Rauschenberg retrospective: Tate modern

‘Robert Rauschenberg is America’s Leonardo – ceaselessly inventive, a mind in perpetual revolution. That is the revelation of this exhilarating show’ (1) The Observer

Jan 30th 2017. A visit to Tate Modern in London.

Taking in the large retrospective exhibition of American artist Robert Rauschenberg. As explained in the exhibition introduction it follows a 'loose chronology' of the artists work, appropriate for an artist who who saw no boundaries in his art making. Subjectively and aesthetically I am not particularly drawn to this work. The mixed media, pop culture, bricolage and assemblage are not processes I am drawn to. That said, to see the breadth of a lifetimes work representing a seminal point in art cultural history is very interesting. I am struck by just how extensive his use use of different media processes are in expressing his ideas which do shift in a identifiable ways through the decades. For me what really emanates strongly from the exhibition are the 'ideas' energetic creative thought, enthusiasm, engagement, gusto, inventiveness. It energises me to see what an artist can do, how the work creates meaning and crucially provides us as a society with artifacts and tangible evidence to describe our existence at particular points in time. Of course there are other more established sources but there is something about creative interpretations of history which can evoke a direct sense of things. I really felt the atmosphere of 60s/70s America in the rooms with the large silk screen collages and 'combine' works. These containing objects and imagery of the day and its bright primary colour palette.

Erased De Kooning

The most interesting exhibit for me was his 'Erased de Kooning Drawing,1953'. I knew about the work and the concept behind it intrigued me. It aligns with a strand of enquiry I have begun to develop. That of 'de-materialising' both in relation to process but also philosophically. This act of erasure is not a reductive gesture ....tbc

"With Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), Rauschenberg set out to discover whether an artwork could be produced entirely through erasure—an act focused on the removal of marks rather than their accumulation"

....The power of Erased de Kooning Drawing derives from the allure of the unseen and from the enigmatic nature of Rauschenberg’s decision to erase a de Kooning. Was it an act of homage, provocation, humor, patricide, destruction, or, as Rauschenberg once suggested, celebration? Erased de Kooning Drawing eludes easy answers, its mysterious beginnings leaving it open to a range of present and future interpretations." (2)

"To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later. John Cage

Thinking a lot about Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing 1953, I realised that one of the things it is about is minimising the subject, indicating that the removal of one subject can allow for the appearance of another. The things that go undiscussed in conversation are in some way equivalent to those that are talked about; what we did manage to discuss was just as important as what was left out.

If de Kooning was going to participate in this neo-Dada performance, he would play his part. He looked in his third group and found a multimedia work on paper that would be quite difficult to eradicate (the media of Erased de Kooning Drawing are “traces of ink and crayon on paper”). It apparently took Rauschenberg one month to get the sheet relatively clear of marks.

I wonder what Rauschenberg felt when he first started on it, and later, when he was halfway through, and at the end, when de Kooning’s drawing was completely obliterated, the work of an artist considered one of the most significant draughtsmen of his day. Much of Rauschenberg’s practice was based on the idea that what the artist may or may not have been feeling is unimportant, but I just wonder. I wonder because I don’t think most people who love art would have been able to bring themselves to do it. What he was smashing was not de Kooning; he was using an artist he admired to smash given ways of working.

Rauschenberg’s moves in white are part of the grand gesture that his early work strove for and often achieved. His colleagueJohn Cage recognised this when he wrote: “The white paintings were airports for the lights, shadows and particles.” Rauschenberg was able to make nothing the subject of a painting in a way that Cage would, after him, make nothing the subject of a piece of music. Then everything could enter in. “Having made the empty canvases (a canvas is never empty),

When the White Paintings were exhibited at the Stable Gallery in New York in the autumn of 1953, Cage wrote a statement for them: “… No subject/ No Image/No taste/No object/No beauty/No message/ No talent/No technique…/No idea…”

It is in this context that we must consider Erased de Kooning Drawing. It was a performative act – the erasing is the important part of it – resulting in a conceptual work (you have to know that there was an actual de Kooning that was erased, with the artist’s consent, to have full understanding of it).

Erased de Kooning Drawing is iconic because it stands for an era when something seemingly negative could, in fact, turn out to have positive repercussions. It is revolutionary in a philosophical, though not in an aesthetic, sense. (3)


1: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/robert-rauschenberg (3.2.2017)

2: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298

3: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/genteel-iconoclasm

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