In 1959, Robert Rauschenberg stated one of the most famous and enduring maxims in the canon of experimental art: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made — I try to act in the gap between the two.”
The first time I saw a Robert Rauschenberg work in person, I couldn’t look away. In his collages, I saw the contents of my own media-saturated mind, similarly flooded with a panoply of colors and images culled from world culture. Whenever I thought I was in my comfort zone and growing accustomed to the absurdity of his work, I would be disrupted by something quite visceral and utterly unexpected — a stuffed Angora goat, a sound-activated vat of bubbling mud, the artist’s own paint-splattered bed, replete with a pillow and quilt, affixed to the gallery wall.
I walked out of that show, as I have each time I’ve viewed a Rauschenberg since, full of wonder and questions, finding that he had deliberately frustrated all my ideas of what art is. Sculpture didn’t have to be three-dimensional or representative. Painting didn’t have to be limited by its plane; it should be allowed to reach out a bit further into the space of the viewer, into the real world. Painting didn’t even have to be made with paint.
A new show of largely imageless and colorless bodies of work comprising readymade materials at Gladstone Gallery reveals Rauschenberg at his best — pushing beyond the traditions of working in a single medium and marrying common objects with radical artistry. Early Egyptians and Venetians, 1972–1974, spread across Gladstone’s 21st Street and 24th Street locations, showcases a little-known side of Rauschenberg and is one of the first focused exhibitions of these series since Leo Castelli showed them in 1972 and 1973.
Rauschenberg relocated in 1970 from New York City to a remote island off the coast of Florida, where he lived for nearly four decades and undertook some of his greatest scavenging adventures, collecting and finding inspiration in the urban debris that came to feature heavily in his work. In the spring of 1972, Rauschenberg visited Venice and looked to the city’s paradoxical duality of opulence and austerity, progression and deterioration. Drawing from his shift to a rural lifestyle and his observation of urban facades, his practice evolved to incorporate more neutral palettes, as seen in natural and utilitarian materials like sand, wood, leather, rubber, and cardboard.
In “Untitled (Early Egyptian)” (1974) at the 24th Street space, four large, vertical rectangular boxes sit atop smaller cardboard boxes, and the entire dais-like structure is coated in sand and acrylic to create a rough-hewn surface texture analogous to concrete or stone building blocks. Referencing Egyptian monuments in its imposing composition, this work demonstrates Rauschenberg’s trust in certain materials to anchor his works to the world around them while reflecting on the cultural and economic history of cardboard and imbuing the common material with a newfound poetic dimension.
Another work in the show of the same title and year, comprised of fabric wrapped around upright paper bags, recalls a sarcophagus; others yet bring to mind primitive sailboats, hangman ropes, or crude furniture. Including objects like rocks and coconuts — as seen respectively in “Untitled (Venetian)” and “San Pantalone (Venetian)” (both 1973) — Rauschenberg confronted reality head-on.
His trust in materials is beautifully demonstrated in this two-part show, with works reminiscent of his early combines in that they carefully collide seemingly disparate objects to create new meanings. Coming out of this show, I had the unique experience of feeling like I was seeing Rauschenberg for the first time all over again. It was hard to believe that the works I was seeing were his — but then again, who else’s could they have been?
Exemplifying his “act in the gap” mentality, the objects in both Gladstone locations are incredibly apt metaphors for Rauschenberg’s effort to reach out into the world through his work, ultimately binding art and life. Each of these invented forms is ultimately imageless and ascetic, hovering on the cusp of recognition and true to both art and life.
Rauschenberg is a satirist in a sense, a shameless subverter of the aesthetic conventions that defined his decades-long career. For him, the value in art was tied not to its marketability or how impressive it would look hanging in one’s home, but rather to an object’s ability to reflect the artist’s life in all its reality and complexity.
Rauschenberg gave artists an enormous sense of freedom and permission to create anything they could dream of, so long as they were earnest in their ideas and execution. The generations of artists that have followed have run with this idea so much so that I never had to think twice about whether a dirty tire in a gallery was worthy of being considered art. He taught us that everything is art because it is part of life. In the end, the way he made art was simply the way he lived his life. For Rauschenberg, there was no gap.
Robert Rauschenberg: Venetians and Early Egyptians, 1972-1974 continues at Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st Street and 515 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery in cooperation with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.