Revealing the divine in the forsaken and the sublime in the mundane, beloved late Neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) pens his love letter to Los Angeles in LACMA’s current retrospective Rauschenberg: In And About L.A. Although typically associated with the New York art scene of the 1950s and 60s, this iconic collagist actually derived a great deal of creative inspiration from this sprawling metropolis and its sun-drenched shores.
This life-long infatuation with the city and its surrounding areas began in 1944 when the young Rauschenberg was stationed at Camp Pendleton. While on leave one fateful day, he made his first visit to a museum. This pilgrimage to the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino proved to be a transformative one for the young man as he decided to dedicate his life to art right then and there. Throughout his lengthy and prolific career, Rauschenberg often returned to Los Angeles, finding himself continuously inspired by its sanguine light, forgotten backstreets, geographical beauty, and abundant diversity.
Upon entering this cavernous yet luminous exhibition space, the eye instantly fixates on a monumental black and white screenprint titled Currents (1970). Spanning sixty feet in length, this profound and gripping piece was the largest known print work at the time. Similar to Pablo Picasso’s melancholic masterpiece, Guernica (1937), in palette, tone, style, and form, this work also serves as a meditation on the government and violence through the lens of the news media.
Crafted in Malibu following a devastating fire at his New York City studio in 1969, this cacophonous collage features a myriad of clippings from both The Los Angeles Times and the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. The headlines and photographs seen here delve into the issues of the day, including sports, crime, corruption, race relations, riots, scandals, and the quagmire in Vietnam. While these stories are undoubtedly products of this bygone era, they also feel eerily current and contemporary. They are oddly cyclical, proving that social and political upheaval is nothing new in American culture. The names and faces of the people involved may have changed, but the narrative remains the same.
Details from Currents
In making Currents, the artist wished to “shake people awake.” He later revealed in an interview, “I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility…I made Currents…in the most direct way I knew how, because knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.” Like a glimpse into the chaotic collective consciousness, this electrifying print forces the viewer to come to terms with his or her complicity in this process. One cannot tear their eyes away from this madness, this trainwreck, and so it persists, barreling across this vast nation.
Continuing with this two-dimensional, black and white aesthetic, Rauschenberg’s 1981 silver gelatin prints depicting the City of Angels are also on display here. As a budding artist, this Texas native wished to photograph the entire country “inch by inch.” While he never accomplished this bold, ambitious task, he did launch the In + Out City Limits project and capture the uniquely American magic of Los Angeles, Baltimore, Charleston, Fort Myers, and New York. The smattering of intimate snapshots displayed here depict scenes of the commonplace and prosaic. Rauschenberg frames these images of broken-down cars, empty volleyball courts, and tow trucks as somehow more than the sum of their parts. He grants them some otherworldly quality, seeking out the in the transcendent in the discarded.
from the series In + Out City Limits
While Rauschenberg’s In + Out City Limits series provides a revolutionary new take on the city itself, his composite x-ray image titled Booster (1967), also on view here, offers a similarly radical perspective on the human body. As the artist’s first collaboration with the famed Los Angeles print workshop Gemini G.E.L., this life-sized portrait was not only the largest hand-printed lithograph ever produced but also the first work to combine lithography and screenprinting. Also merging notions of fine art, technology, and the universe at large, this experimental, enigmatic piece features Rauschenberg’s skeletal structure surrounded by 1967’s astronomical chart.
Considering his penchant for including pictures of everyday items in his work, this time the artist adds images of power drills, athletes, and chairs. Dubbing Booster “a self-portrait of inner-man,” here he reveals humankind in terms of motion and stagnation. While the heavens, the body, the runners, and even the drills are known for their movement, photography and x-ray imaging can only offer a snapshot, a momentary essence. While they may endeavor to get to the heart of the matter, they can only scratch the surface.
As a city synonymous with the vanity of the film industry, many New Yorkers have long dismissed Los Angeles as vapid and entirely devoid of culture. Here, we witness one of the most influential artists of the 20th century wholeheartedly refuting this stereotype. Through his ingenious layering of flat photographs, he delves deep into LA’s mysterious depths. Underneath the city’s illusory grandeur and glamour, he discovers a metaphorical sunken treasure in the form of the cluttered, chaotic charm of everyday life.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.