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One of Robert Rauschenberg’s many celebrated achievements is Stoned Moon (1969-70), a series of 34 lithographs printed at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles.
Rauschenberg was one of a number artists invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to attend the launch of Apollo 11, the spaceflight that landed two Americans on the moon on July 20, 1969, and he responded with an unparalleled burst of energy. Even now, a half-century after this historic event, his response feels fresh, brimming with brilliant visual and material connections and associations, beginning with the connection he drew between the lithography stone and the moon.
The largest print in the series is “Sky Garden” (1969), which is a little over seven feet high and more than three feet wide. Combining lithography and silkscreen — an ancient printing process and new one — Rauschenberg superimposed a photographic negative of the massive Saturn V rocket, with its many parts labeled as if in a textbook, over smaller images of the rocket standing beside the gantry and the rocket blasting off, as well as one of an egret (a Florida attraction).
This monumental work and the one titled “Banner” (1969), the second largest print from the series, are just two of 22 reasons to go to the exhibition, Robert Rauschenberg: Stoned Moon (1969-70), at the Craig F. Starr Gallery (May 30 – July 26, 2019).
The real surprise of this show is a group of works that were meant for Stoned Moon Book, an artist’s book that, sadly, was never published. The group includes four solvent-transfer drawings, four photo-collages for the book’s front and back covers and endpapers, and 11 layout pages.
It is in the 11 layout pages that you will discover a side of Rauschenberg that is little known: his writing. While I think of Robert Smithson as an artist and a writer, I never before thought of Rauschenberg in this way. However, based solely on the writing in the layout pages, I will from now on. Really, that’s how inventive and good it is.
While Rauschenberg has illustrated other writers’ texts, as in Thirty-Four Drawings for Dante’s ‘Inferno’ (1959-60), as far as I know, the layout pages for Stoned Moon Book are unlike anything else in this protean artist’s wild and extensive oeuvre, which is saying something.
In “Stoned Moon Drawing” (1969), Rauschenberg arranges a typewritten strip of paper containing the words “NOTHING WILL ALREADY BE THE SAME,” vertically, like a rocket. The book, which includes an exchange between Rauschenberg and the curator Henry Hopkins, as well as images from the NASA command station and photos of the artist and others working on the lithographs, is an ode to collaboration and group effort. As Rauschenberg writes on a layout page, “Art is social.” There is something utopian in the artist’s thinking, a belief in the value of making something that is more than the work of a single individual.
Together, the unassembled pages of Stoned Moon Book form a hybrid of imagery and writing, with contributions coming from more than one person. In his dialogue with Hopkins, Rauschenberg smartly and elegantly distinguishes his words from those of Hopkins by typing his in all caps and the latter’s in lower case. He also often cuts his writing into single strips, while Hopkins’s tends to appear in blocks of prose.
The capital letters and single strips, filled with a sentence or phrase, evoke telegrams as well as lines of poetry. He might arrange them like the slats of a slightly askew venetian blind, or vertically, or diagonally. The lines are both clustered together and isolated from each other. When, on the rare occasion that he types out a block of his own writing, it is because he is focused on a single subject, or composing an interconnected series of observations and reflections. The writing moves effortlessly between the transparent (“TURKEY BUZZARDS EXERCISING AUDUBON RIGHTS ON ROOF”) to the opaque (“MUSEUM FOR BUSES OF NOON BLEACHED GROUPS WHEELING THRU SPEAKERS OF OBITUARY RAP KEEPING ROCKET CARCASSES GROUNDED”).
There are diaristic memories (“SUN JULY 13 TERRY AND I LEFT IN ‘THAT’ TO DRIVE TO CAPE KENNEDY FOR APOLLO 11”), compressed declarations (“MON JULY 14 I. D. PHOTO. LIVE AUDUBON FLAT MARSH WET SMELL HIGHWAYS BUILT YESTERDAY PAST GHOST TOWNS OF TECHNOLOGY”), and mystifying aphorisms (“A PRINT IS THE WIDOW OF THE STONE”).
He also includes the names of the printers and a column-like list of different process involved in printing the lithograph. The various formal elements and inventions — the interaction between the writing and the photographs, the shift from lower case to uppercase, the lists of names and processes transform a scrapbook-like gathering into something fresh. As Rauschenberg writes, “ALL IS PERFORMANCE.”
Rauschenberg’s use of writing and collage, and his arrangements of typed strips of paper, reflect his familiarity with the collage assemblies of Kurt Schwitters and the poetry of Charles Olson, who stated “in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!” But what he does with these elements is all his own.
By cutting his own writing and that of others into strips, which are then arranged into new configurations, Rauschenberg has followed a process that mirrors the Apollo 11 launch — a sequence of separate actions joined together in a collective scientific effort.
The layout pages of Stoned Moon Book attest to the collective artistic effort of numerous people, including Rauschenberg, Hopkins, the printers of the lithographs, the photographers for NASA, and Malcolm Lubliner and Sidney Felsen, the co-founder of Gemini G.E.L, who took photos at the print shop.
The book is essentially is a paean to Apollo 11 and to GEMINI G.E.L., as well as a record of Rauschenberg’s ecological concerns. It is brimming with hope and optimism – feelings that seem impossible to grasp in our current state of racial profiling, tribal skirmishes, and percolating hatred.
This exhibition is a museum-worthy gathering, at once tightly focused and eye-opening. Luckily for us, Craig F. Starr Gallery is in the final stages of producing a catalog – and graciously sent me a PDF of it – that will reproduce all the work Rauschenberg made for the book, as well as the draft of an essay that Michael Crichton (1942 – 2008) wrote about Rauschenberg and the project.
Written on a typewritten sheet and corrected by hand, Crichton’s essay is reproduced by the catalogue in its unfinished state. This seems right on so many levels. For all the hope for a better future that the launch of Apollo 11 signified, it is all too apparent that we have fallen far short of the mark. The lithographs from Rauschenberg’s Stoned Moon series underscore the necessity of collective actions as it offers the possibility of what can result.
Robert Rauschenberg: Stoned Moon (1969-70) continues at the Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 26.