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Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg
28 Shirtboards
Bobbie Greenfield Gallery
December 2 -- January 20, 2007

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly went to Italy on an artist grant. Actually, the grant was for Twombly alone, but the meager sum kept them alive and working for a few months abroad. The money did, as money does, grow short, and Rauschenberg discovered he was broke and without a job. Hearing of an opportunity in Morocco, he spent his “return home” money to get there and Twombly joined him. Eventually hired by a heavy equipment company, Rauschenberg made it home to the States.

The trip had an intense influence on the two artists. During the voyage, Twombly made the sketches that would become the backbone of his distinctive scrawl and graffiti break from the Abstract Expressionists. His North Africa Sketchbook eventually fed into paintings such as Tiznit, 1953 and Criticism, 1954, which many critics see as turning points towards his mature style. Twombly was thinking deeply about painting and drawing at this period, and furthermore Europe had entered his consciousness in a real way. In 1958, he would move to Rome for good.

Rauschenberg, on the other hand, was making strange, small work made from discarded items like feathers and rocks, hotel stationary and penny flea market books. Many of these works were shown in Walter Hopps’ landmark Rauschenberg: The Early Fifties show at the Menil collection in Houston in 1991. Rauschenberg used his European experience to make a series of Joseph Cornell like shadow boxes, though he had not yet heard of Cornell. He took a number of impressive photographs of Moroccan cities and landscapes, showing the influence of Aaron Suskind at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. He also made a suite of bizarre shirtboard collages, a strange hybrid of Surrealism and the unlikely influence of Joseph Albers.

These Shirtboards, a series of twenty or so, are now presented in the form of a 1990 recreated edition at Bobbie Greenfield Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. They are unassuming, sober works, but contain many of the issues that Rauschenberg carried with him through his entire career.

If anything, the Shirtboards are a playful ribbing of Albers. Rauschenberg was famously frustrated with Albers discipline and his rigorous formal exercises. The Shirtboards recall one such activity. Albers would have students do was arrange shapes cut from construction paper into visual experiments, so the students could push abstract forms as far as they could to understand their possibilities. In Morroco and North Africa, Rauschenberg took on these activities, turing them into vehicles for the hodge podge of life.

In his Shirtboards, Rauschenberg cut from newspapers and books, setting a precedent that he continues to this day, but unlike his later work, the clippings do not seem formal experiments as much as static grounds, placed right in the center of the paper. Albers would do the same in his prints and his Homage to the Square series, but would use an applied color theory to activate the static field. Rauschenberg’s Shirtboards are noticeably drab in terms of color, but he does activate the field. Adding insult upon insult, playfully of course, to Albers, he places pictures of birds and insects, feathers stuck in paper pockets, drawn arrows, and scientific diagrams into the formal exercise. Unwanted things, stuff of the world, floods into Alber’s sacred formal space.

This is what Rauschenberg is famous for. As Leo Steinberg said, “He let life in.” Unlike Twombly, Rauschenberg doesn’t seem remotely interested in Abstract Expressionism at this time. On the surface, he seems more in line with someone like Max Ernst or even Tristan Tzara, using seemly random things to create visual and verbal impact.

Unlike the Surrealists, Rauschenberg’s Shirtboards have a sort of crafty animism about them, a mixture between a voodoo fetish box and a handmade birthday card. They match the tone of the sculptures Rauschenberg was making at this time. Evidenced only by photographs, the sculptures appear much closer to Native American dream catchers than they do to anything in going on in the French circles of Paris and New York. The sculptures were hairy, feathery mobiles shifting and swaying in the wind. The Shirtboards continue the spirit of these sculptures.

How fascinating to think about -- Twombly furiously sketching, taking on the bravura gestures of Ab Ex with gesture itself, and Rauschenberg seemingly poking around the Moroccan terrain for rocks and feathers to make mobiles. Furthermore, Rauschenberg remade this work in 1990, and early photographs of his New York studio shows the Shirtboards still hung with prominence on his proverbial mantle. What is it about these works that Rauschenberg does want to let go or what is it about them that Rauschenberg must carry with him?