The Plurality of Robert Rauschenberg

Marika Marchese
Oct 20, 2014 9:40PM

The exhibition brings together a selection of works created by Robert Rauschenberg revealing his interest in other cultures. Several trips are reflected in these works, which were created between 1970 and 1976, but not only.

In the 1970s Rauschenberg's travels took him to Italy. The series presented here were created during or immediately after these trips and show exceptional simplicity, vibrancy and brilliance through the use of new materials and techniques. During this period, Rauschenberg created works made of cardboard, fabric and found objects. In all series, the artist confronts the classic problems of painting, such as composition, color and texture, but also with those of sculpture such as weight, balance, and the object's position in space, all with his typical inventiveness.

Here I have mentioned only some of his works as an example of his creativity and intensity. After a period of great success in New York, Rauschenberg was looking for a new way to focus; moved in 1970 and was looking for a material that could be found in every part of the world for his new series. "I've never been in a place where there were cardboard boxes ... even in the Amazon" (Rauschenberg 1991).

He discovered the expressive quality of packaging materials, combining the formal language of abstraction to that of real life, while completely preserving the character of the material. And it was the material, which is usually discarded, which focused his attention: "... I was born to work with materials of waste and soft boxes. Something that gives you, as a single message, the good-natured joke of a collection of printed lines. New forms that reveal the silent discussion of their history. The boxes. Created with happiness ".

The 'Venetians' were created between 1972 and 1973 in Captiva after a trip to Venice. For this series, Rauschenberg used mainly materials of mass production and discarded objects of domestic use: cloth, rope, wood, leather, stone, wire and cable, chairs, vases, pillows, an old bathtub, water and scrap metal.

The 'Venetians' are more sculptural than the earlier ‘Cardboards’ and less abstract. Characteristic is the reference to Venetian which is however not purely figurative. The objects retain their independence, identity and similarity, and the appearance of the city is mostly formal. For example, the observer mentally transforms the inside of a broken pipe in the profile of a gondola and a piece of wood in a gondolier's oar. (‘Untitled [Venetian]’, 1973). Rauschenberg was a frequent visitor at the Venice Biennale in which he participated several times. He was one of the first artists to make the distinctive character of the city the  subject of his work: the suspension of time in the lagoon, the timeless charm of the city despite the gradual decline of her beauty.

In this series, Rauschenberg returned to his assemblages, to the juxtaposition of materials and found objects that once characterized his combines-paintings. ‘Sor Aqua’ (1973) refers to the Canticle of Brother Sun by St. Francis of Assisi, one of the first works of Italian literature. The four elements form two sets of brothers: Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water. Frate Sole is the symbol of enlightenment through God. In Rauschenberg’s work, curved pieces of metal are hung above a full bathtub and are reflected in the water like clouds. Although the incident light is reflected in the water.

Rauschenberg's interest in ancient Egypt was inspired in part by reading and part from visits to the Louvre. The artist had never been to Egypt.

Rauschenberg creates a monumental effect and at the same time it undermines. In this way, the works confront the viewer with the problem of transience and continuity.

In ‘Hoarfrosts’, performed in 1974 and 1975, Rauschenberg used fabric instead of traditional canvas supports. The title is a reference to Dante's Inferno, which Rauschenberg had already illustrated in the 1950s with a series of drawings that used the technique of transfer-drawing (‘Hell’, 1958/60). Accompanied by the poet Virgil, Dante descends into Hell, wrapped in mist and frost. The beginning of the XXIV canto states: "When the frost on the earth / The outward semblance of her sister white”. The technique and content in this series is linked to earlier works. Rauschenberg noticed that the gauze used to clean the stone slabs in lithography retained traces of newsprint. By using a solvent that allows images to be transferred onto fabric, the artist created a series of works on transparent or semi-transparent fabric and transferred images from newspapers on silk, cotton and chiffon. In most of the works several layers of printed fabric overlap, creating delicate palimpsests of great depth and elegance. Neutral colors dominate the beginning, even though they are gradually incorporated by more vibrant colors.

The "Hoarfrosts" speak of disintegration and states of suspense, of concealment and transparency, "presenting the images in the ambiguity of freezing into focus or melting at the sight" (Rauschenberg).

"I have never been afforded the luxury of those nice bright colors until I was in India and I have seen people go around in them or dragging them through the mud. I realized then that there are so artificial". The fabrics used in these works are rectangular, square and triangular and their colors are bright and intense. They hang loose on the walls or are attached to bamboo poles like veils in a state of ethereal equilibrium.

The exotic is connected to everything that is near and familiar, the sacred and the profane. The works of Robert Rauschenberg show off the dual qualities of reference and abstraction.

Marika Marchese