In the wake of the sumptuous retrospective dedicated to Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern (1 December 2016–2 April 2017), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (21 May 2017–4 September 2017), and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (4 November 2017–25 March 2018), it may be time to reassess the work and legacy of this major figure of the North American postwar avant-garde. Two recent books have set out to do just that. Ed Krčma’s Rauschenberg/Dante: Drawing a Modern Inferno focuses on the cycle of solvent transfer drawings that Rauschenberg produced between 1958 and 1960 to illustrate the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno. This in-depth study of a lesser-known aspect of Rauschenberg’s production also sheds light on much of the artist’s early production and its relation to Abstract Expressionism. By contrast, Robert Rauschenberg, the exhibition catalogue edited by Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume and published alongside the retrospective, foregrounds Rauschenberg’s versatility across six decades of a truly interdisciplinary practice which brings together painting, sculpture, drawing, printing, dance, performance, and scientific experiments. In a project description submitted to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1958 in the hope to raise funds for his ongoing Dante drawings project, Rauschenberg clearly stated his intention to ‘illustrate Dante’s “Inferno”’. Despite this, critical interest in the iconographical content of the thirty-four transfer drawings has been scarce. Save Dore Ashton’s commentary, which accompanied the 1965 publication of a catalogue of the drawings and showed how the mass media imagery both refers to and updates Dante’s vernacular language, most influential contributions since the 1970s have focused on issues of medium, structure, and technique.1 Crucially, Krčma’s Rauschenberg/Dante is the first publication to focus on the systematic close analysis of the rich yet ghostly, and often obscure, imagery (Rosalind Krauss speaks of their ‘veil-like character’) that composes the Dante drawings.2 Just as Rauschenberg had followed and painstakingly reconstructed the slow progression of Dante and Virgil through the circular maze of the Inferno, Krčma has retraced Rauschenberg’s steps. Having sifted through countless issues of Life, Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and other magazines published between 1958 and 1960, and carefully compared their illustrations with the faded images of the transfer drawings, Krčma succeeds in identifying their source images, unravelling a tangled knot of references, significations, and associations. Chapter 1 resituates the Dante drawings within the broader context of Rauschenberg’s relation to the artistic canon. Krčma argues that the artist’s interest in Dante paved the way for subsequent works which either appropriate or evoke the classical tradition (Currency, 1958, Canyon, and Pail for Ganymede, both 1959). In the case of the Dante drawings, however, the logic is rather the reverse, and Krčma’s aim here is to assess exactly what is at stake behind Rauschenberg’s claimed intent to ‘illustrate’ the Inferno using contemporary mass media imagery. Tracing each transfer drawing to its source image, Krčma analyses the various modalities of Rauschenberg’s illustrations. In some cases, the images seem to carry little referential weight (as when a photograph of American Football players is used to represent the ‘Alchemists’ of Canto XXI). In other cases, however, this method uncovers the surprising depth of Rauschenberg’s associational process: amidst a swirl of figures representing the ‘Carnal’ in Canto V, Krčma identifies the playwright Eugene O’Neill, noting that ‘this choice appears arbitrary until we discover from the article details of O’Neill’s turbulent love life, and the fact that he had apparently met his wife in Hell Hole’ (p. 59). In what follows, Krčma neither limits himself to such one-to-one attributions, however fruitful they may be in uncovering Rauschenberg’s creative logic, nor to the illustrative function of the transferred images. Chapter 2 argues that the contemporary imagery deployed by Rauschenberg ‘necessarily signifies in excess of the medieval text’, and asks of the drawings: ‘do they themselves have an allegorical dimension, supplementing or even supplanting Dante’s text with coherent new referential patterns of their own?’ (p. 69). In the case of the Dante drawings, issues of reference and representation are necessarily complicated by the introduction of contemporary images and the web of significations that they generate once severed from their context. Krauss had already noted that Rauschenberg enters, with the Dante drawings, ‘the domain of the connotational’; yet she, like Branden W. Joseph, was keen to refocus the argument on the signifying possibilities of the transfer medium.3 By contrast, Krčma seeks to overcome the reductive binary of ‘iconophile’ and ‘iconophobic’ interpretations of Rauschenberg which Thomas Crow had identified, and in so doing engages in a critical debate relevant to much figure-based art of the postwar period (p. 69).4 This second chapter uses, once again, source-tracing and close analysis of the images in order to test the referential and allegorical potentials of the drawings, as they relate to the themes of sexuality, Cold War politics, and race. In Canto XII, which deals with the ‘Violent Against Neighbors’, Dante and Virgil are figured, as previous commentators have already noted, by transferred images of John F. Kennedy and his advisor, Adlai Stevenson, in a (rare) moment of rather heavy symbolism. But Krčma also draws our attention to more subtle indications of Rauschenberg’s support for Kennedy’s ‘anti-Communist agenda’ (p. 89), scattered through the Dante cycle: in Canto III, the ‘Vestibule of Hell’ is figured (in a move that does not lack a certain dose of humour) by a transfer of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs; in Canto IX, Rauschenberg uses three photographs of Asian males to represent the evil Furies, one of which Krčma identifies as a Japanese communist protester. This, in turn, prompts a broader consideration of race within the cycle, in which Asian or African subjects often figure the (communist) enemy, or even, in the last Canto of the Inferno, Satan himself. As Krčma suggests, ‘the fact that Rauschenberg selected images of the racial other to correspond with some of the most abject and grotesque characters in Dante’s epic arguably signals a degree of unacknowledged ideological complicity’ (p. 100). Chapter 3 is the most art historically and theoretically ambitious of the book, using the solvent transfer technique as a springboard to discuss the Dante drawings in the context of late Abstract Expressionism (Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns) and in relation to contemporary forms of drawing (Gerhard Richter, William Kentridge). The chapter opens on an introduction summarising the (familiar) context of Abstract Expressionism and the theoretical stakes that emerge in its wake: by the mid-1950s, the introduction of the everyday into painting had started to displace the subject, and the expressive weight of the painterly mark. Krčma’s contribution here lies in the reassessment of the artistic exchange between de Kooning and Rauschenberg, from the first solvent transfers and the famously ‘erased’ de Kooning drawing in 1952–3, to the beginning of the Dante cycle in 1958. The specific importance of de Kooning for the Dante drawings comes into focus in 1956, the year the painter produced ‘accidental’ solvent transfers in several paintings exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery, which Rauschenberg ‘would certainly have seen’ (p. 127). By focusing on those artists who turned to techniques that critically engaged with the dominant mode of painting in the 1950s, Krčma provides a painterly context for the solvent transfer technique, from Jasper Johns’s wax encaustic paintings, to Cy Twombly’s cacography, to de Kooning’s inclusion of transfers on canvas, and, finally, to Rauschenberg’s own experiments with the transfer medium in his Combine paintings. But what of the solvent transfer technique in and of itself? This slow art historical build-up leads to a crucial question, yet one that has no easy answer: ‘What forms of content are conveyed by the technique itself, independent from but also in dialogue with the referential associations of the images transferred?’ (p. 132). Krčma convincingly resituates the solvent transfer technique within a broader spectrum of deskilled and automatic drawing practices; but, to some extent, his discussion of Benjamin Buchloh’s account of the ‘diagrammatic’ (modes of drawing that respond to, and reflect, the conditions of life under late capitalism) emphasises the problem of assigning a specific signification to a technique. Certainly, as Krčma writes, ‘it is not enough to position Rauschenberg’s work only in terms of negation’, but in the end the question of the critical implications of the solvent transfer technique remains open-ended (p. 134). Unlike Gerhard Richter’s overpainted photographs, and William Kentridge’s ‘Drawings for Projection’ (1989–2011), both series in which technique is tied to the workings of collective memory, the solvent transfer method may have more to do with exploring drawing as a medium than with deeper levels of non-mimetic content. Krčma partly acknowledges this in conclusion: ‘To a fault, perhaps, Rauschenberg’s sanguinity propelled what was a lighter comportment towards historical losses, and a broad enthusiasm for the capacities of new technology’ (p. 139). This is no doubt true, as Krčma’s analysis of Rauschenberg’s uncritical stance with regards to Cold War politics and race shows. However, we might also see this lack as a strength: the Dante drawings, precisely because they are somewhat peripheral to contemporary concerns—both aesthetically and politically—refuse to signify in unison with other forms of mechanised drawing of the same period. In this, they are truly remarkable. The fourth and concluding chapter focuses closely on the illustration of Canto XX, which deals with the ‘Fortune Tellers and the Diviners’. In an elegant mise-en-abyme, Krčma uses the transfer drawing of a bearded Freud-like figure, meant to represent the augur Eurypylus, as an occasion to reflect upon his