In the 80s my path happened to cross with Peter Holm, a Danish art collector and, if I may say, a true Rauschenberg connoisseur. Peter’s knowledge and passion overwhelmed me as a newcomer at the time. I adopted his fascination with vigour, and it has fuelled my joyful journey through the world and history of the art of my time. It has led me all the way to realizing this exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s late works in Venice in 2017.
Over the years, much attention has been given globally to Rauschenberg’s early works, most notably his Combines from the 1950s, and, in more recent years, his use of silkscreens. Faurschou Foundation’s Late Series exhibition presents a much lesser known, but equally important series of works with focus on his transfer techniques from the late 80s, 90s, and 2000s.
When I met Bob in 2004 at the opening of his retrospective at Palazzo di Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy, one of the things he told me was that he wished to have more time left, for he still had so many paintings in him, which were to be made. Then he gave me his signature lively laugh. Indeed, he got four more years, where he continued the Scenario and started up the Runt series. One of his last works, Orange Fill, shows what a masterly painter and colourist Rauschenberg was. With just four images, he created an astonishing sunset over everyday street objects, as if they truly belonged together, just as elegantly as a few brushstrokes could portray a gorgeous nude in a late Picasso piece.
Late Series aims to follow up on the sublime exhibition, Gluts, which took place at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in 2009 as a memorial to Rauschenberg after his death in 2008. At the same time, it is also a celebration of the successful presentation of Rauschenberg’s silkscreen works at the Venice Biennale in 1964.
The selected artworks speak for themselves, demonstrating that, even in his late years, Rauschenberg continued to challenge different transfer techniques, conquering new materials. Our task was to create the right flow for the paintings to be arranged, as well as take advantage of the design of the space – a challenge, which our director and architect Kristian Eley has always loved to face. I dare say that yet again he has solved it with deepest respect to both the building of Cini Foundation on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, and Robert Rauschenberg’s art.
This catalogue is made to shed light on a body of work that is in need of much more attention. Faurschou Foundation is, therefore, pleased to have the opportunity to present the story behind these works.
Sooner or Later
The late work of any artist presents a challenge, exacerbated the longer the life. How are we to understand the works that come after the works that changed the world? A sense of disappointment almost always prevails, at least initially, as we try to make sense of new ideas and directions that do not necessarily match the breakthroughs that first brought the artist to the centre of the conversation in their precocious youth. The case of Robert Rauschenberg is particularly special, because he worked so consistently, for so long, and in such a wide range of media and series. As his career progressed through its six decades, it seems he never lost confidence that whatever he was working on at a particular moment in time was the summation of everything that had come before.
When, then, should we begin to consider his work “late”? After his move from New York to Captiva Island, Florida, where he set up a studio in 1970? After the daring work of his loose collaboration, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), more or less concluded with a project for the Swedish curator Pontus Hulten in 1973? Or perhaps upon being named the “Bicentennial Artist” at the time of his major traveling retrospective in 1976-77? This show, curated by Walter Hopps, which began at the museum, now known as the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, went onward to MoMA, SFMOMA, the Albright-Knox, and the Art Institute of Chicago. It was installed in reverse chronological order, foregrounding the importance of what Rauschenberg was currently doing at the time the show was being mounted. While he had enjoyed adulation and renown in the art world since at least the late 1950s, this exhibition brought him to another level: the issue of Time, released the week after the opening, featured a collage on its cover, Rauschenberg by Rauschenberg, and a feature inside by Robert Hughes, titled: “The Most Living Artist.” The scale and timing of this exhibition and its accompanying public outreach placed Rauschenberg in a position that functioned as a national cultural symbol, not in retrospect, but in real time, and this position was unlike any enjoyed by an American artist before.
It was after this exhibition had run its course that Rauschenberg began to think about how he might, while continuing to produce new work, use his visibility and his art to address issues that he felt were troubling the world. ROCI – the “Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” pronounced “Rocky” like his pet turtle, who had previously figured in an E.A.T. performance – is perhaps the best example of this later urge. Seen by some as a narcissistic flourish at the time, ROCI now stands as a testament to a world teetering on the brink of the Post-Cold War era, and to America’s outsized role in that world. The timing is perfect: the project dates its beginning to 1982, early in China’s era of “Opening and Reform,” when Rauschenberg was granted permission to travel to a previously closed part of China, Jingxian, in Anhui Province. There, he visited one of the world’s oldest paper mills, in order to learn techniques from craftsmen which would figure in a series of prints he was making with Gemini G.E.L. In the process, he came to a new understanding of the world. Oral history has it that the idea for ROCI came from a conversation with a papermaker at the mill, wherein Rauschenberg realized that the man saw his family only once a year, despite living only twenty kilometres away from them. To anyone familiar with Chinese bureaucracy at the time – or, for that matter, the Chinese economy today, in which labourers sometimes spend years away from home at a time – this seems unremarkable. However, a “Rauschenbergian” sense of wonder seized on this poignant personal truth, and the artist leapt from there to the idea that art might be used as a communication tool with societies less open than the one that had formed him. Thus, ROCI was born.
