Rauschenberg’s Repartee

Facetious Facets of the Retrospective in Houston.

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Oracle, 1962-1965

Jesters do oft prove prophets.
— William Shakespeare: King Lear

In almost half a century of serious writing on the works of prolific Port Arthur-born artist Robert Rauschenberg, the notion of its populist appeal is a common tenet: an understanding that his works—voluminous paintings, sculpture, performance and every combination thereof—use the flotsam and jetsam of civilization as their media, junk that didn’t have a place in fine art before he came along. There’s a philosophy there, to be sure, one that can be pointedly argued or tossed-off, criticized or analyzed until God is found among the magazine cut-outs, Coke bottles and cardboard boxes, and common man has been granted immortality. And perhaps this next observation is merely an extension of its accessibility, but have you ever noticed how funny Rauschenberg’s art is? Visual jokes and wordplay abound. Maybe this is because the artist didn’t see a real painting until he was 19 years old and chooses to recall this humility in humor, or the fact that he’s so dyslexic that words can easily swap letters and become gibberish, communicating to everyone but him. No matter where it originates though, the hidden witticism and surface slapstick found across the board in Rauschenberg’s art does its own part to relate to everyone’s sensibility. Like a poem one finally ‘gets,’ or an inside joke we’ve been let in on, the feeling of communication through art is as powerful as any profound truth.

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Related article: Return of the Native
Catching up with Robert Rauschenberg.

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So toss aside all the hoity-toity notions that one of the greatest American artists of all time should indeed inspire, and take the tour of the retrospective in Houston—one so big it takes up space in all three of the city’s museums—laughing. With this in mind I suggest you stir things up by going through the exhibit backwards and topsy turvy, starting upstairs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), on to the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM), and then back to the MFAH for the downstairs exhibit of Rauschenberg’s most recent works. Be sure to look beyond the colors and read between the lines for, well, just for fun.

Begin the tour upstairs at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH)


Gallery of the subconscious

I suggest you start here, upstairs at the MFAH, at The 1/4 mile or 2 Furlong Piece, because it serves as an incredible timeline of Rauschenberg’s work, and you can preview an overview of his progression as an artist before you take a deeper look at the separate stages of his career. The 1/4 mile or 2 Furlong Piece is as yet unfinished (when done it just may extend beyond the 1,320 feet that its title implies), but it occupies an impressive space already, weaving mazelike down one wall and up another, leaving street signs, traffic lights and stacks and stacks of library books in its colorful wake.

The 1/4 mile or 2 Furlong Piece

The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece
© Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Rauschenberg began the piece in 1981, and continues to work on it between other projects. Furlong has a calculated autobiographical nature: Rauschenberg has been making art since the late 40s, and has recounted his own history here by going back in style and subject farther than the year of the work’s inception. How is it funny? It’s as silly as a red trough filled with what looks like milk, a jug floating atop the white liquid; the physical humor of a fat ass plopped down and spread across a bench, and as awkward as the rudimentary human forms we trace of ourselves in kindergarten class. A friend described the work as a gallery of the subconscious, a playing out of the noise in your head you never listen to. It forces us to examine the things we cast aside. Rauschenberg offers a soundtrack to this chaos, suggesting we should be open minded to the combination of many elements in his art, voices and songs coming from everywhere and yet apparently without source. There are no titles or explanations provided, allowing Furlong to speak to each of us individually.

Andy Warhol was inspired by Rauschenberg, and in Rauschenberg’s use of cardboard boxes, coke bottles, newspaper clippings, patterned fabric, and lithograph collages of celebrities and politicians of the times, it is easy to see how. But Rauchenberg merely lets these things interact with each other without elevating them to star status. Library books do just what they’re supposed to, lay around in stacks until someone picks them up for a read. But maybe they’re laying around because they’ve been intentionally unreturned to the library whose name is stamped on the edge of every single one. There’s a sense of the mischievous implied here, a vision of books that with Rauschenberg’s help, have escaped their dusty shelves in a stuffy little library to participate in a grand visual showcase of culture. And they’re chuckling at how their ordinary bindings and dated titles are forming towers that people are craning to view, their pages full of words suddenly less important than the smooth lines and regal height created by their assemblage. The only thing that may be onto them is the silkscreened image of a rooster juxtaposed throughout the piece. I doubt either will ever go back to their ordinary selves.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston. 713-639-7300
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Tuesday, Wednesday: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Thursday: 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Friday, Saturday: 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.
Sunday: 12:15 p.m.-7:00 p.m.
Closed Monday, except Monday holidays
Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day

