Robert Rauschenberg's paintings, when they first became widely known in the 1960s, introduced with exuberant freshness an apparently casual, free-floating, airy sense of space and its possibilities. In tune with the times, they were like a multidimensional spacewalk. And, indeed, Rauschenberg was fascinated by the culture of rocket launches and moon landings.
His visual exploration of space was a patchwork of many windows opened onto their own spaces. His multiplicity of viewpoints was far from the conventional vanishing-point perspective of Renaissance paintings. On the other hand, although his paintings clearly relate to the free, abstract movements of paint and form seen on the surfaces of works by artists like Pollock, Kline, and De Kooning, Rauschenberg lacked their intensity. In fact, his work questioned that intensity. In one daringly symbolic act, he erased a De Kooning drawing, framing and exhibiting the result.
In his own work, he sidestepped the burning issue of the "figurative" versus the "abstract" as irrelevant. He was abstract when he wanted to be, and he introduced recognizable images when he chose to. His often very large canvases were assemblages of silk-screened photographic images of parachutists, helicopters, birds, the swell of the ocean, the Manhattan skyline, the American flag, sailboats, Merce Cunningham dancers, President Kennedy, Sunkist oranges - you name it. No hierarchy was evident in all this - old master art was on par with a New York stop sign, and either might be upside-down. Intervals between the recognizable images often consisted of brushed-on paint, which loosely tied everything together. Above all, nothing in a Rauschenberg is static. Like a cyclist, the artist maintains balance by motion.
One of Rauschenberg's 1960s "silkscreen paintings" was titled "Bicycle," yet no bicycle can be found. The viewer can apply the title as he imagines. Two bicycle images can be seen in the poster here, made in 1991 for an exhibition of his work in Zurich, Switzerland. Movement, balance, and airiness are implied. An artist's vision is still going strong.
• Rauschenberg's posters are on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 12.