It’s a temptation to think of Pop Art as a combination of Roy Lichtenstein’s screaming fighter planes, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and David Hockney’s sun-drenched LA swimming pools. But it’s a lazy one – because there’s another figure we need to consider as well as this artistic trio, important though they are. Robert Rauschenberg was a seminal contributor to Pop Art and much else besides, and this exhibition – his first posthumous retrospective and the most comprehensive survey of his work for 20 years – enables us not only to see his contribution to Twentieth and Twenty-First Century art, but also to think about problems which that art raises. What here best illustrates his work?
Born in 1925, Rauschenberg served during the Second World War in the US Navy, then went to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There he studied fine art under Josef Albers, a former Bauhaus teacher who encouraged his students to make use of natural materials encountered in daily life. In 1949, Rauschenberg moved to New York. Now his artistic career would take off. He was one of several American artists who had picked up on the idea that a society reveals itself in what it throws away, an insight possibly gained from the anti-art Dada movement which had emerged in Europe during the First World War (influenced by the slaughter of that combat, Dada set out to deliberately shock, with its most famous work being a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with an added moustache). Rauschenberg, influenced perhaps by his old Black Mountain teacher, started working in a style which he called he called Neo-Dada, using found objects as a palette from which art could be made. He referred to these works as combines because of the way he constructed them. Outstanding here is his Monogram (1955-59), with a goat’s head protruding through a tyre (Rauschenberg was homosexual, and this particular work has been thought by some critics to symbolise gay sex). We also see his Gold Standard (1964), an arrangement reflecting commercialism and which includes printed reproductions, metal, fabric, wood, string and Coca-Cola bottles on folding, screen-like boards.
The next important phase for Rauschenberg was Pop Art. This was a celebration of popular culture from the 1950s (even though, in America, it would only come to fruition in the following decade), such as advertising and comic strips. Pop Art brilliantly captured then-contemporary America’s mindset. Its people were still conscious of their nation’s military successes against Nazi Germany and Japan (regularly celebrated on celluloid by Hollywood), and were experiencing a boom in prosperity after the hardships of the 1930s Depression. The concerns of President Eisenhower over the influence of what he referred-to as the country’s military-industrial complex were shared by few people: most prosperous Americans were more interested in obtaining the latest white goods or – just the thing for the drive-in movies – fin-tailed cars. Pop Art appealed to ordinary people and critics alike: whilst some theorists attempted to sanctify Pop by explaining it as a form of abstract art involving the signifiers of commercialism and removing from it any taint of popular taste its success – arguably – lay in the fact that its content was recognisable for ordinary people. With the work of Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol and other Pop artists, it was a relief for all concerned to have something with clear subject-matter after the sprays and splashes of Jackson Pollock (irreverently dubbed Jack the Dripper) and his fellow Abstract Impressionists.
Rauschenberg got into this scene by exchanging the found object for the found image. In his work, he could reflect a society which, long before the advent of the internet and social media, was saturated with imagery, with the visual. Like Warhol, he took up silk screening. Here we see his Retroactive II (1963), using contemporary images dominated by – unsurprisingly – one of the recently-assassinated President Kennedy. But Rauschenberg didn’t confine himself to Pop Art. Dating from his association with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Rauschenberg had an interest in the use of objects and actions in performance, and his Oracle (1962-5) is an assembly of five found metal objects, including a ventilation duct and an automobile door on a typewriter table, producing sound from concealed radios and which could be choreographed at will. Social comment continued, and we see his Stop Side Early Winter Glut (1987), showing a stop sign and other metal objects as a reflection on the effect of the oil crisis on the economy of his home state, Texas. In his final years, Rauschenberg made an increasing use of photography in his work, involving new technology such as digital storage and inkjet printers. We see his Triathlon (Scenario) (2005), which shows a combination of images capturing scenes from American street life.
Rauschenberg died in 2008, and his work as a whole leaves us with contradictory thoughts. His Pop output, due to its colourful content, is probably his greatest claim to fame. Yet it appears dated too – it reflects an abundance of plenty which seemed shiny and new in the 1960s but is something we now take for granted: ever-more sophisticated technology ensures that our visual experience is saturated with it, and we can imagine what a joyful time Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and, even more, Warhol, would have had with disseminating their work at the click of a mouse. It is a simple, touchingly naive elegy for an era whose optimism seems eclipsed by the unsettling economic and political realities and challenges of today’s world (then again, who knows what developments recent political changes in Great Britain and the USA, with the possibility of further upheavals in Europe, will bring about in the arts? We shouldn’t forget the old Hollywood motto ‘nobody knows anything.’)
On the other hand, the legacies of both Pop Art in general and Rauschenberg’s output in particular are problems for art. Their guiding concept is that the medium is the message, but this idea helps to beget, unintentionally or otherwise, the view that art can mean anything you want it to. This is a double-edged sword leading, as it can, either to works of genius which have been held back by various conventions or prejudices being able to flourish, or to any old piece of tat (produced either naively or opportunistically) being labelled as art. It takes away the idea that the surface objects can have any deeper, objective meaning. We end up with the idea that a work of art’s meaning is what its individual creator says it is. But that can result in the loss, for art, of any universal meaning or evaluation. Because, with everything they encounter, human beings constantly seek meaning and practise evaluation – things which presuppose shared beliefs and standards. The message has to be more than the medium, but how, or where, are we to find it? This exhibition poses these questions for us to ponder.
Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern will be showing from 1st December 2016 – 2nd April 2017.