A rare look at Rauschenberg's second act

Which is better for making art: living in the city with gifted friends or isolating yourself on an ill-located island? Robert Rauschenb...

Which is better for making art: living in the city with gifted friends or isolating yourself on an ill-located island? Robert Rauschenberg tried both. In 1970, at 45 and acclaimed for his alchemical ability to turn trash into art, he felt tired of living in Manhattan. He purchased property in Captiva, off Florida’s sandy west coast, and embarked on the latter half of his hugely inventive and influential career.

Rauschenberg’s later paintings and sculptures never had the visibility of his earlier work, which is perhaps inevitable in a culture that idealizes youthful creativity. But the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which acquired much of the artist’s work when he died in 2008, aged 82, invites us to take a closer look and collaborate on several simultaneous exhibitions in major galleries here and in Europe.

The main event is at Gladstone Gallery, which offers a revealing look at works from the artist’s Venetian and Egyptian series (1972-74), focusing on a group of sculptures fashioned from the unlikely material of shipping boxes. A second show at Mnuchin Galleryon the other hand, offers a broad overview of three decades of work (from 1971 to 1999) and bears the vague and self-promotional title of “Exceptional Works”.

The exhibition at Gladstone, split between two locations in Chelsea, brings together 16 sculptures (and one work on paper) that perpetuate the artist’s penchant for recycling. To enter is to be amazed that so many imposing sculptural forms, so many columns and pyramids, can rise from such fragile materials. Here is a world built from shredded rags and rubber tires and mostly brown cardboard, some coated with sand as if to simulate stone building blocks, others flattened into irregular polygons and left in their naturally undulating wavy state.

In truth, they bring us a new Rauschenberg, allowing us to see how an artist who began his career as the Texan heir to the scrap paper collages of European Dada and Kurt Schwitters evolved, in the early 1970s, into a minimalist post-Sculptor. He forsook collage and other imagery content to create airy assemblages that ingeniously challenged the cold steel surfaces and macho postures that had overtaken American sculpture.

So instead of Donald Judd’s famous metal cans, Rauschenberg adopted a witty and ephemeral alternative, namely the cardboard box. Instead of the massive tonnage of Richard Serra’s stacked blocks or steel plates, Rauschenberg has arranged his boxes in vertical or horizontal configurations that are almost weightless and don’t require the manly drama of flatbed trucks to install, riggers and cranes.

The Gladstone exhibition opens with the artist’s Venetian series, which he named after a city he loved. In the summer of 1964, he became the first American artist to win first prize at the Venice Biennale. At this time, jury deliberations were seen by the art world as roughly equivalent to a papal conclave and led to assertions of New York’s pre-eminence as an art capital.

The city of Venice evoked in the sculptures (which were actually made here in Captiva’s studio), is the Venice of the canals, a metropolis of stone and water and gliding boats. Rauschenberg always had a youthful fascination with transportation. References to cars, planes and bicycles run through his work, and his definition of art has less to do with isolating oneself in a studio and probing one’s innermost emotions than venturing into the world dotted with objects, an inspired wanderer.

He loved physical movement, whether it was traveling abroad or 15 steps on a dance stage. For years he designed sets and costumes for avant-garde dance leaders, including Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, and relished artistic collaborations. “The best way to know people is to work with them,” he once said.

A striking sculpture in Gladstone, ‘Untitled (Venetian)’, 1973, wrests a sense of nautical adventure from materials that might wash up on a beach. An 11-foot-long piece of driftwood, with four tattered cardboard boxes stapled to one end, leans against a wall, where it meets an ivory-colored lace curtain that falls and forms a right angle to the floor . At first, the room seems a bit random. But when you step back, it suggests a makeshift boat, a triangle silhouetted like a large sail in the open air.

Some of the works here have the traditional vertical punch of sculpture, but others are fun. Surely no sculpture defines the word baggy better than “Untitled (Early Egyptian)”, 1974, in which a row of 11 brown paper bags stand on the ground, their sides touching, like so many repeating rectangular blocks. But Rauschenberg inverts Judd’s cubic geometry into a kind of domestic comedy. A long strip of filmy fabric weaves over and around the bags, sometimes veiling their openings and variously evoking rococo ruffles, female anatomy and a sly suspicion that the supermarkets are us.

As a prismatic bonus, the backs of several sculptures have been painted in bright neon solid colors. When you peek behind them, you see glowing rectangles of orange or red reflecting off the wall, mini-Dan Flavins minus the electrical cords.

The best works in the exhibition may remind you of Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and other leading American sculptors who sought to save contemporary art from the ice storm of minimalism. Curiously, the critic Hilton Als, writing in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, chooses to place Rauschenberg in a different line, claiming that his later sculptures stem from Arte Povera, or “poor art”, that rambling “ism” which flourished in Italy. in the late 1960s and attached particular importance to unimportant materials – paper, burlap sacks, etc.

Yet Rauschenberg surely shaped Arte Povera more than he shaped it. In the 1950s, long before the critic Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera, Rauschenberg found his poetry in despair and waste, transforming yesterday’s newspapers, sheets and tin cans into something new. Its extravagant goat sculpture, “Monogram” (1955-9), which lives in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is dominated by a real stuffed goat who is sometimes described as the artist’s alter-ego, and it is not without significance that goats are known as extra-curious mammals with a nose for scrap heaps.

The second exhibition, at the Mnuchin Gallery, is a poised and more predictable affair, emphasizing paintings rather than sculptures and Rauschenberg’s return to collage imagery. Most of the later paintings come from his pioneering silkscreen paintings of the early 1960s, with their disjunctive patchwork of magazine clippings and his own photographs. Some of the paintings, especially those on aluminum, do not so much advance his innovations as they commemorate them with a solemnity that can feel a little empty.

Yet Rauschenberg never lost his penchant for improvisation, and no artist has ever been so good at turning mismatched objects into compelling configurations. Mnuchin’s sculptures have more energy than paintings, and a defining piece, “The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr)” (1981), fascinates with its symmetry and strangeness. Shaped roughly like a pyramid with stepped sides, it stands about 7 feet high and in place of the usual expensive sculptural materials (bronze, marble) makes do with worn furniture to match. Two roughly hewn stepladders are positioned back-to-back a few feet apart, creating a door-like space between them, while above, a pair of Windsor chairs with curved arms seem almost magically levitating .

The motif of the two chairs recurs in Rauschenberg’s work, although its meaning changes depending on the context. In this case, the chairs are notably unusable. They’re too tall and precariously balanced for anyone to sit on, and they face each other without leaving an inch of room for a person’s legs. But who would want to lounge in a chair anyway if instead you could walk through the busy space below? Throughout his life, Rauschenberg, a self-diagnosed dyslexic, was too restless to sit down. He preferred to keep moving. “The Ancient Incident” is, indeed, a humble do-it-yourself version of an ancient temple doorway, capturing Rauschenberg’s dream of stepping through thresholds, not knowing what lies on the other side.

Robert Rauschenberg: Venetians and early Egyptians, 1972-1974

Until June 18, Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street and 530 West 21st Street, Chelsea; (212) 206-9300; gladstonegallery.com.

Robert Rauschenberg: Outstanding Works, 1971-1999

Through June 11, Mnuchin Gallery, 45 East 78th Street, Manhattan; (212) 861-0020; mnuchingallery.com.

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A rare look at Rauschenberg's second act
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