WASHINGTON — YOUR hand and arm and maybe your face are mirrored in the catalog for contemporary artist Robert Rauschenberg's new show, called ROCI (pronounced "Rocky"). The mirror image on the silvery, reflective cover (designed by the artist) is a symbol of what "ROCI," the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, is all about.
It's about a seven-year artistic odyssey Rauschenberg made to 10 countries around the world. Approximately 150 works of art, ranging from paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and videotapes, to a giant kite and neon bicycle are included in the multimedia exhibit that opened last week, and will run at the gallery's East Building through Sept. 2.
The catalog's mirrored cover also symbolizes much of the artwork itself, which is done on reflective surfaces like copper, stainless steel, and mirrored aluminum. Rauschenberg's reflections may also be an artistic metaphor for his images of the places he visited and captured in diverse media: Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Beijing, Lhasa (Tibet), Japan, Cuba, Soviet Union, Berlin, and Malaysia. He has become the Jack Kerouac of artists, on the road to promote an international dialogue through art, encouragin g
"world peace and under- standing."
During his trek for art, Rauschenberg may have also taken a voyage inside himself to discover how much art means to him. He has left a painting or work of art in every country he has visited, including the United States where he has given 29 pieces to the National Gallery, including several from the ROCI/USA section, which was planned as the culmination of the world tour. None of the ROCI/USA works has ever been seen before, and many of the ROCI works have not been on view to the public outside of the o riginating countries.
Robert Rauschenberg announced the ROCI venture among diplomats and ambassadors in 1984 at the United Nations. He was so determined to get the show on the road that he ended up financing most of it himself.
At a press viewing of the exhibition, Rauschenberg said "I had to sell most of my best Twomblys and earliest Warhols, and all of that. But I thought this has more to do even for them with life, than hanging on to the collection.... [Yet] I didn't have enough money. I wanted desperately to take ROCI to China (only Beijing is represented) and just literally ran out of money. But Venezuela wanted the show, and so they arranged to have their Air Force fly down to Chile [where the show was on exhibit] and pi ck it up. Don [Saff, artistic director for ROCI] and I joked, 'Hey, that might stop all the wars, to just have them carry art around all the time.
Don Saff says the artist chose to go to what he calls "sensitive areas." For the trip to Cuba, "we could hardly get the work there because there wasn't one transporter in the US that was willing to take on the shipment." As Rauschenberg himself pointed out, "When you have nine tons of painting, it can't sit on the dock too long." He also added that this original list of 22 countries "more or less neglected or questionable or sensitive excluded all the obvious choices like Paris and Dusseldorf. The list was also considerably shortened in terms of "the cooperation we could get from those countries."
Robert Rauschenberg, who was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and studied to be a pharmacist, is considered a world-class artist. His ROCI show is a brilliant, extravagantly colorful, and fun look at "the world according to Rauschenberg."
The presence of the flickering, constantly changing videotape images on TV sets stacked on one another gives you the impression of two often disparate cultures sliding past one another. China and Venezuela, for instance, are paired together for ultimate image confusion. The TV duos, while interesting, are distracting in terms of the real art, the painting.
"Good art, I think, can never be understood," Rauschenberg says in a catalog interview.
He may puzzle, but he never bores you with his art. Some of the most memorable works in this show stop you right in your tracks.
The Malaysian picture "Mangosteen Flower" is drenched in yellow, rose, mauve, and crimson, an acrylic and fabric collage on plywood filled with images of a supine tiger, stylized flowers, two men angrily confronting a woman on her knees, and a butterfly alighting on blossoms. Or they can challenge you, like the formidable "Bach's Rocks," from ROCI Berlin, with its image of the Brandenburg Gate, four stone pillars, and splashes of red, gold, and green paint.
"Fish Park/ROCI Japan" entrances the viewer, with its giant 10-foot carp, all pink and red and green, with its bicycles, flowered cloth, squiggles of painted water. In "Yellow Ranch/ROCI Cuba," he uses a chrome-yellow lens to paint photos of sugar cane, harvesters, a shuttered window, and horses behind fences in enamel and acrylic on galvanized steel.
In "Trowser," one of the ROCI USA "Wax Fire Works," the melded images are of two bicycles, one gold, one scarlet, and a red photo of a STOP sign, with "Private Property NO Trespassing" written below it. It is of acrylic, enamel, and fire wax on mirrored aluminum and stainless steel. Like several of the other ROCI USA works, it is less flamboyant in color and more caustic than some of the art from other countries.
J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, referred to the big gamble the National Gallery took in 1984: "We said 'Sure, we'll do a show several years from now, consisting of objects that we haven't seen and many of which will not yet have been created.' But I am here to say that I am absolutely over the moon that the gamble paid off ... in a geyser of creativity ... And it is a gamble always for a staid, old fusty institution like this which is primarily involved in documenting retrospec t
ively the art of the past to do anything about contemporary art."
Rauschenberg expert Jack Cowart, who is the National Gallery of Art's curator of 20th century art, says "The works in ROCI reveal Rauschenberg at the height of his power."
Mr. Cowart sums up this new show in its catalog: "Virtually every new painting made for the ROCI tour contains explosive, highly charged colors, frequently on reflective, metal surfaces. They are large-scale, lively works, filled with lush texture and shimmering light. The artist acknowledges that he is a 'push-over for color' and after years of restraint, it is clear that in ROCI Rauschenberg expanded his palette to the fullest spectrum."