media subjects, thus identifying Rauschenberg with Pop Art.

Rauschenberg's growing reputation as the leading artist of his generation was secured by his first solo museum exhibition, held in 1963 at the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Grand Prize for Painting awarded him the following year at the Venice Biennale. For the remainder of the decade, Rauschenberg devoted himself primarily to printmaking as well as to collaborative ventures in performance and technology-based art that emphatically moved him outside the studio.

During the 1960s, Rauschenberg's involvement in theater put him at the cutting edge of avant-garde dance. Not only did he augment his work, begun in the mid 1950s, as a set, costume, and lighting designer for the dance companies of Cunningham and Paul Taylor, but he worked as a choreographer and performer as well, largely through his involvement with the Judson Dance Theater, a loose collective of dancers and artists. As is characteristic of his art-making practice in all mediums, Rauschenberg's performance works incorporated the everyday and the unexpected; dancers often used ordinary, untrained movements, while stage sets were sometimes composed of found objects, Combines, and live decor in which human activity and stage props were indistinguishable.

Fostering working relationships between artists and engineers was the founding principle of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), an organization established in 1966 by Rauschenberg with, among others, Bell Laboratories research scientist Billy Klüver. Electric and electronic devices, in the form of lightbulbs and radios, were incorporated into Rauschenberg's Combines already by the mid 1950s. It was through collaborations with engineers in the 1960s, however, that Rauschenberg was able to integrate light, sound, and motion into large-scale, interactive environments. Technological wizardry transformed sculptural works, such as Oracle (1962-65) and Soundings (1968), into highly performative installations, often triggered into action by audience participation.

With his move in 1970 from New York to Captiva, an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, Rauschenberg cleared his palette. Retreating from urban imagery, he now favored an abstract idiom and the use of natural fibers, such as fabric and paper.

Rauschenberg's early interest in photography was renewed in 1979 with his first collaboration with the Trisha Brown Company. Several photography projects followed, including In + Out City Limits (1980-81), Photems (1981/1991), and Chinese Summerhall (1982-83), all of which reveal Rauschenberg's preference for common, street-level subjects. From this point forward, images incorporated into Rauschenberg's work in all mediums were drawn exclusively from his own photographs.

During the 1980s, Rauschenberg undertook two long-term projects. The first, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, is a work-in-progress, begun in 1981. This multipart work now consists of nearly 200 components measuring 1,000 feet and will span a quarter mile or more when finished. Retrospective in character, this piece is replete with references to his life and career, presenting past motifs and techniques as well as current trends in his art.

Between 1984 and 1991, the artist was actively engaged in Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI). The project was a tangible expression of his belief in the power of art and artistic collaboration to bring about social change on an international level and the culmination of his long-term commitment to human rights. For the project, Rauschenberg traveled to eleven countries around the world, exploring diverse cultures and local art-making practices.

ROCI gave rise to an extraordinary and diverse body of work that, in turn, launched the metal painting and sculpture series begun in the mid 1980s. Having first painted and screened on copper for ROCI Chile in 1985, Rauschenberg over the next decade explored in several subsequent series the use of metal as a support for paint, tarnishes, enamel, and screenprinted images. Imagery and found objects often referred to Rauschenberg's travels, while reflective metallic surfaces mirrored the immediate surroundings of the works.

In 1992, Rauschenberg began to use an Iris printer to make digital color prints of his photographs. It is this technology that allows for the high-resolution images and luminous hues in the recent large-scale works on paper, the Anagrams (1995-97). In 1996, he transferred Iris prints to wet plaster in the Arcadian Retreats, a fresco series that provided him with an entirely new avenue of exploration.

Julia Blaut,  Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Robert Rauschenberg

Untitled (Sue), 1950

Exposed blueprint paper

177.2 x 105.7 cm

Collection of Susan Weil

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