Nine major works by Pop Art legend Robert Rauschenberg entered the collections of six major museums in the United States this month. The pieces were acquired through the artist’s foundation and made possible by its one-time Gift/Purchase program, which offered works to select institutions at discounts.
The pieces, which all date from after 1971, are from the artist’s Jammer, Cardboard, Venetian, Glut, and Spread series, as well as one work from his humanitarian project ROCI, which he began in 1984.
David White, senior curator of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, told Hyperallergic that the organization sent a general notice to a range of museums about the potential to acquire works from its collection, and six institutions finalized arrangements.
“Bob [Rauschenberg] is best known for the Combines in the 1950s. By and large, at this point, almost all of them are in museum collections,” White says. “What we have in the foundation are some of the works that might be less well known … but the more you’re familiar with Bob’s work, the more you see they are related to each other. It’s not about stopping [at one thing], but it’s all about openness and his celebrating materials. He was very enthusiastic. He would say that he was happiest when he was getting up and going to his studio and working.”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Metropolitan Museum of Art were the only institutions to acquire multiple works, including pieces from the Jammers and Cardboard series, while the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York each acquired one piece.
The artworks reveal the diversity of Rauschenberg’s later period, which involved a constant exploration of new materials. “Bob often worked in a pendulum swing in his works — after doing something for a while there was a change in the opposite direction,” White says. “He was just so inventive and trying everything, so many of his works were then picked up on by younger artists.”
A case in point is his Cardboard series, which was created, according to White, only after years of toiling away on his E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) artist-engineer collaborations of the late 1960s and soon after the artist moved to Captiva Island in Florida. “He put technological works aside and used a lowly material he could find near his new home,” White says. “He liked to have limitations, so he did not add paint, and he used what was on the boxes. They were not pristine boxes, there are remnants of packing tape and other things on them. There is a quote that said that the cardboard boxes were forcing him to be a cubist, but he wanted to resist.”
Other series are equally inspired by Rauschenberg’s personal passions and perspective on the world. Venetians grew out of the artist’s love for the Italian city’s ubiquitous waterlogged decay; Jammers reveals his fascination with the sculptural properties of fabrics; and the Glut series refers to the glut in the 1980s oil market, which forced many gas stations out of business. “They are assembled metal pieces,” White says of the latter. “There were similarities to the Cardboards in that — he left them the way he found them, celebrating these things that had been disposed of.”
One work from the artist’s Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) program was acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The piece, from the Mexican leg of his global tour to encourage “world peace and understanding,” incorporates photographs, embroidery, and other elements distinctive to Mexico.
If Rauschenberg’s late works are not as well-known as his early art, a comprehensive show being planned at London’s Tate Modern for 2016 should hopefully change that. The exhibition, which will also travel to MoMA and SFMOMA, will concentrate on the artist’s overlooked periods and the performative aspects of his work.