own interpretative methodology throughout the book. Still on Rauschenberg’s trail, Krčma encounters the patriarch in an edition of Newsweek dated 15 August 1960: the photograph, however, is not of Sigmund Freud, as Krauss and other critics had originally claimed but rather of the recently deceased art historian Bernard Berenson. And yet, Krčma continues to ground his final analysis in the Freudian associations that the photograph unavoidably provokes for us, as it had for Krauss. Krauss argued that the Dante drawings mark a shift from the horizontal aesthetic of the early Combines—Leo Steinberg’s ‘flatbed picture plane’—to a new mode of verticality: ‘The mental spaces of dream, of memory, and of the imagination are equally upright.’5 Building on Krauss’s argument, Krčma brings the methodology of dream interpretation in productive dialogue with his own purpose in the book. Freud, Krčma reminds us, was dismissive of the manifest content of the dream, namely, the part we remember, and which is both absolutely vivid yet confusing. In the Dante drawings, Krčma concludes, it is precisely the coexistence of ‘their opacity and their legibility’ which both invites, and, sometimes, evades, interpretation (p. 159). The exhibition catalogue Robert Rauschenberg provides a good counterpoint to Krčma’s book, as it develops some of the themes discussed in the context of the Dante series (the importance of found material; the emphasis on techniques of reproduction; the fascination with past or remote cultures) while also branching out into contrasting fields. Mapping the exhibition’s works and themes, the catalogue provides a rich panorama of the artist’s career, from the formative years at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, all the way to the experiments in digitally mediated productions of the late 1990s (Rauschenberg died in 2008). The eighteen essays offer a range of perspectives, from the analyses of established Rauschenberg scholars, to new perspectives grounded in recent archival research. The sheer quantity of contributions brought together in this book means that a certain amount of overlapping is unavoidable; on the other hand, this also results in a productive dialogue when key themes, treated from different perspectives, emerge as crucial to Rauschenberg’s practice: the recycling of existing objects and images, the relation to modernism (in particular to colour and abstraction), and the role of media and technologies across his production as a whole. A stuffed Angora goat (Monogram, 1955–9), a painted quilt (Bed, 1955): Rauschenberg’s tendency to repurpose everyday life objects in his Combines needs little introduction. His use of less iconic material—scrap metal, bricks, cardboard boxes, sand, and so forth—however, has been less explored, and several essays in the catalogue redress this imbalance. Kate Nesin’s contribution, ‘“Miniature Monument”: Travel and Work in Italy and North Africa’, which focuses on the work produced between 1952 and 1953, uncovers the commemorative quality of the Scatole personali (Personal boxes) and the Feticci personali (Personal fetish). The Scatole are a messier, dirtier version of Joseph Cornell’s delicate Surrealist constructions: the boxes themselves are found objects, filled with organic or mineral materials, such as insects, dirt, pebbles, and bird skulls. The Feticci are soft structures, made of sticks and hanging materials. These keepsake-like works are both ‘rich in coded but palpable affect’, and at the same time also impersonal, ‘open-ended’ (p. 67). Nesin argues that a similar ambivalence characterises the Combines that Rauschenberg started making in 1954: ‘by 1960 he spoke of wanting “to kill” the “souvenir quality” of those first Combine works’ (p. 67). Immediately after his return from the Continent, Rauschenberg started making the Elemental Sculptures, which are the focus of Hal Foster’s essay, ‘“Made Out of the Real World”: Lessons from the Fulton Street Studio’. Rauschenberg recycled old bricks, wooden blocks, and various scrap materials found outside his Fulton street studio to make this series of raw assemblages. Foster aims to clarify the Elemental Sculptures’ relation to earlier avant-garde practices, and in particular to Surrealism; in so doing, he also sheds light on the series of works discussed by Nesin. Foster argues that the materials that make up the Elemental Sculptures are devoid of ‘the charm of the objects that so appealed to the Surrealists’ (p. 91). Perhaps more importantly, according to Foster, their purpose also differs from that of the historical avant-gardes: ‘the trouvaille was not a new device; what was innovative was to see the found object as a way less to disrupt the work of art than to open it up to its outside, to render it porous, and this idea is distinctively Cagean’ (p. 95). Staying with Foster’s insight, we may see Rauschenberg’s adaptability to his environment and its resources as, precisely, ‘distinctively Cagean’. The works discussed in Mark Godfrey’s essay, ‘“Source and Reserve of my Energies”: Working from Captiva’, made of materials found on the beach after Rauschenberg relocated to Florida at the beginning of the 1970s, further illustrate this point. The Early Egyptians