Rauschenberg's Signature on the Century

An extensive retrospective showcases the artist's distinctive style - from high-tech photos to 'combines'

The line around the book-signing table was long. Like faithful bringing talismans for blessing, fashionable New Yorkers clutched pricey, 20-pound exhibition catalogs, and the now-canonized Robert Rauschenberg dutifully signed.

Rauschenberg's mammoth career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and other New York sites) from Sept. 19 to Jan. 7, 1998, has turned the jaded Big Apple into a media phenomenon on a par with a royal wedding - so many bells and whistles signaling awe that you enter the Guggenheim waiting for a transformative experience and feel dumb if you don't have one. Transformative, no, illuminating, yes.

The retrospective is touted as the largest by the Guggenheim. The 400 works spiral up all main floors of the museum and take up all the side galleries. Rauschenberg works have also spread to the Guggenheim's secondary SoHo space, through Jan. 4. And two other venues had shows that have already closed: the commercial gallery that represents him, PaceWildenstein, and the Ace Gallery on Hudson. If you don't meter your Rauschenberg dose, by now you could be thinking, "enough."

The volume of this hommage is overwhelming. The sheer number and diversity of output - painting, sculpture, painted constructions, installations, assemblage, stage sets, prints on every imaginable surface, ceramics, photography, choreography - speak to a 50-year, unremitting will to create that at its height inspires; at its ebb, sits on laurels past.

Rauschenberg's has been a full life: Christian fundamentalist upbringing, breakaway study in Paris and the Art Students League, fame, money, more fame, more money, an island home off Florida, bouts of drinking, bouts of quitting, commendable public works (among other things, his foundation provides funds for needy artists).

Born in Texas, Rauschenberg wanted to be a minister but gave it up because the church prohibited dancing and he loved to dance. He was drafted, honorably discharged, and studied at famous schools like Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., where exiled European Josef Albers put the green artist through his paces. (This may be what gives the work such formal rigor.)

The exhibition begins with 1948, when the artist was in his 20s, and ends with the present. We are reminded that along with longtime friends pre-Pop painter Jasper Johns and the late conceptual composer John Cage, Rauschenberg pretty much defined the technical and philosophic art landscape and its offshoots after Abstract Expressionism.

Naysayers may agree with this, but add that by the '70s and '80s, Rauschenberg's will to create lost its edit button. And indeed, the further you move in the Guggenheim from the rich decade of the '60s, the more Rauschenberg's energy seems to be recycling itself. (There is a telling anecdote in this regard: So sensitive was the young artist to becoming his own clich that after winning his first big European art award, he called home and ordered all silk-screens in progress destroyed so his eye would remain fresh.)

Earliest exhibited works were white and black fields influenced by and influencing Cage. Already an art guru, in the '50s Cage staged a performance of three minutes of complete silence, setting in motion the antiart strategies found in Rauschenberg and in much work today.

By the mid-'50s, Rauschenberg was making the wild assemblaged and collaged multimedia works for which he is best known. Called "combines" by Rauschenberg (maybe to denote the combination of two- and three-dimensional space, of art and life, of many media), these works covered found objects like a bed or a stuffed chicken with befuddingly beautiful passages of paint.

"Bed" is a real quilt covered with blood-red gestures. Though overreproduced in every art text, seen live and in context like this, it remains the most delicious, typically Rauschenbergian merger of paint and tangible surface, cozy junk and dark edge, deft technique and nonsense, eros and agitation.

The spirit of collaboration, experimentation, and pushing the envelope of the acceptable that hit arts and letters in the '60s and '70s is rampant here. Cage drove a car over white paper while a young Rauschenberg inked its tire to create an oddly lyrical sacred scroll.

By the '70s, Rauschenberg began his now-signature procedure of building visual fields from collisions of appropriated media images: snippets from Esquire, Newsweek, popular dailies, trashy pulp silk-screened and hand-altered to blend and battle on fabric, canvas, metal, glass, you name it. Again and again, works fused classical nudes, girlie mags, satellites, rocketry, weaponry, abandoned bikes, faces of famous politicos, non-Western artifacts, tossed together in exactly the helter-skelter way we are forced to process experience in an information age.

Throughout his career, Rauschenberg has told writers and viewers not to read messages into a work that is about process and materials. But it is hard not to read some charred angst in the black canvases, to see the frenzy of the city in the collaged junk, and to see existential edge, even a sense of loss, in a retrospective filled with these.

Maybe this is the unavoidable subtext of work forged in the era of Camelot and Camelot Lost (young Rauschenberg wrote to President Kennedy just before he was shot, sending a work as a gift), when America discovered that black and white in matters of morals, truth, country, and sex no longer existed.

Some folks responded to the vacuum by deciding there was no truth (Beat, Pop, Andy Warhol, the whole '70s); others responded by deciding everything was equally true (Cage, Conceptualism, equal rights). For 50 years, Rauschenberg has done both, making art in the shifts between techno prowess, nihilism, and idealist escape.

From his entry into art, Rauschenberg's work and worldview have involved traveling to and photographing far-flung lands. In the '50s, he saw Italy with artist Cy Twombly, and Tangier, Morocco, with writer Paul Bowles; today there is not an exotic port he hasn't visited or worked in. (One of the real treats of this retrospective was to rediscover Rauschenberg's early, quite fine black-and-white photos of hushed rooms, clotheslines, and quiet windows.)

By the '80s, his own color travel shots became the main image pool transferred by increasingly complex means to a variety of surfaces. This is the era that some feel slipped into formula.

By the '90s, Rauschenberg's spirit of experimentation seems primarily technical (now computer-driven lasers transfer his photos onto the pictorial surface, delivering subtle jets of calibrated vegetable dye), and the visual space he offers up again and again is the serene, dignified world of a becalmed art megastar. Nostalgic porches are superimposed onto dreamy cobblestone streets; classical statuary melds into antique clocks.

Soothing, accomplished as all this is, seen in an exhaustive historical context, you find yourself missing the irascible upstart from Texas who shocked rather than bemused.

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