Among the many things that are fascinating about ROCI, one of the most compelling is its structure. For the project, Rauschenberg set up a dedicated foundation, a proper 501(c)3 with a charter and a board of directors, nearly bankrupting himself and liquidating his collection of works by his famous peers to continue to fund it. There was something deadpan about assuming the form of a shadow ministry of culture, and using it to conduct relations with governments in places like Cuba, Venezuela, and Malaysia. Underneath the irony, however, was something real, a desire to institutionalize oneself in a way that was at once light-hearted and earnest, direct and committed. It worked. The project travelled to ten countries – eleven if one counts Tibet as a separate country, as Rauschenberg did – hitting some of the key hotspots of the globe: a booming Japan, a wavering Cuba, a moribund Soviet Union. He cancelled ROCI BERLIN in May 1989 when his goal of creating an exhibition that could be viewed by citizens from both sides of the city had been thwarted by the DDR bureaucracy; in the end, the show, which opened in March 1990, could be seen by all, after the wall had fallen. ROCI ended with a survey at the National Gallery, which opened in May 1991, just as the hostilities of Operation Desert Storm, marking perhaps the apex of American global military supremacy, were winding to a close.
Between 1981 and 1998, Rauschenberg produced The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece, an index of his various working tendencies throughout this lengthy period. Measuring 305 meters and divided into 191 sections, it recounts the transformations that Rauschenberg’s thinking underwent as he entered the final stages of his career. This work can be considered as something of a personal retrospective. It consists of passages that can be seen as a replay of each of the series included in the present exhibition, or, at least, a reiteration of the image-making techniques behind them. The most important leap in the The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece happened in 1984 with the group of panels, Panels 67-91. Here, suddenly, Rauschenberg resumes the use of silhouettes, which appeared in earlier panels – only now, Rauschenberg surrounded these silhouettes with silkscreened images. The break was dramatic, as the works not only moved from the more crowded and concentrated compositions of the earlier panels to the larger and more diffuse arrangements that pervaded everything that followed, but from found imagery, culled from the world, to photographic imagery, taken by Rauschenberg’s own lens. Shortly thereafter, in 1986, with Panel 105, metal appears as a support – in this case copper, coinciding with his travels to Chile for the ROCI CHILE exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, in July 1985.
Metal surfaces fascinated Rauschenberg throughout the 1980s and 1990s; the Urban Bourbon, Borealis, Night Shade, and Shiner series attest to this. Within these series, he explored permutations of application, transfer, tonality, and finish. Like the 1951 White Paintings, which meant to absorb the debris of the world around them, these works, with their reflective surfaces, allowed the viewer to become part of the visual field of the viewed. From the bold colours of the Urban Bourbons to the understated grisaille of the Night Shades, and from the gestural brushstrokes of the Shiners to the controlled corrosion of the Borealis works, we see an artist who was unafraid to cease from exploring.
A final breakthrough occurred in the late 1990s, when Rauschenberg began to incorporate two technologies that show how his artistic thinking and social consciousness continued to respond to the changing times throughout the final years of his life. With the Anagram (A Pun) works, begun in 1997, he introduced a new, water-soluble inkjet dye. This pigment evoked some of his earliest experiments in transferred imagery from the 1960s, with one key difference – he used none of the toxic chemicals that had been part of his material arsenal for so many years. A lifelong environmentalist, it was finally in the 1990s that Rauschenberg decided to apply such standards to his own working method. In the Scenario and Runt works, he incorporated digital photography, just then approaching, though not yet attaining widespread saturation in consumer markets. Rauschenberg could play with early versions of photo processing software to reverse the images digitally before printing them for transfer, allowing them to appear in the “correct” order on the final canvas – a simple problem that earlier decades of image transfer had not been able to solve.
