Less Like a Target, More Like a Cloud: Space in Robert Rauschenberg's Technological Works of the 1960s

Ashley Duhrkoop
Oct 21, 2014 3:41AM

Robert Rauschenberg maintained a serious ambition throughout his career to create a “reactive environment” that would be “sensitive to the proximity of the spectator, responding even to his body temperature,” and “so delicately controlled by circumstance that two people viewing these forms would see something different from what is seen by either a crowd or one person.” This environment would “also be responsive to forces outside the jurisdiction of the viewer—to weather and passing traffic. Viewing of the work will not be completely dependent on seeing… ”  This small-scale exhibition will focus on three key large-scale works from Rauschenberg’s early involvement with technology, Oracle, Soundings, and Solstice, with the inclusion of two White Paintings and Broadcast, as reference points in the artist’s progression towards realizing the goal of an artwork that introduces multiplicity and change over time, as well as activates viewer participation.

Oracle, with its infinite capacity to be rearranged, has no fixed visual or aural shape. Rauschenberg described the experience of being within Oracle as follows: “…from the sound you had a sense of distance that, as often as not, was distorted. It had the feeling of knowing where you were but where you were was lost.” Thus the environment created by the living sound of Oracle is best described as a cloud, serving as an early model of post-Fordist space, nebulous and dispersed. This is a space, much like Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building, that you know you are in, but you do not know where you are in it.

The idea of collaboration between the artist, the materials, and the viewer really begins with the White Paintings. With the incorporation of changes through light, shadows, and dust occurring on the surface of the White Paintings, these support the elements of difference, movement, and changeability that unite Rauschenberg’s diverse oeuvre in its entirety. Seen alongside Oracle for the first time, the White Paintings contribute to the creation of a multi-sensory environment of fleeting change. 

The founding of E.A.T. in 1966 with Robert Whitman and Fred Waldhauer illustrates another important collaboration for Rauschenberg, between art and technology. Soundings—Rauschenberg’s first work with E.A.T. engineers—is the culmination of his rejection of the “predigested” image. Soundings, which had a mixed reception in 1968, unfolds orally, while Solstice is a boldly visual repositioning. Together, they illustrate the technological progress Rauschenberg made in the short period following Oracle.

While Rauschenberg worked with technology for almost forty years of his career, his technology-based works have a relatively small exhibition history and have received less critical attention than his other work. With his great ambition becoming an ever-greater possibility, as indicated by Random International’s Rain Room of 2012 and Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building of 2002, it is now time to revisit these early technological works by Rauschenberg to critically investigate their legacy of multiplicity, changeability, and viewer activation, and the legacy of E.A.T.

Ashley Duhrkoop