series, in particular, made from paper bags and cheese cloth sprinkled with sand, enact Cage’s openness to the environment: ‘There’s always something to see, something to hear.’6 Godfrey argues that ‘the island shifted [Rauschenberg’s] approach to materials and his way of working’, at a time when the artist also had to reckon with a new generation of practitioners engaged in Minimalist sculpture (p. 287). The growing importance of soft or malleable materials during this period, according to Godfrey, indicates a complex dialogue with artists such as Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, and Richard Serra—a dialogue that shifts imperceptibly between differentiation, homage, and parody. The question of Rauschenberg’s relationship with a younger generation of artists from the 1970s onwards is explored further in Andrianna Campbell’s essay on the Gluts series of the 1980s (‘“Souvenirs Without Nostalgia”: Gluts in Present Time’), and in Yve-Alain Bois’s text on the Jammers series (1975–6), ‘“Mostly the Restraint and Strength”: A New Grammar with Jammers’. The Jammers are structures made of Indian silk, bright monochrome panels hung between rattan poles. As such, Bois contends, they build upon the ‘fascination with gravity’s pull’ that swept through the New York art scene in the 1960s, taken up by Claes Oldenburg, Hesse, and Barry Flanagan most notably (p. 307); but they also, perhaps less predictably, function as an homage to Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Mountain College, the Bauhaus exile Josef Albers. Albers’s influence on Rauschenberg is at the centre of several essays in the catalogue, which unravel Rauschenberg’s relation to colour and Gestalt theory. Rauschenberg met Albers during his first stay at Black Mountain College in 1948, and would write years later: ‘1948 Black Mountain College N.C. disciplined by Albers’ (p. 29).7 Leah Dickerman’s essay, ‘“Disciplined by Albers”: Foundations at Black Mountain College’, examines Rauschenberg’s relation to the German painter through the prism of this suggestive quote, charting the influence of Albers’s basic drawing, Werklehre (work with materials) and colour courses, and of ‘negative space’, on Rauschenberg’s early painterly production (the White Paintings of 1951, for example). The essay shows that for all its framing, ‘disciplinarian’ quality, Albers’s teaching also bore the seeds of much of Rauschenberg’s subsequent messiness, which Dickerman summarises as: ‘an expansive embrace of nonart materials; a combinatory attitude that tested things in relation to one another; a sense of the reciprocal unity of positive and negative … and an antiexpressive ethos’ (p. 33). To some extent, Branden W. Joseph’s and Helen Molesworth’s essays explore parallel issues. Joseph’s contribution, ‘“Disparate Visual Facts”: Early Combines’, offers an original reading of the Combines in the light of Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, which also sheds light on the creative interaction between Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Joseph rethinks the early Combines as spaces of shifting perceptions, on the model of the duck-rabbit image, and of ‘multiple “uses”’: ‘They play … at being painting, sculpture, objects, projection screens, flatbed pictorial supports, folding screens, interactive performance props, and/or incipient architectural components’ (pp. 142–3). Molesworth’s essay also takes Albers’s colour course as a point of departure to discuss the Red Paintings, and their ambivalent relation to personal taste. Rauschenberg, she writes, referred to the Red Paintings as ‘pedestrian’, a term that calls forth two unrelated meanings: it evokes the daily practice of walking, an embodied form of activity; but it is also used to formulate a (negative) aesthetic judgement. Albers had taught his students to renounce subjectivity when assessing colour. Molesworth contends that in producing works such as Paint Cans and Collection (1954/55), in which individual strokes evoke industrial swaths of colour, Rauschenberg uses Albers to position himself against Abstract Expressionism: ‘Collection’, she writes, ‘is an announcement, as it were, of Rauschenberg’s renouncement of taste’ (p. 122). Two essays deal directly with the third important theme I identified above, namely Rauschenberg’s interest in media and technology: Pamela M. Lee’s ‘“Gifts from the Street”: Early Media Works’, and Michelle Kuo’s ‘“Inevitable Fusing of Specializations”: Experiments in Art and Technology’. Lee argues that Rauschenberg’s interest in technology should be understood as an ‘allegory’ for communication, interactivity, and circulation, taking Black Market (1961) as a case in point (p. 216). By contrast, Kuo focuses on the technological and collaborative dimension of the media works realised with the Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver in the 1960s. While the products of the Rauschenberg/Klüver collaboration are well documented—from Oracle (1962), the assemblage whose various parts were linked thanks to the cutting-edge ‘remote control’ transistor technology, to the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) of the mid-1960s—no previous scholarship had detailed the implications of such