Which is better for making art: living in the city among gifted friends or secluded on an inconvenient island? Robert Rauschenberg has famously tried both. In 1970, at the age of 45 and praised for his alchemical ability to turn waste into art, he was tired of life in Manhattan. He bought real estate in Captiva, off Florida’s sandy west coast, and embarked on the second half of his wildly inventive and influential career.
Rauschenberg’s later paintings and sculptures have never had the visibility of his earlier work, which is perhaps inevitable in a culture that romanticizes youthful creativity. But the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which acquired much of the artist’s work after his death in 2008, at the age of 82, invites us to take a look and collaborate on several simultaneous exhibitions in major galleries here and in Europe.
The main event takes place at the Gladstone Gallery, which offers a revealing look at works from the artist’s Venetian and Early Egyptian (1972-74) series, focusing on a group of sculptures made from the unlikely material of cardboard shipping boxes. In contrast, a second exhibition at the Mnuchin Gallery offers a broad overview of three decades of work (1971 to 1999) and bears the vague, self-promotional title, “Exceptional Works.”
Split across two Chelsea locations, the Gladstone show brings together 16 sculptures (and one work on paper) that continue the artist’s signature penchant for recycling. When you walk in you are amazed that so many impressive sculptural forms, so many columns and pyramids, can rise from such thin materials. Here is a world made up of rags and shredded rubber tires and mostly brown cardboard boxes, some covered in sand as if to mimic brick building blocks, others squashed into irregular polygons and left in their naturally shaky waveform.
In reality, they bring us a new Rauschenberg, through which we can see how an artist who began his career as a Texas-born heir to European dada and Kurt Schwitters’ scrap paper collages evolved into an inspired post-Minimalist sculptor in the early 1970s. He forgoing collage and other imaginative content to create light-hearted assemblages that ingeniously challenged the cold steel surfaces and macho attitudes that had overtaken American sculpture.
So instead of Donald Judd’s famous metal boxes, Rauschenberg embraced a witty and ephemeral alternative – namely the cardboard box. Rather than the sheer tonnage of Richard Serra’s stacked blocks or plates of steel, Rauschenberg arranged his boxes in vertical or horizontal configurations that are nearly weightless and whose installation does not require the virile drama of flatbed trailers, riggers and cranes.
The Gladstone exhibition opens with the artist’s Venetian series, which he named after a city he loved. In the summer of 1964, he became the first American artist to win the top prize at the Venice Biennale. At the time, the jury’s deliberations were seen by the art world as roughly equivalent to a papal conclave and led to claims of New York’s superiority as an art capital.
The city of Venice evoked in the sculptures (actually created at home in the studio in Captiva) is the Venice of the canals, a metropolis of stone and water and boats gliding past. Rauschenberg always had a boyish fascination with transportation. References to cars, airplanes and bicycles run through his work, and his definition of making art had less to do with locking yourself up in a studio and processing your innermost emotions, than with entering the object-strewn world, an inspired vagabond.
He enjoyed physical movement, whether that meant traveling abroad or taking 15 footsteps across a dance stage. For years he designed sets and costumes for the leading lights of avant-garde dance, including Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, and enjoyed artistic collaborations. “The best way to get to know people is to work with them,” he once said.
A striking sculpture in Gladstone, ‘Untitled (Venetian)’, 1973, wrests a sense of nautical adventure from materials that could wash up on a beach. A ten foot long piece of driftwood, with four frayed cardboard boxes stuck at one end, leans against a wall, where it meets a curtain of ivory lace that falls down at right angles to the floor. The piece looks a bit haphazard at first. But when you back up, it suggests a makeshift boat, a triangle that stands out against the open sky like a large sail.
Some of the works here have the traditional vertical look of sculpture, but others are amusing ground huggers. No sculpture better defines the word baggy than ‘Untitled (Early Egyptian)’, 1974, in which a row of 11 brown paper bags stand on the floor with their sides touching, like so many repeating rectangular blocks. But Rauschenberg turns Judd’s cubic geometry into a kind of domestic comedy. A long strip of mesh-like fabric weaves over and around the bags, sometimes obscuring their openings and in various ways evoking rococo fringes, the female anatomy, and an insidious suspicion that supermarkets are us.
As a prismatic bonus, the backs of several sculptures are painted in solid neon-bright colors. If you peek behind it, you’ll see glowing rectangles of orange or red reflected on the wall, mini-Dan Flavins minus the electrical cords.
The best works in the exhibition are reminiscent of Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and other prominent American sculptors who tried to save contemporary art from the ice storm of minimalism. Curiously, the critic Hilton Als, writing in the catalog accompanying the show, chooses to put Rauschenberg in a different line, claiming that his later sculptures arose from Arte Povera, or “poor art,” that sloppy “ism” that flourished. in Italy in the late 1960s and attached special significance to insignificant materials – paper, burlap sacks, and so on.
Yet Rauschenberg has certainly shaped Arte Povera more than it has shaped him. In the 1950s, long before the critic Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera, Rauschenberg found his poetry in desolation and discarded, repurposing yesterday’s newspapers, sheets, and cans into something entirely new. His bizarre sculpture of goats, “Monogram” (1955-9), which resides in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is dominated by a real stuffed goat sometimes described as the artist’s alter-ego, and it’s hardly irrelevant that goats are known to be extra-curious mammals with a nose for scrap heaps.
The second show, at the Mnuchin Gallery, is a sedate and more predictable affair, focusing on paintings over sculptures and Rauschenberg’s return to collages. Most of the later paintings stem from his seminal screen-printing paintings of the early 1960s, with their disjointed patchwork of magazine cutouts and his own photographs. Some paintings, especially those on aluminum, do not so much promote his innovations, but commemorate them with a solemnity that can feel somewhat empty.
Still, Rauschenberg never lost his penchant for improvisation, and no artist was ever better at smashing mismatched objects into compelling configurations. The sculptures in Mnuchin have more energy than the paintings, and a defining piece, “The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr)” (1981), captivates with its symmetry and strangeness. It has approximately the shape of a pyramid with stepped sides, is about 2 meters high and instead of the usual precious sculptural materials (bronze, marble) it makes fun of various worn furniture. Two rough-hewn stepladders are placed back to back a few feet apart, creating a door-shaped space between them, while above them a pair of Windsor chairs with bent arms float almost magically.
The motif of two chairs is reflected in Rauschenberg’s work, although its meaning changes depending on the context. In this case, the seats are especially unusable. They are too tall and precariously balanced for anyone to sit on, and they face each other without leaving an inch of room for anyone’s legs. But who would want to sit in a chair when you could instead walk into the charged space below? All his life, Rauschenberg, a self-diagnosed dyslexic, was too restless and restless to sit down. He preferred to keep moving. “The Ancient Incident” is basically a simple, do-it-yourself version of an ancient temple gate, capturing Rauschenberg’s dream of crossing thresholds, not knowing what lies beyond.
Robert Rauschenberg: Venetians and Early Egyptians, 1972-1974
Until June 18 Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street and 530 West 21st Street, Chelsea; (212) 206-9300; gladstonegallery.com.
Robert Rauschenberg: Exceptional Works, 1971-1999
Through June 11, Mnuchin Gallery, 45 East 78th Street, Manhattan; (212) 861-00020; mnuchingallery.com.