Ignorance is not bliss. At least not in the case of Robert Rauschenberg and his far-reaching practice. Strolling into the Tate Modern, I had no concept of how vast Rauschenberg’s artistic methods were. This recent exhibition tells the tale of Rauschenberg and his dynamic process, unfolding the artist’s oeuvre from minimal painting to material abstraction.
Rauschenberg’s experimentation began at Black Mountain College, an artistic laboratory where the likes of Josef Albers, John Cage and Cy Twombly tutored and studied. Here Rauschenberg played with minimalist and conceptual ideas, creating works such as ‘White Painting’ (1951) and ‘Automobile Tire Print’ (1953): both collaborative experiments that look at themes of authorship through basic material process. Rauschenberg’s back to basics technique is displayed thoughtfully in the first room of the exhibition. His white canvases whisper subtlety between empty space, allowing room for more visceral works such as ‘The Lily White’ (1950) to announce nostalgic creativity through childlike numbering.
The sincerity of Rauschenberg’s early works ebb and flow. ‘Erased de Koonig Drawing’ (1953) is a perfect example of this: while symbolising a moment of time passed, the faint work has been boldly framed and labeled to claim its origin, forcing the drawing to reveal an unwavering nature that is audacious in manner. Above this problematic work, Rauschenberg’s photographic documentation of friend and fellow artist Cy Twombly, fractions across the gallery. ‘Cy + Roman Steps (I – V)’ (1952) see’s Twombly’s waist and legs descending the steps of Basillica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli; it is an intimate and suggestive series of images that hints at the two young artists close relationship. Alongside the paintings, drawings and photographs in this room, we see treasure boxes of keepsakes, collages and illustrations; these are yet another example of Rauschenberg’s early extensive practice.
Most emotionally charged in substance and theory are Rauschenberg’s ‘Dante Drawings’ (1958-1960). These form a series of transfer drawings relaying Dante’s Inferno from a contemporary perspective, using Rauschenberg’s own illustrations with imagery transferred from magazines. The series is dark and macabre, portraying outlines of gasmasks and scratched out faces in chaotic and violent scenery. From afar, the subtle greys and blues soaking the transfers give a false calm to the room, but upon closer inspection spectators can see the horrors of Rauschenberg’s contemporary take on Dante’s Inferno.
Amongst the vast pop collages we know so well (‘Retroactive I’ 1963) and the lesser-known bubbling mud bath (‘Mud Muse’ 1968-1971), Tate Modern exposes a huge amount of work by Rauschenberg that has perhaps been ignorantly missed in recent decades. Robert Rauschenberg is on view at Tate Modern until 2 April 2017.