To stay ahead of the pack, you’ve got to keep moving. Taste doesn’t matter to you, because taste is what people who watch care about. All you can say with certainty about Robert Rauschenberg is that he was avant-garde – he has had too many different ideas to be able to skewer him – and the first retrospective since his death in 2008, at the Tate Modern (on until April 2), compresses these with ability and care.
We see the White Paintings, the Black Paintings, remnants of the first-ever art “happening” (which Rauschenberg organised with John Cage), his exuberant postmodern silkscreens, his sculpture-painting combines, and a large mud bath, which reacts to noise by bubbling. This, again, was part of one of his ground-breaking, hi-tech happenings, when full-sized tennis games would be synced to sensors and infra-red, in front of 2,500 people in autumnal New York in 1966.
So far, so far out. But what can we take from this very 20th-century figure, in the face of the White Cubes, the Hirsts and the Quinns, with their fiscal and cultural jackboot so firmly held down on the face of art lovers?
Take Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. As his colleague Cage said of them: “No subject/No image/No taste/No object/No beauty/No message/No talent/No technique (no why)/No idea/No intention/No art/No feelings/No black/No white (no and).” All that came before Hirst.
At Black Mountain College in the 1950s, Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg about colour. He demonstrated that each colour does not have inherent impact – that all that matters is what colour it is placed next to. Thus, if I am following this correctly, Albers eliminated notions of “taste” in Rauschenberg. One colour does not have preconceived notions of taste. Pink is not kitsch, etc.
The exhibition covers the gamut of Rauschenberg’s work, from his illustrations from Dante to his poetic silkscreens, containing references to Rubens’s Venus in Front of the Mirror, then Senator JFK, over emphatic blue and red washes. This section is the most resurgent with classic, postmodern, Americana Rauschenberg. We almost yearn that his combines – coloured in a sepia, playroom nostalgia – wouldn’t feel so outmoded, along with some of his elemental sculptures.
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