I’ll begin by apologising profusely at the incredibly lengthy hiatus between my last post and this, I know you’re all on absolute tenterhooks and furious at the lack of material output from The Exhibitionist in the past three months. The reason for my absence was an unpaid position I took up at the wonderful (but woefully underfunded) Gallery for Russian Art and Design. Now that this is over, I’m happy to report that I’ll be back and more dedicated than ever to bringing you news of the best exhibitions and events that London has to offer.
Most recently, I took a radical step outside of my usual preference for really old stuff to visit the TATE MODERN’s exhibition on Robert Rauschenberg. If you don’t know who Rauschenberg is then you are an uncultured no-brain who deserves to live out the rest of your days in a small cave, slowly nibbled to death by baby rats. Only joking, if you don’t know anything about him then may I suggest this entertaining documentary by the eminently dreamy and adorable Alistair Sooke…
As the title of the documentary suggests, Rauschenberg was a POP ART PIONEER. In the past, such a moniker might have had me running for the hills. As a graduate of the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like..’ school of thought, I’ve always been a little wary of any art movement that involves too much thought or analysis. I’m a bit of a gut reaction kind of gal. More recently though, I’ve become a little more aware of my own ignorance and the vast world of fascinating and bizarre art that awaits a critic with more of an inclination to THINK about what they’re seeing. With this in mind, I went to the TATE free of preconceptions and ready to embrace what I found there.
The retrospective begins with some very striking works from Rauschenberg’s early ouevre that immediately convey a sense of the artist’s boundless joy in experimentation. A huge glossy black painting adorns one wall whilst a tyre track runs the length of the wall opposite. This monochrome room eases you in with some strange and thrilling work. From here on in I feel an affinity and fondness for this artist, whose work is full of joy and humour. What follows is a journey through different styles and experiments of the 20th Century; composites, performance art, image transfer, screen printing, recycled sculpture. This guy had fingers in every pie of post-60’s modern art and dems some tasty pies.
One of the techniques that Rauschenberg is particularly known for, is the image transfer. This involves soaking an image in solvent, placing it face down on a piece of paper and vigorously rubbing with a blunt pencil, transferring to the paper a ghost-like copy of the original. For me, this was an hilarious yet slightly troubling blast from the past. My GCSE art teacher, who I now realise must’ve been a big Rauschenberg fan, was totally obsessed with this. To the point that she once forcibly transferred a newspaper print onto the final piece of a friend of mine, under cover of darkness, much to the girl’s consternation. Whilst it isn’t for everybody, the technique allows the artist to use the world around him as both his inspiration and his working material. For Rauschenberg, who saw himself as a receiver and transmitter for popular culture, image transfer is the perfect crime.
Actually, many of Rauschenberg’s techniques and styles were recognisable from my schoolgirl forays into artistic expression. It occurred to me that his influence had spread from the hippest scenes in 1960s New York, to the very uncool confines of my Cotswolds classroom. A thought which is both highly impressive and a little sad. Something about this artist’s work must’ve struck a chord though, his skill in turning everyday banality into beautiful artworks must’ve seemed like the ideal teaching tool for a class of totally uninspired teenage girls.
Towards the end of the exhibition, I discovered a room dedicated to the (somewhat controversial) R.O.C.I. project. The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange was a project dedicated to building dialogues between nations through artistic expression. Rauschenberg would visit a country – in the above case China – and regurgitate his experience of their culture into a number of artworks. He would then take the best work with him to the next country he visited. At a time when countries of East and West were still silently squaring up to one another, coldly brandishing the threat of nuclear apocalypse, Rauschenberg initiated a cultural dialogue across hostile nations. Though the project was subject to much criticism and accusations of cultural imperialism, I was immediately struck by how delightful this concept is. Whether or not he was successful in his endeavours, I find the purity of his attempt admirable and ultimately this engendered some really beautiful work.
It was only after my visit to the Tate that I realised my reaction to Raschenberg’s work was largely immediate and really quite personal. Gut reactions abounded! It occurred to me that I not only don’t know much abut art, but also don’t really know what I like. So with this revelation in mind, I’ve awarded the Tate’s Robert Rauschenberg the highest of honours:
Robert Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern runs until 2nd April
Tickets are £16.80 and £15 for concessions.