On to The Menil Collection


Goofing in the Fifties

The Menil collection houses Rauschenberg’s earliest works, and now that the Furlong Piece has presented us with the artist’s rendition of where he came from and where he’s going, it makes sense to go back for the non-revisionist history. The maturity with which Rauschenberg interjects humor into his work from the very beginning, both slapstick and profound, is remarkable; hilarious visual imagery and word play are mutually essential in finding each work’s meaning or lack thereof. Throughout the exhibit there are recurring jokes both on the surface and buried within the pieces, the weight and consequence of each bit constantly changes, so that just when you think you’ve found something dear to Rauschenberg he pokes fun at it. That ability, ultimately, is what remains precious. There’s another quirky aspect to this part of the retrospective, one that reminds us of art’s ability to play havoc on itself. Fifteen of Rauschenberg’s paintings were missing from the Menil exhibit for a week, confiscated by authorities as payment for a $5.5 million dollar judgment awarded to an Austin art dealer in a suit against Rauschenberg. The works were later returned and the suit has since been settled amicably out of court, but some of what passed became a comedy of errors in itself.

Soundings

Odalisk, 1955-1958
© Robert Rauschenberg
Licensed by VAGA,
New York, NY

Inspired by the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg started his formal art career just after WWII, and his early ‘combines’ put a new twist on the existing aesthetic, in that they interject everyday life into the art for art’s sake concept of the movement. It is here Rauschenberg introduced the materials and mediums that have continued to occupy him throughout his career. Even though it really bugs me to look at, I have to comment on the famous ‘Odalisk,’ a collaged wooden box on a pedestal cushioned by a bed pillow, topped with a stuffed rooster. This is a work in which all the levels of Rauchenberg’s sense of humor arrive at once. First of all, it’s ugly and absurd; its mere appearance elicits a laugh of shock at the very least. But art history texts tell us that the title is a clever blend of the words ‘odalisque’ and ‘obelisk,’ referring to both the nude girls represented in the collage of magazine clippings and to the shape of the box itself, whose slightly sloping sides are reminiscent of the pillars of stone of the same name built by the Egyptians. And the pillow, gosh, I don’t know, but looking at it leaves me with the same precarious feeling I’d get if I set a full glass of red kool-aide on top of my feather bed.

It would still be fun to bounce on, though, even if the consequence of the spill was realized. Again and again while viewing these works I was reminded of the playfulness inherent in them. As a matter of fact, Hiccups (1978), a series of 97 small rectangular canvases zipped together end to end along the hallway the foyer of the Menil inspired me to invent a game. My friend and I each started at opposite ends of the hallway, and walking towards each other at the same rate, took only passing glances at the images. Upon arriving at the other end, we would reveal which picture stuck in our head the most; the idea being to study Rauschenberg’s understanding of archetype as compared to our own, and then to contrast the effect the images had on our individual brains. Zooming by the images of sports, nature, man-made objects, and landscapes made for a zany multimedia flip book whose big picture offered an entirely different experience than that of each individual component. It also made for odd stares from other museumgoers. We were in the Rauschenberg spirit, alright.

