Who is the most influential visual artist of the late twentieth century?

Geoff Hands

By design or coincidence, in London right now you can visit Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern’s first Autumn show of 2016, and the acclaimed but in some quarters controversial Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy (for example, where are the women?). Both shows will attract sizeable crowds of visitors and the Ab Ex survey provides the cutting edge backdrop, in painting at least, that Rauschenberg reacted to by appropriating the brushstroke and reintroducing non-abstract imagery.

The scope of Rauschenberg’s exploration of fine art as a broad discipline and an attitude to living in, and responding to, the modern era reveals the fact that he was not a painter or a sculptor per se. He was also, at various times, a performer and a printmaker. But, crucially, he was also a collaborator, denying the notion of the individualistic, sometimes existentially challenged soul of the archetypal modern artist. He also had a positive and creative attitude to developing machine and electronic technologies – right up to the advent of digital printing in the early 2000s. He was a maker.

From the first room in the show (Experimentation), a suitably piecemeal and varied collection of works (including the literally iconoclastic, ‘Erased De Kooning Drawing’ of 1953) to Room 11 (Late Works), we were treated to the full gamut of Rauschenberg’s project to explore life, culture and art as one interrelated phenomenon. In between were selections of the artist’s career defining Combines, Transfer Drawings, Silkscreens, Performance videos and Metal sculptures. Despite the Aladdin’s Cave resonances of the Tate presentation, there is nothing that looks out of place, as the multiplicity of forms and images adds up to the whole Rauschenberg experience that we anticipated.

The special, and expected, treats included ‘Monogram’ [1955-59]; ‘Bed’ [1955]; ‘Retroactive I’ and ‘II’ [1963 and 64]; ‘Estate’ [1963]; and ‘Winter Pool’ [1959]. For the Baby Boomer contingent attending the show, these works will satisfy expectations, as the works are part of the well-known and disparate imagery of the Pop era. For example, we will all recognise the inverted John F. Kennedy image with the disembodied hand gesturing pointedly. In addition to the ‘Retroactive’ screen printed canvases, ‘Buffalo II’ and ‘Press’ (both 1964), reinforces the iconic status of this news media photograph (taken from a debate with Richard Nixon) in the collective unconscious of all who yearn for a less inward looking U.S.A. that the incoming president elect appears to represent. How a younger, X, Y or Z Generation will react will be interesting – especially for those inclined to make or collect contemporary art. In fact the spirit of Pop Art might, somewhat surprisingly, permeate much of what is new today. Andy Warhol has become the undisputed King of Pop, but a more object-orientated and cross-media Rauschenberg influence might already be detected in the more avant-garde wing of contemporary art that has emerged over the last two decades.

Following this line of thought leads to considering a great variety of indirect influences on the work of many of today’s Young(ish) Turks. There are very many more than this perfunctory list, but Isa Genzken, Karla Black, Adriano Costa, Park McArthur, Jared Madere, Dennis Loesch, Konrad Wyrebek, Urban Zellweger, Tris Vonna-Michell, and Turner Prize winner, Helen Marten, might spring to mind. They all subtly or forcefully break the rules of expectation, when they obey the Golden Rule to transform anything that smacks of expectation. In their own ways, they expand boundaries and merge art with life (especially incorporating the technological materialism that pervades daily existence) as if division was absurd. Rauschenberg is a mentor of sorts.

Yet, whilst the spirit of Rauschenberg’s approach to the creative process was always open to chance, change and the various contexts of contemporary life, where everything is a manner of performance, he was not averse to influences from the past. Possibly less well known to a British audience (unless they visited the Tate Gallery show back in 1981, or have visited MOMA in New York) are Rauschenberg’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno, from his Divine Comedy. By incorporating photographic images (found and selected) from various magazines, a series of ink transfer drawings from 1958-1960, was given significant wall space. The collage-like and oblique references to a classic text, demonstrates that material from the distant past is available to be unearthed and revealed at appropriate times.

