“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction”
“There is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting”
Run, don’t walk to see the revelatory exhibition entitled Rauschenberg: The ¼ Mile, at LACMA. The large-scale, enormously ambitious work shown here (together for the first time) as one long piece was done over seventeen years and is a joyful trip through Rauschenberg’s absolutely pristine craftsmanship, complex imagery and his many cultural touchstones. These works were started in 1981 when there was a Rauschenberg retrospective in Europe and clearly the artist is ruminating on his previous bodies of work such as his iconoclastic “Combines” from the fifties and sixties and his “Spreads” series from 1975-83.
Each “piece” of this mile-long exuberant extravaganza begins as a vertical long thin panel that abuts another and another as it tightly winds around the enormous gallery walls. Every panel is like a chapter in a sprawling epic novel as all the sections relate chromatically to those that follow and foreshadow those to come in terms of content and narrative. The stunning installation is clean, careful and just resonates in this vast gallery space.
Though Rauschenberg’s vocabulary of humble found objects such as scuffed cardboard boxes from New York’s Chinatown, to stained shirts, to common dishtowels, is well known, his neat overlapping of fabrics, paint and the transfer imagery from his own photography, rather than printed matter, is the star here. These works not only comment on Rauschenberg’s own history as a painter, sculptor and mixed media artist, but also comment with a sly sense of humor on color field painting, shaped canvases, Op and of course, Pop art.
The first grouping of panels – which has figures of friends, colleagues, family and lovers- outlined simply like elementary kids do in school, is surrounded by images that specifically relate to Rauschenberg’s relationship to his subject and their relationship to the world. These silhouettes harken back to work that Rauschenberg and Susan Weil (his soon-to be -wife) did together in 1949, when they got a friend to lay face down on blueprint paper and exposed her to a sun lamp, creating a blue x-ray–like image. These human-sized silhouettes are the most obvious feature for a number of panels as is the bright, nearly neon orange hue that comes from the Thai saffron dyed fabric. As always, there is an implicit grid-like structure, which holds the composition together, and prevents it from spinning out of control. These panels, numbered 44-60, 67, 68 and 74, were all were finished in 1983. They are all comprised of fabric, acrylic, ink, graphite, solvent transfer and objects on plywood panel, tightly arranged so that one must look very closely to differentiate the painted, printed and glued areas.
The figures begin to have the photo transfers contained inside their bodies as if they had ingested something strange and were being x-rayed. Eventually the figures disappear totally when Rauschenberg turns the panels on their side in order to stack them horizontally, which totally changes their shape. This section of the series then becomes resolutely abstract with the imagery referencing both quilts and pattern painting. Ironically, these panels are devoid of any figuration, while Rauschenberg has skillfully blended actual thin fabrics, which are largely indistinguishable from the hand painted surface.
Some of the most breathtakingly beautiful images are in this part of the show. There are large expanses of intense blood red and saffron orange paint (with a hint of the grid underneath shades of Rothko and Reinhardt). Rauschenberg was an inveterate traveler and these paintings show the influence of trips to India and Asia.
One of the simplest panels is a series with three red checked tablecloths seemingly floating through air, slightly wrinkled against a serene sky like expanse of color moving, left to right, from light yellow to tints of darkening blue. The red checked squares look like Op Art paintings themselves. The simplicity is striking after the jam-packed imagery of most of the images, with solvent and photo transfers, fabric and paint jostling for attention. There is even a large expanse of uninterrupted white, perhaps a nod to his own all-white paintings done at Black Mountain in 1951.
Then tucked into the bottom left edge is an image of his chair sculpture with the seats removed (also in this show) and glass bottles cheekily situated in the seat area. This homage to an earlier work also functions as breaking the flatness of the picture plane as the diagonal of the chairs is a sudden departure from the flat white wall-like panel. Rauschenberg is nothing if not energetic, experimental and collaborative. All art is autobiographical and it is instructive to see how all the influences play out.
He was born Milton Rauschenberg (who knew?) and grew up in relatively modest circumstances in Texas. His mother, Dora, sewed all their clothes and was well known for her expert craftsmanship. His mother has said “We were ordinary working people . . . Art was not in our world.” It is easy to see how this upbringing, which valued hard work and using whatever you had at hand influenced Rauschenberg’s desire to use everyday materials.
As one wends one’s way around the ¼ mile, the true measure of Rauschenberg’s restless mind, curiosity about materials and relentless invention becomes visible with the addition of several series of free standing sculptures, shaped wall pieces, and works on copper and other metal. Pushing materials to the limit, transforming materials by abrading, by bleaching, by scraping, even by stepping on are examples of the way he altered matter always searching for a new way to express himself and always up for a new challenge.
While some of his wonderful cardboard works are familiar and always a favorite of mine, the arches and totem poles of discarded books from a Florida library were new to me. Also, the slyly humorous shaped panel works made by splaying out badly stained and soiled shirts is such a great and witty homage to the shaped canvas period of the sixties and seventies. Rauschenberg’s broad sense of humor, his voracious mind and his enormous energy is translated through every material and every surface he touches. The works here are endlessly vibrant and engaging. What is wonderful about this exhibit is that it allows the viewer to see Rauschenberg anew with fresh eyes. In January 1987, Rauschenberg had a retrospective at The Met. His mother Dora was there, and looking at his sculptural tower of used books said “Isn’t it something how he can see beauty in almost anything?” Jane Livingston, former curator of the Corcoran gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. said of him “He has that big-spirited, funny, crazy, fearless quality that Texans have.” The enormity of his diverse mixed-media paintings and prints on metal, panel, and fabric; the scale of the individual pieces and the immersive quality of the entire exhibition is just staggering and expands both our understanding and appreciation of his life’s work.
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.