Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern

robertrauschenbergtate1

The Tate Modern is still a HAPPENING. Scores of children rolling down a carpeted hill as one enters the enormous hallway, with supportive parents in attendance. The escalators lift and transport myriads of people all out for a day of fun. It is surely appropriate that the new Rauschenberg exhibition should be within its populist walls, because his art is relatively accessible.

Robert Rauschenberg’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is instructive in many ways. He had a protean production, starting off in the Fifties. His defining characteristics were interest in innovation, materials and the relationship between the fine and performing arts. His devotion to the intertwining of physical performance (notably Merce Cunningham), film and the use of paint seem to have fed into what we now know as Performance Art. His creation of so called Combines, the juxtapositions of objects, structures and paint, bring together much of the re-thinking of the artistic process after WWII. His are not collages, he says. Rather they are the things themselves. His most touching work is that after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who he greatly admired, conflating his image on the picture plane with his policies. The exhibition walks us through the many stages of Rauschenberg’s career, which demonstrate the closeness of his collaborations, first with fellow artists and dancers, and then with a literal flotilla of assistants, technological advisors, engineers and enablers. There are amusing wall hangings of broken and re-assembled industrial parts, tires, old bits of automobiles. There are Rube Goldberg machines, whirring away. There is a vast bubbling tub of clay, energised from a control box. There are huge canvasses of imagery from newspapers and magazines combined with umbrella tops and broken electric fans, favourite devices. He uses, as Warhol did, the silk screening method to create topical journalistic pictorial landscapes. It is a large and comprehensive show. He is, indeed, one of the great figures of the Modernist movement, the post war Abstract Expressionists. So why didn’t I care that much? I guess it is the distance that I felt between what the artist was trying to achieve and how I apprehended it. There is a kind of emotional absence in Rauschenberg, a constant feeling of being once removed. I admire the sense of search, but give me a Gauguin, any day, if I am looking for colour, form, light, mystery and/or meaning. Nonetheless, worth a visit.

Kaaren Hale

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