And there are others to gleefully ponder: Mother of God, from 1950, is best described as a giant white circle painted on top of street maps including the downtown areas of San Antonio, Buffalo, Denver, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Whether it’s a crude representation of the female anatomy or not, it’s the cutout newsprint message on the bottom left of the painting, easy to overlook, that holds my understanding of the work (It reads: an invaluable spiritual road map…as simple and fundamental as life itself – Catholic Review). The White Paintings (just what the title suggests, entire canvases covered with white paint) have inspired many a throw-down argument with fellow appreciators of art who don’t seem to appreciate this possible attempt to poke fun at its validity. This group of works also includes the famous Erased de Kooning Drawing, a real ink and crayon drawing by Rauschenberg’s contemporary that has been erased and embellished. The obvious message might be that one shouldn’t take oneself so seriously, and to that effect, both the Mother of God and Erased de Kooning – listed in the exhibition catalog as property of the artist—were among the paintings whisked away by the plaintiffs in the Rauschenberg lawsuit. ‘We took 15 little ones, said attorney for the Austin plaintiffs Gary Schumann to an Austin American-Statesman reporter, ‘Nobody but an art expert would miss these.’ Now that’s funny.

The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross Street, Houston
The Menil Collection
Wednesday-Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.
free admission
713-525-9400

Continue to the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM)


Indulging the muse

The CAM is showing some pretty off-the-wall stuff. Most of it is sculpture, so naturally its place is on the floor, but the hanging pieces and the video presentation of Rauschenberg’s modern dance performances, 1954-95, qualify just the same. In the realm of humor in art, let’s just say that the weirdly conceptual nature of these pieces makes them akin to wisecracks, or surface jokes. Arguably there is more going on here—including Rauschenberg’s exploration of technology in art—but a giant tub of bubbling mud isn’t that far a stretch from a pie in the face. Yes, Mud Muse (1968-71), a 33 x 108 x 104 in. (one and a half times the size of a pool table) aluminum and glass vat bubbles up mud like lava from a volcano using a compressed air system that is actually activated by sound. And watch out because if you step too close you will get splattered on (and just might end up looking like a Jackson Pollock study in gray). Oracle, a five-part metal assemblage including a window on wheels, various troughs, spouts and spigots, and the door of a Volkswagen Bug with concealed radios, gives the illusion of being inside some industrial Dr. Seuss story. Soundings (1968), a giant shadowbox installation holding an haphazard assembly of straight-backed chairs, lights up when a loud noise sounds. And to think, this is 1968—a pre-clapper era.

Soundings

Soundings, 1968
© Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

While the video projection of Rauschenberg’s performances would have done better in a quieter, darker room to offset the age and poor sound quality of the films, it is this portion of the retrospective that moved me most. I hadn’t realized that Rauschenberg was such a cutting-edge participant in the modern dance scene, working with masters like Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. These films shouldn’t be missed. Not only are the sets and costumes designed by the artist vintage Rauschenberg, but all his ideas about art are thrown together in explosive choreography. What can be more comical than the physical humor created by body movement? In Pelican (1963), Rauschenberg rolls around on roller skates with giant veined wings reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to sail across canyons in pursuit of the Roadrunner. My favorite, a film of the 1965 performance of Map Room II, had dancers using rubber tires as limbs; they were squished inside and hovering between the two wheels, rolling across the floor. Seated performers held large flash cards with words; nonsensical phrases were created by the dancers changing positions. And Rauschenberg wore special shoes for this performance (also on exhibit) that protected him from being shocked by the Tesla coil he held in one hand, used to light the neon tubes he held in the other. This stuff would have been outrageous to see live

Mud Muse

Mud Muse, 1968-71
© Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

For some reason, I didn’t appreciate the interactive quality of the works at the CAM as much as some. To me they seemed a little gimicky. But one friend who saw the retrospective earlier in New York at the Guggenheim, told me a story that made me want to experience the techno-sculptures again. She had come upon a small mechanical device hanging on the wall, with rudimentary wiring and no instructions. The exhibit hall was quiet with respectful museumgoers. On further inspection she got the feeling that perhaps one was supposed to blow into it, and so she did just that with the reckless abandon reserved for plundering the cookie jar when no one is looking. The air pressure from her breath made the inner mechanics of the object spin, and the spinning made a high-pitched noise. Delighted, she stepped away only to contemplate the disrupting noise and a man who had been standing next to her, watching. Redfaced, she backed up from the wall and the man stepped forward, bent over, and blew into the object too. The inner mechanism spun, and the squeal sounded again. Then he stepped back, they both gave a chuckle, and parted ways. She was struck by the comic scene they had played out and then easily abandoned, obliged by Rauschenberg’s personal invitation to participate in his vision.

