Assembling a Narrative

Stephanie Katsias
Oct 20, 2014 11:42PM

The relationship between artist and his environment is a complex and deeply personal one. Physical location not only shapes and informs artistic production, but it also serves as a vital component to the visibility and reception of the work. Assemblage intimately expresses this symbiotic exchange, directly addressing the immediate present through the materials carefully collected by the artist. Differing locations inherently produce differing bodies of work, responding to the unique landscape in which they were created. 

“Assembling a Narrative” affords viewers a rare chance to critically examine the Combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg in concert with Beat assemblagists Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz – an opportunity that has not been presented since William Seitz curated the seminal exhibition, “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. All three artists were featured prominently in that exhibition as groundbreaking, new assemblagists, but why is it that Beat visual artists faded into relative obscurity, while Rauschenberg achieved meteoric success? The answer is intrinsically linked to engagement with, or removal from, the New York art scene. Yet again, location shapes the work and subsequent reception of it.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings are complex in their psychological content and art historical references, and yet accessible through the inclusion of recognizable materials. He mined from the vibrant cache of discarded objects around him and reclaimed the junk that the commodified city of Manhattan had thrown away. Such findings included bed sheets, Coca Cola bottles, stuffed animals, newspaper clippings, photographs, and drawings by friends like Cy Twombly – items available nowhere but his immediate surroundings. Rauschenberg brilliantly infuses the personal into the universal, creating alternate contexts for viewers to explore as objects are splayed across the surface of a Combine. 

Quite the opposite, Beat assemblage works by Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz employ darker, haunting imagery to explore sexual, political, and religious themes. The California Beat art scene was an insular environment, allowing previously censored artists to radically express themselves in a safe space. Beat assemblages expose the grittiness and challenges of that West Coast locale, and include dismembered dolls, stockings, cheap house paint, feathers, and other curious items. Conner and Keinholz warped these objects into grotesque and disturbing forms, defying the standards of beauty through destruction of their materials. When these works made their way into west coast galleries, the media wrote scathing reviews, thus further driving the Beats from the institutionalized art world. As viewers carefully consider Conner and Keinholz’s Beat assemblage, they see a narrative quite different from those presented in the Combines. For example, when viewers encounter Raucshenberg’s Odalisk (1955-1958) next to Conner’s LOOKING GLASS (1964), they are confronted with two radically differing approaches to the exploration of normative sexuality.

In isolating these three artists and thoughtfully juxtaposing their work, “Assembling a Narrative” illuminates both obvious aesthetic differences and more nuanced thematic ones at play. Pairing one Combine with work by either Connor or Keinholz, “Assembling a Narrative” contextualizes the Beat aesthetic, shedding light on its underexplored point of view.

Stephanie Katsias