interdisciplinary projects. What artistic impact did the engineers have? How did artists and engineers communicate with each other across the disciplinary divide? How much of the technology actually worked? Aside from shedding new light on the complex collaborational processes that enabled Rauschenberg’s media works, Kuo argues that ‘E.A.T. pointed to a different path, one that disrupted the myth of a supposedly discrete and unified creator, artwork, or institution’ (p. 267). In so doing, this essay also opens a conversation between Rauschenberg’s work and recent scholarship challenging established narratives of artist/engineer partnerships.8 Other important essays discuss Rauschenberg’s production in the context of dance (Catherine Wood, ‘“Force of Contact”: Objects and Performance’), the evolution of painting as technique from the early solvent transfers, to the printing and scaling of the silkscreens, to the water-soluble transfers of the 1990s (Ed Krčma, ‘“To Use the Very Last Minute of My Life”: The Dante Drawings and the Classical Past’; Richard Meyer, ‘“An Invitation, Not a Command”: Silk-Screen Paintings’; Emily Liebert, ‘“Looking Also Had to Happen In Time”: The Printed Trace’; Sarah Roberts, ‘“Quietness in the Ordinary”: New Technologies of Transfer’), and the cultural exchanges that influenced much of Rauschenberg’s production (Hiroko Ikegami, ‘“Art Has No Borders”: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange’). Ikegami’s essay, which focuses on the international travelling exhibition programme known as ROCI, also invites us to rethink Rauschenberg’s fascination with, and appropriation of, other cultures in some of his earlier works (the Dante drawings, the Scatole personali and Feticci personali, the Jammers, to name a few). With ROCI, Rauschenberg travelled to countries which, in the early 1980s, had had little or no access to Western contemporary art, namely, as Ikegami summarises, ‘Communist, totalitarian, or developing nations where people were unfamiliar with modern art or American culture’ (p. 342). This may sound remarkably patronising and, as Ikegami recounts, ROCI was a times perceived as an imperialist intrusion. But importantly, as with his earlier works, Rauschenberg found the inspiration for his work in the country the exhibition would be based in, and used local materials for his productions. The works would then travel on to the next country, where the creative process would continue, gradually adding more cultural layers to the project. Ultimately, Ikegami argues, ROCI was crucial in promoting artistic mobility in an art world (and, we might add, an art market) that, after the fall of communism, was quickly becoming global. The ROCI project aimed at enabling meaningful exchanges between cultures, and in the process sought to promote peace: Rauschenberg believed that ‘a one-to-one contact through art contains potent and peaceful powers, and is the most nonelitist way to share exotic and common information’ (p. 342).9 Taken together, Rauschenberg/Dante and the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition catalogue invite less a critical comparison than the appreciation of a productive assemblage. From the youthful fascination with Dante’s humanistic epic, to the non-hierarchical approach to his own materials; from the sustained dialogues and collaborations that informed his production to the (perhaps naïve) embrace of unfamiliar cultures; from the solvent transfers to digital printing, Rauschenberg emerges as an artist whose work was shaped by his environment in the broadest sense of the term. Footnotes 1 Rauschenberg: XXXIV Drawings for Dante’s Inferno, with a commentary by Dore Ashton (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1965). 2 Rosalind Krauss, ‘Perpetual Inventory’, in Branden W. Joseph (ed.), Robert Rauschenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 93–130 (p. 101). 3 Krauss, ‘Perpetual Inventory’ (2002), p. 113. Branden W. Joseph writes: ‘Rauschenberg’s relationship to Dante is primarily marked by the formal evidence of its mediation’, in ‘A Duplication Containing Duplications’, in Branden W. Joseph (ed.), Robert Rauschenberg (2002), pp. 133–60 (p. 135). 4 Thomas Crow, ‘Rise and Fall: Theme and Idea in the Combines of Robert Rauschenberg’, in Paul Shimmel (ed.), Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), pp. 231–56. Here Krčma is in conversation with Alex Potts’s reassessment of representation in postwar art: Alex Potts, Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making in Postwar European and American Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). 5 Krauss, ‘Perpetual Inventory’, p. 114. 6 John Cage, ‘Experimental Music’, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), p. 8. 7 Robert Rauschenberg, Autobiography, 1968. 8 For a contribution which reassesses the collective practices of artists and engineers at the Bell Laboratories see Zabet Patterson, Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). 9 Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Tobago Statement’, 1984. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Oxford Art Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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