Robert Rauschenberg Emerging Curator Competition Exhibition Proposal

Helen Wong
Oct 20, 2014 8:01PM

The exhibition Rauschenberg: The Performing Body focuses on Robert Rauschenberg’s series of White and Black Paintings in order to assess how the body can be used as a tool to create new relationships between the artist, viewer, and image. In his article “Reflections on the State of Criticism”, Leo Steinberg argues that all works or stylistic cycles are defined by the built in idea of the spectator. It is Rauschenberg’s radical use of the flatbed that allows the pictoral surface of the canvas to incorporate the viewer and their environment.[1] In traditional modes of depiction, the canvas is organized in relation to the vertical posture of the viewer acting as an extension of the viewer’s visual field therefore mirroring nature as experienced. The flatbed was used by Rauschenberg as a horizontal painted surface that acted as a verification of its own opacity. Rauschenberg’s flatbeds reject being seen as glimpses of the world yet work to incorporate its immediate surroundings and environment.

Rauschenberg’s series of White Paintings act as hypersensitive surfaces that work to record impressions, through the use of a mirrored surface, of the external world. The White Paintings engage the viewer in ephemeral moments catching the shadows, lights, and particles of the environment thus increasing the viewer’s sense of involvement. It is in this way that the viewer is brought into the work acting as not only a spectator but also as a performer who is imbued into the physical canvas.

Rauschenberg’s patterned canvases of dense, crackling surfaces known as his Black Paintings address the desire to explore the interior body through ‘bodily knowledge’. Helen Molesworth argues that the excremental qualities of the series create a link between human presence and the physical factum of everyday life.[2] The physical workings of the paintings, with the use of black paint, glue, and newspaper, document the performance of the artist as Rauschenberg demonstrates his collaboration and physical involvement in the medium.

The relationship between artist, spectator, and image becomes manifest through the exploration of the physical body. It is under these aspects that the body is thrust into the realm of performance. Artistic presence has been stripped, allowing silence to act as the central theme resulting in the involvement of the viewer and a deeper interiority. These ideas are strengthened through Rauschenberg’s photographs of Merce Cunningham. The performance is heightened, as the functions of the body are on display thus the canvas becomes a space in which to act and not merely a space in which to passively observe. It is through this understanding that we can begin to question how art can form relationships and what we can gain as spectators from art.

[1] Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (The MIT Press 2002), 24.

[2] Helen Molesworth, “Befroe Bed,” in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. Branden W. Joseph (The MIT Press 2002), 78.

Image list:

Rauschenberg "Cy + Roman Steps (I-V)" 1952

Rauschenberg "Untitled (Matte Black Painting with Asheville Citizen)" 1952

Rauschenberg "Pyramid Series" 1974

Rauschenberg "Untitled (Glossy Black Painting)" 1951

Rauschenberg "Merce" 1953

Rauschenberg "White Painting (Four Panel)" 1951

Rauschenberg "Untitled (Glossy Black Four Panel Painting)" 1951

Rauschenberg "Boston, Massachusetts" 1980

Rauschenberg "White Painting (Seven Panel)" 1951

Rauschenberg "Untitled (Cunningham Dancers)" 1961

Rauschenberg "White Painting (Three Panel)" 1951

Rauschenberg "Untitled (Merce III)" 1953

Helen Wong