The Scenario works, which bear a number of formal parallels to the final panels of the The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece, were begun just before Rauschenberg suffered a stroke in the spring of 2002. The stroke left him unable to use his dominant right arm; subsequent works were realized using his left hand and a team of assistants. In these bursting, gridded compositions, photographic imagery from past years and travels aligns itself into ambiguous narrative vignettes. When the works were first shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2004, Rauschenberg noted: “I like photographs of anything uninteresting. Maybe just two doors on a wall.” It was a classical Rauschenberg statement – an acknowledgement of the artistic potential of even the most quotidian object or vista, and of his commitment to working, as he once famously put it, in the gap between art and life.
When Faurschou Foundation, then known as Gallery Faurschou, opened in Beijing with the exhibition, Robert Rauschenberg: Three Decades, in November 2007, just months before his death, it was the first time in more than two decades that the artist’s work had been presented in China. This first time this occurred was when the exhibition, ROCI CHINA, opened at the National Art Gallery in November 1985, attracting some 300,000 visitors in eighteen days, and fanning the flames of an artistic awakening with repercussions still felt today.
While Rauschenberg’s art, like the world around it, had changed greatly since ROCI CHINA, these late works possessed an elegance and power that is, perhaps, even more evident another decade later. By the time the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened the exhibition, Rauschenberg in China, in June 2016 – presenting the The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece for the first time since 1999 – the global world had entered yet another phase in its ongoing development. Viewers flocked to the exhibition from around Beijing and beyond, spending hours in the former military factory that is now a major exhibition space, encountering thousands of images and objects that Rauschenberg had marshalled into a single sprawling piece. I couldn’t help but think that Rauschenberg himself might have been pleased to see that a country and a context, once dismissed as undeserving of major attention, could evolve into such an unlikely and compelling set of directions – somewhat like the work he was posthumously showing there.
- Philip Tinari is a notable writer, critic, art curator, and expert in Contemporary Chinese Art. He is the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, which presented the exhibition, ‘Rauschenberg in China’, in 2016. Tinari serves on advisory boards including the Guggenheim Asian Art Council and the gallery committee at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and works as an adjunct professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Tinari was born in Philadelphia in 1979, and is currently based in Beijing, China.
Robert Rauschenberg was the defining force in contemporary art for nearly sixty years, using an immensely wide range of media, from painting, photography, sculpture, performance, to printmaking. For Rauschenberg, painting entailed not only using a brush, but also silkscreening, collaging, transferring, and imprinting. He did so with a diverse array of materials, from canvas, board, and fabric to sheet metal, Plexiglas, plaster, and paper. He has been called a forerunner of virtually every post-war American art movement since Abstract Expressionism, from Pop-art to Dada, and has influenced artists until the present day. However, Rauschenberg remained fiercely independent from any specific art movement throughout his protean life.
Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, in a conservative community and started to study pharmacology following his parents wish. After refusing to dissect a frog, Rauschenberg was expelled, and during the Second World War he was assigned as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps after refusing to join the battlefield. During the War, he had his first encounter with oil painting and chose to pursue art. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1946–47 and the Académie Julien, Paris the following year. During his year in Kansas, he decided to change his name from Milton to Robert, because it sounded more artistic. In Paris, he met his future wife and colleague, Susan Weil, whom he followed to study at the at Black Mountain College, North Carolina (1948–50) under Josef Albers.
Travelling widely, he was based in New York City from 1950, where he and Jasper Johns paved the way for pop art of the 1960s by making use of non-traditional materials and questioning the distinction between art and every objects. He also worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York, as costume and stage designer (1955–64). In 1997 the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City, staged the first major exhibition of his works, showcasing the breadth of his work and its influence over the second half of the century. The first survey of his works after the artist’s death is currently being shown as a traveling exhibition this year in 2017, in collaboration between Tate Modern and MoMA. Rauschenberg lived and worked in New York City, as well as Captiva Island, Florida until his death from heart failure in 2008.
Faurschou Foundation in Venice
12.05.17 – 27.08.17
Curious Matter / Goya White 380g
Arctic Volume / White 175g
Special thanks to
ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum
Peter A. C. Holm
Samlung Marx for permission to include Stage Coach
The team at Faurschou Foundation
Faurschou Foundation has made every effort to clear the proper copyright material produced in this book
ISBN – 978-87-91706-10-3