Before the After, Then and Now: 55 Years of Finding the Space Between Art and Life

Maggie Hire
Oct 20, 2014 3:27PM

“Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” [1]

With this oft-quoted assertion, Robert Rauschenberg breaks from the restrictive “high-brow” intent of preceding modernists and offers his work as testament to the experiential qualities of life. Before the After, Then and Now traces this theme, essentially Rauschenberg’s legacy, to the present day. By working between art and life, Rauschenberg confronts the viewer with a newfound appreciation of time, an understanding of the nature of temporality. Time becomes the key to understanding this gap between the two.

The exhibition title stems from an attempt to explain Rauschenberg’s interdisciplinary approach to the visual arts while also taking into account the primary element upon which his statement is based—temporality. Before the After is itself a temporal paradox. While seemingly everything is ‘before the after,’ it also implies a break in the linear progression of time; the in-between of before and after is missing, begging the viewer to question the established nature of time.

Rauschenberg introduces this temporal component in three-dimensional “Combine” collages such as Black Market, 1961, where he not only pulls material from everyday life, but also, in this case, allows visitors to give and take from the objects in the frame. He calls attention to the temporality of material objects, taking them out of the context of everyday life and placing them in a gallery. Rauschenberg asks the viewer to question the significance of something as mundane as a daily newspaper or a license plate when it is presented within the museum context.

The artists represented in Before the After, Then and Now grapple with the question of the relationship between art and life and come to conclusions which deal directly with the nature of time. As Rauschenberg questions the historicizing abilities of the museum space, so does Lichtenstein with his Head with Blue Shadow which memorializes comic book graphics in the form of a classical bust sculpture. Bruce Nauman presents a “preserved time” with his Wax Impressions. Gordon Matta-Clark approaches art and life via bodily interaction with time—disrupting the path of the museum visitor with roof segments, he forces an understanding of art and life tied to the experience of the space itself. Thomas Hirschhorn comments on material accumulation through the course of time while Ai Weiwei and Isa Genzken assume political stances, confronting the relationship between history, life, and the material art object. 

Rauschenberg’s reflection upon art and life introduced a new need for temporal understanding alongside demand for interdisciplinary artworks, a legacy resonating in Moyra Davey’s suggestion, “To be making something as yet unformed, unknown, to be living in a deferred moment - is the most seductive way to exist. When we stop this forward motion, we risk being sucked into a world of stasis and nonbeing.”[2] The artists in this exhibit beg the viewer not to become "stuck" in time, but to appreciate the space in-between and question the temporal consequences therein. 


[1] Artist’s Statement in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Sixteen Americans, exhibit catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 58.

[2] Moyra Davey, “Polyvalence,” Art Journal, January 12, 2012. 


Maggie Hire