Rauschenberg: An Asian Connection

Justin Wong
Oct 15, 2014 3:05AM

To many, particularly to those who came in contact with him during his travels through the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI), Rauschenberg was foremost a collaborator.  The ROCI program was a powerful humanitarian event that allowed Rauschenberg to travel to countries of political debate and interest to the United States, not to talk about politics, but to collaborate in making art.  Rauschenberg traveled to the Soviet Union, Chile, Cuba, Japan, and China, among many other locations to promote world peace by producing art with the locals for exhibition at their local museum.  For this proposed exhibition, I am interested in Rauschenberg’s travels to East Asia, which took place in the early 1980s, after the Chinese Cultural Revolution and before the massive opening to the West.  This exhibition places the New York School of the 50s and 60s in dialogue with East Asian art practice of the 80s, with Rauschenberg acting as geographic and temporal mediator. 

Through ROCI, Rauschenberg traveled to the small military town of Jingxian, China, and worked with traditional paper mill workers, requiring both the thickest and thinnest sheets of paper they could produce for his 7 Characters series.  As phrased by Mary Lynn Kost, the “reticent Chinese workers were gradually drawn to this gregarious American artist who laughed easily, worked alongside them without pretense, and showed respect for their craftsmanship.”  Rauschenberg extends this practice when he travels to Japan two years later and produces Fish Park. The collage elements surrounding the large fish complement its texture, color and subject matter. Small muted photos of contemporary city life are contrasted with the traditional paper fish, washed at the side by colorful splashes of acrylic at the fish’s mouth. 

The works of Wu and Ohtake resonate with the gestural practice of Rauschenberg and his New York School contemporaries in their collage qualities, consciousness of the canvas as a self-referential surface, rather than as a plane of illusion (ie. perspective, tromp l’oeil), and rejection of subject and figure ground. When displayed with the works Rauschenberg and his collaborators produced in China and Japan, evidence of a more globalized art network and cross-cultural art experimentation is suggested.

Ad Reinhardt, an artist of the New York School, taught Asian Art History at Brooklyn College, and his Abstract Painting, Blue, pays homage to his scholarly field.  His blue field does not necessarily prompt the viewer to ask what the piece is about, but rather focus on a "contemplative consciousness," as he puts it, to bring the viewer into an elevated consciousness about art, the everyday, and the similarities between the two.  In a similar vein, Newman’s work, entitled The Way II, an English translation of the Buddhist tradition of Taoism (道), thrusts the viewer into a meditative state, evoking the Zen Buddhist traditions of thought in the East that impacted art practice in New York.

Though the New York School was primarily American, their impact on the world was truly international in scope.  From Rauschenberg’s direct contact with numerous foreign cultures to Reinhardt’s and Newman's evident understanding of the Zen tradition in their work, these artist-pioneers were at the forefront of cultural dissemination and critical understanding of the world, thrusting the next generation of artists and thinkers into a world of the new.

Justin Wong