Contemporary Arts Museum
5216 Montrose, Houston
Contemporary Arts Museum Tue-Sat, 10am-5pm; Thu, 10am-9pm; Sun, 12pm-5pm;
free admission
713-284-8250

Last stop: return to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH), downstairs.


Acrostic many mediums

A group of elementary school children stand with a museum guide in front of an almost life size representation of Napoleon, perched atop a rearing stallion. “How does this picture make you feel?” she asks them. I haven’t made it that way yet so I don’t have an answer; I’ve been mesmerized by the process of these large-scale lithographs that make up the most recent works in the Rauschenberg retrospective. Leaning in closer, I’m trying to get a side view so I can pinpoint the exact place where the ink touches the medium. Vegetable dye transfer on paper? Frescoes? Negative and positive images in tarnish on brass, bronze and copper? How the heck does he do it? Later I learn Rauschenberg makes digital color prints of his photographs that can be transferred to paper or plaster and still retain their high-resolution contrast.

Elba II

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba II (Japanese Recreational Clayworks), 1985
© Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Back at the work titled Able was I ere I Saw Elba II (Japanese Recreational Clayworks) one kid finally speaks up. “Scared,” he says. “Me too,” says another. “It’s a war going on,” says a third. A girl in the back finally makes her voice heard above the din. “I think his face is funny.” I decide to check it out for myself.

An artistic paradigm, I’m not sure if this image has been stolen from a famous painting or if maybe I’m just supposed to think it is, but what at first appears to be some pop art throwback to neoclassicism, on closer look becomes a parody, a really clever lampoon on imperialism – in history and in art. (Is it merely coincidence that the transfer was done on high-fired Japanese art ceramic?) In the spirit of the title given to some of the works in this series—Anagram—there are words at the bottom right of the rectangle. One, though half of it is running off the side, can’t be anything other than part of “Bonaparte,” and the other quite clearly says “cannibal.” And there’s a duplicate, ghostly image of Napoleon’s regal head beneath the tri-corn turned sideways, placed squarely on the horse’s ass. This must be the punch line.

It’s fascinating to me that so much of Rauschenberg’s humor is expressed through wordplay, especially in light of his much-publicized dyslexia. Maybe words were quaint to him, curves of gobbledygook that could mean everything or nothing, encouraging him to communicate visually instead. The images are complementary, yet seem secondary in some of these works to a calculated verbal idea. The most obvious witticisms, the Anagram series, are collages of many juxtaposed images brought to the same level in a theme most easily expressed by a word. In Chairman for example, a Mexican man sits on a stoop in one corner, an empty chair graces the middle of the paper. He’s holding court on the stoop, the king of all that is ordinary. And they don’t stop there: images of Mexico City grace Chain Reaction, a larger-than-life skeleton takes center stage in Mirthday Man (apparently happy he doesn’t have to go through another birthday), and Metropolitan Escape features an image of the Jones Diner on Lafayette in NYC—some escape.

Mirthday Man

Mirthday Man, 1985
© Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Yet the subjects of these later works appeal to me just as much as their meaning. They’re images I’ve seen in real life, thought about, dissected on my own, and here they are gathered in an inside joke that I’m privy to (you can view them all over the exhibit because Rauschenberg is a master recycler, using them to a different end over and over again). And it suddenly begins to make sense why Rauschenberg chose to use mirrored aluminum for some of these pieces, it seems natural for this man-wrought metal to hold visions of architecture and history, but it is an odd backdrop for nature, cacti and bamboo are torn from their roots and forced to exist in paint, in shine. I can see my face among the stalks. And I’m still laughing about that.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston. 713-639-7300
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Tuesday, Wednesday: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Thursday: 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Friday, Saturday: 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.
Sunday: 12:15 p.m.-7:00 p.m.
Closed Monday, except Monday holidays
Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day

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