Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Emerging Curator Competition

Victoria Sung
Oct 21, 2014 3:50AM

CAUTION: WATCH YOUR STEP. As we approach Robert Rauschenberg’s Trophy I (for Merce Cunningham), the battered sign elicits a knee-jerk reaction to stop in our tracks and scan the pristine floor of the gallery as if there might be a step we may unwittingly tumble down. This automatic reflex is instantaneous and fleeting, and by the next millisecond, we will perhaps close in on the artwork and appreciate the humorous juxtapositions—of the warning sign with a newspaper clipping of a horse that has, as a result of a misstep, thrown its rider off of its back, or with a photograph of a dancer focusing intensely on holding a one-legged balancing act (hold your breath!)—before moving onto the next work. Yet, this impulse—to check our stance, to confirm that we are in fact standing on steady ground—reminds us of our own two feet, and by extension, of our bodies and their occupation of real space and time. The same can be said of Winter Pool, a wooden ladder flanked by two canvases. When confronted with this object propped up against the wall, our immediate reaction is to climb it (actually or imaginarily), carefully placing one foot on top of the other over and over again. Even in something as intimate and delicate as the thumbprint in Self-Portrait (for the New Yorker profile), we can imagine Rauschenberg, and in turn, ourselves pressing our thumbs against the sheet of paper and leaving that indelible imprint. 

What I am interested in is the here-and-now that these works evoke. “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” Rauschenberg once said. But more than simply incorporating material from everyday life—newspaper clippings, the sleeve of a shirt, a metal-frame window—Rauschenberg’s works stay within the realm of reality by ensuring that we, the viewers, keep both feet firmly planted on the ground. I’d like to explore this theme of physicality through the works of Rauschenberg and those of his contemporaries—including Jasper Johns and his Pop art successors—that may more frequently be ascribed to the domain of cool conceptualism. Take Ed Ruscha. From the fleshly letters of his word paintings to the rendering of an actual-sized can of SPAM in the appropriately-titled Actual Size, Ruscha, too, redirects attention to the viewer’s own body (who can’t relate to extending an arm and grabbing hold of a gleaming can of SPAM from the grocery aisle?). 

This impulse to incorporate art into the everyday has gained momentum with the advent of digital technologies. There are now unprecedented opportunities for people to access scores of images in order to make creative juxtapositions (perhaps the bulletin board-like repositories of Rauschenberg’s canvases can be viewed as the precursor to the modern-day Pinterest). Just as Artsy consolidates the, at times, abstract and impenetrable-seeming art world digitally and delivers it to our fingertips, Rauschenberg’s works, I’d argue, also bring the art world back within grasp.  

Victoria Sung