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Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind

Posted By Administration, Friday, May 16, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Robert Rauschenberg, who died Monday at age 82, is part of the cultural mythos of postwar New York. He regularly exhibited new work here for more than 56 years, which must be some kind of record. It extended from his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 to the debut of his 2007 "Runts" series at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea in January. Mr. Rauschenberg was there, amid throngs of admirers, for the opening.


Many of the materials for Mr. Rauschenberg's found-object wizardry came directly from the sidewalks, gutters and trash bins of New York. Most of the images he used were lifted from its magazines and newspapers and mirrored the look and pulse of urban life. It is fitting that so much of his art made its way into the permanent collections of the city's museums.
These works number more than 500. True, many are prints, but printmaking, mixed with other mediums, was perhaps the central strategy of his art, with found photographs (or his own) functioning as his signature brushstroke. His penchant for overlapping and clustering transparent images constituted an indelible style.
New York's Rauschenbergs summarize his most influential innovations as well as his volcanic, sometimes compulsive productivity. There are examples of the multimedia hybrids he called combines and the transfer drawings that used solvent to fuse the mechanically reproduced and the handmade. And there are demonstrations of his distinctive seen-from-above spatial tilt, christened by the art historian Leo Steinberg "the flatbed picture plane." It redefined pictorial space as radically as one-point perspective.
These works, and their credit lines, also say a thing or two about the collecting habits and histories of the museums themselves. Little-known fact: The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are co-owners of an early 1950s gold leaf Rauschenberg, bequeathed to them in 1974. Here's what's on view right now, as well as a sense of what's in the vaults and what will be brought out of storage or rearranged to honor the artist in the coming weeks.
Museum of Modern Art
In New York, MoMA is Rauschenberg Central. It owns nearly 300 works, many of them prints, and usually has at least a dozen major efforts on view. The current ones include several recently acquired masterpieces from the 1950s that subvert the very concept of masterpiece. The homey proto-combine that is "Bed" uses real sheets, pillow and quilt as canvas and defines the flatbed picture plane as something you can sleep in. "Rebus" builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements. "Factum II," by being a near-copy of "Factum I" (in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), challenges the notion of the unique, inspired artistic touch.
Eight drawings from "Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante's Inferno" (1959-60) are also on display. Mr. Rauschenberg's first full-on exploration of the transfer technique, they recast Dante's journey in shadowy contemporary terms. The compositional finesse of these works is writ large in "First Landing Jump," a majestic 1961 combine painting that has one wheel — a car tire — planted firmly on the ground.
The Modern plans to mark Mr. Rauschenberg's death by consolidating these and other works into a single gallery sometime next week.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Like the Modern, the Whitney began collecting Rauschenbergs in the early 1960s; by now it owns nearly 60. Its first acquisition, in 1961, was "Summer Rental + 2," a collage painting from 1960 and third in a series of four very similar works that loosely extend the conceit of the "Factum" pair. Ten years later Mr. Rauschenberg gave the museum "Yoicks," from 1953, one of his most irresistibly exuberant works and one of his first to use fabric as a bold visual element. Green polka dots on yellow alternate with or succumb to slathered bands of red and yellow paint, paying irreverent homage to Abstract Expressionism while presaging works by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Joan Snyder.
"Yoicks" is often on view; it has been joined by the 1955 "Satellite," a dense, almost claustrophobic combine painting with a stuffed pheasant patrolling its top edge, and "Blue Eagle," another combine.
Guggenheim Museum of Art
None of the Guggenheim's Rauschenbergs are on view right now, but the museum plans to mount a selection soon. Although there are only slightly more than 30, about half of which have been acquired since 1990, they form an idiosyncratic but often choice group.
To one extreme are several examples of the artist's "Cardbird" multiples, the exacting, editioned trompe l'oeil-like copies of cardboard assemblages that seem antithetical to his interest in the cheap, the found and the improvised. To the other are slight but rare works given by Mr. Rauschenberg's foundation around the time of his 1997 Guggenheim retrospective.
One is the appropriately titled "Untitled (Hotel Bilbao)," an early "Shirtboard" collage, made from materials gathered in North Africa, where Mr. Rauschenberg traveled with Cy Twombly in 1952. Another is a small untitled transfer drawing from 1952, made six years before Mr. Rauschenberg is thought to have taken up the technique, albeit without solvent. This puts a new chronological wrinkle in his pervasive interest in simple, direct, one-on-one printing processes and in basing his art on things found rather than made.
The Guggenheim also owns half of what must be considered an apotheosis of these interests, Mr. Rauschenberg's 32-foot-long silkscreen painting "Barge." Sadly for New Yorkers, it is currently on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao, which owns the other half.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is a latecomer to the New York Rauschenberg sweepstakes. Although it owns more than 60 prints, it did not acquire anything bulkier until the combine painting "Winter Pool," from 1959, entered the collection. This ever-startling work consists of two narrow but rather colorful canvases flanking an old wood ladder, suggestive of a weathered swimming dock. The arrangement warps space in several ways, creating a feeling of submersion while bringing an arctic slice of white wall into the picture.
The museum reeled in this work just in time for its opening of "Robert Rauschenberg Combines" in December 2005. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, that exhibition was among the greatest devoted to Mr. Rauschenberg's work during his lifetime.

By Roberta Smith
For The New York Times

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