Robert Rauschenberg: a tribute

Recently, one of America’s most prominent artists has been garnering a well-deserved reputation in the United Kingdom (UK) – his name? Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg’s six-decade career propelled him as one of the most iconic United States (US) painters and through his work, he established himself as a pioneer of the US Pop Art movement.

Pop Art, an artistic movement established in the United Kingdom in the mid-1950s found its way across-the-pond in the latter years of that decade with many American painters, graphic designers, sculptors and printmakers rising to fame and prominence.

Rauschenberg, born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas (USA) launched his artistic career in the early 1950s and from that point forward up until his death in May 2008, he, alongside other American pop artists invented new forms of art-making which dealt with political, economic and social events: it is these forms that have influenced how art is created and interpreted today. According to the Tate, Pop Art is “an art movement… Drawing inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture such as advertising, Hollywood movies and pop music”. Current art critics and other artists can see how he was a pioneer as he worked with discarded materials including newspaper clippings and advertisements; he worked with other artists; and he held an open mind which allowed him to become transfixed and inspired by new places and environments.

What spurred me to create this review was the extensive coverage that Rauschenberg has been getting in the UK over the past four months – indeed, BBC Two released an original documentary in December 2016 entitled ‘Robert Rauschenberg – Pop Art Pioneer’ in which Art Historian, A Sooke travelled to the American east coast to meet some of Rauschenberg’s closest associates and gain an insight into the inquisitiveness that surrounded his fruitful experimentation. Some say this documentary was commissioned to coincide with the 2017 UK-based exhibitions. With the rarity of his work in the UK, the Tate Modern opened a ticketed exhibition in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). Described and headlined by the Tate as “the first full-scale retrospective since the artist’s death in 2008”; as someone who has visited the Tate Modern specifically for his exhibition,

I can clearly say that it pays homage in extensive detail and the Tate Modern has undoubtedly taken meticulous care in curating the work of the man who forged new techniques and styles by breaking down barriers in the art world, as well breaking down barriers socially.

Many broadsheets were quick to praise the exhibition with The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph giving it five stars: notably, a journalist for The Daily Telegraph stated “this, to my mind, is the exhibition of the year”.

With what I feel was a very positive and effective exhibition, it helps break up his key works into different rooms from combines to silkscreens; from colour work to transfer drawings; and from material abstraction to the use of metal – each gallery room helps immerse us with a new, creative method that he introduced as his career progressed and this reinforces how he repudiated conventional boundaries established previously and instead sought to create his own methods when it came to describing events and feelings via artwork.

Whilst not solely about Rauschenberg, The British Museum is the third major UK organisation over the past four months to remember his work and the effect he had. Opening tomorrow is The British Museum’s ‘The American Dream – Pop to the Present’, in which Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns amongst others are credited with creating pieces which represent the most tempestuous events in American life and politics over the past half-Century. Another ticketed event, it will take the viewer on a journey through the past 60 years of American art and many major news organisations including The EveningStandard and TimeOut are already writing encouraging reviews about it.

Rauschenberg, whilst battling internal struggles in the form of homosexuality found peace with fellow artist, Johns, and previously, Cy Twombly. With the conflicts that he was facing inside, he managed to channel these feelings and use them to create abstract pieces which represented his life in a delicate but nostalgic way.

The artist’s quest for innovation, coupled with his quest for love meant that he was unbounded, free and limitless – he had an enthusiasm to learn, to collaborate and to travel – for example, during the 1980s he travelled to countries including Chile, China, Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in which a culmination of his international work was seen by over 2 million people worldwide.

Simply, whilst his career was launched at a time when there were basic forms of art; he went further and challenged the simplicity and straightforwardness of expressionist painting. Alongside notable pop artists including Johns and Andy Warhol, he invented new art-forms which from that point have allowed artists to move across media and present juxtaposing ideas. For me, Rauschenberg is the greatest artist I have looked at – he established how there are endless possibilities to art when it comes to differing methods from silkscreens to the use of technology and how they individually represent an isolated narrative, yet collectively come together to represent conflicting ideas.

by Milan Shah

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