Rauschenberg was always drawn to a narrative of some kind, whether it was appropriated or generated by presenting re-formulated imagery or objects. ‘Monogram’, loaned by the Tate from Moderna Museet, Stockholm, reminded us that whatever Damien Hirst could conjure from the animal kingdom, Rauschenberg preempted him. Likewise with his well-known ‘Bed’, it is an interesting precursor of Tracey Emin’s, ‘My Bed’ [1998], although the link may be superficial. But what is not so circumstantial is the example of a dynamic spirit of the age attitude that is embodied in Rauschenberg’s consistently developing practice – and is echoed today as art continues to evolve and challenge expectations. He was characteristically open to experimentation, cross-disciplinary engagement, and rule breaking to engineer visual surprise. For example, what is it about those various cardboard box sculptures/paintings, including ‘Volon (Cardboard)’ [1971], and ‘Untitled (Cardboard)’ [1972], that proves that ordinary, everyday ‘stuff’ can be transformed by simple re-presentation? This transformative process produces results that challenge the viewer to engage with their own visual intelligence – as well as to enliven the gallery space – as we see, for example in Adriano Costa or Helen Marten’s work.

So, here was the surprise that we felt foolish not to have anticipated: Robert Rauschenberg remains an artist of today. Much of his work would not look out of place if presented in the Tate’s ‘Art Now’ series of exhibitions that presents new work by emerging artists. In this respect, we imagined that the ‘Jammer’ series [1975-6] – several of which were exhibited at Gagosian here in London just over three years ago – could still offer an aura of contemporaneous engagement. Indeed, these textiles and object sculptures look like they could have been made in an east London studio just last month.

In addition, a particularly outstanding and seductive surprise included, ‘Glacier (Hoarfrost)’ [1974], which could be a precursor to Karla Black’s engagement with the almost weightless qualities of materials. Also, ‘Albino Spring Glut (Neapolitan)’ and ‘Balcone (Neapolitan)’, both constructed from metal parts sourced from Naples for a Trisha Brown performance there in 1987, exuded an aura of recently appropriated freshness – which we agreed was an inexplicably subjective response to the found qualities of otherwise abject materials and distorted forms. Towards the end of the show, the astonishing and alchemical, ‘Mud Muse’ [1968-71], a sound activated bed of Bentonite clay, stressed the strangely performative nature of materials. With humour and physics combined, Rauschenberg seems to have posed the question: What do you make of this?

Although Robert Rauschenberg is a one-man retrospective show, (with due references to associates and collaborators, including John Cage, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and the Experiments in Art and Technology foundation) Rauschenberg’s invisible peer for this show is Andy Warhol. A compelling essay in the catalogue by Richard Meyer, links the two most influential artists of their generation by identifying a shared interest in silkscreen printing and the use of the mass media image – especially on canvas. The tradition of demonstratively extolling dexterous painting skills, with expressive intent and a closed-loop of references in the case of many of the Abstract Expressionists, as being wholly sufficient is put into question and developed latterly by artists such as Dennis Loesch and Konrad Wyrebek who incorporate digital technologies. Yet this ironically polemic stance may yet invigorate painting – just as Rauschenberg, in a much broader way, energises the possibilities of this phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Warhol has become the popular household name of course, but we wondered if Rauschenberg’s influence on successive generations has been more prevalent and will last longer? An essentially visual and object-orientated manifestation of post-Dada art was gloriously manifested in Rauschenberg’s multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary art practice throughout his long career. Today we see that this ongoing questioning and rejection of purist painting or sculptural art forms remains essential for many contemporary practitioners. Which raises the question: Superseding Marcel Duchamp – is Robert Rauschenberg the most influential visual artist of the late twentieth century? Time will tell.

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac are currently presenting ‘Salvage’, the first solo exhibition of American artist Robert Rauschenberg at their Paris Marais gallery, until 14 January, 2017. (In Spring 2017, a new gallery will open in London, Mayfair, at Ely House.)

December 13, 2016