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It’s impossible to overstate the importance of photography throughout Rauschenberg’s career. His name conjures, if not images of his Combines, then his silkscreening process, in which the artist’s own images as well as clippings from newspapers and magazines played a vital role in closing “the gap between art and life.” Robert Rauschenberg and Photography, a two-room exhibition on view at Pace/MacGill, neatly presents a range of photographic work spanning the artist’s entire career.
Photography was key to Rauschenberg’s early artistic development. It was his wife, artist Susan Weil, who first demonstrated to him the technique of exposing blueprint paper (specially coated paper that turns blue when exposed to light, with any darkened areas remaining white). These works caught the eye of Gene Moore, chief window designer for Bonwitt Teller and Tiffany & Co., who commissioned Rauschenberg to create window displays, providing crucial support throughout the artist’s early career. In 1952, when MoMA became the first ever institution to collect his work, it acquired two photographs made during the artist’s time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
The exhibition commences with the artist’s later work. Displayed on the exhibition’s title wall is the first work from Photem Series I (1991), a group of silver gelatin prints mounted and collaged upon aluminum. Perhaps alluding to his early career, the work is a collage of shop displays and signage, the most prominent reading “Bob’s Hand.” An image of a pointing hand leads the viewer into the exhibition. The positioning of the piece is the show’s single injection of curatorial lightheartedness.
Twelve immaculately framed photographs from 1952 are divided into two sets (entitled Portfolio I and II), the first comprising a wide range of subjects, typifying Rauschenberg’s fascination with the qualities of texture, surface, and reflection. Included in this set is a self-portrait of the artist lying on his back on a mattress. The floor takes up two thirds of the frame, with Rauschenberg and the mattress squeezed along the top of the image. The result is funereal, as if looking at a cross section of underground sediments. In another photograph, an unfocused image of a horse emphasizes the animal’s patterned fur and outline. Rauschenberg’s use of black-and-white film, from his early work to the Photem Series, allowed him to explore the tactility of his scenes. The exhibition’s key point is that for Rauschenberg, the qualities of light supersede those of color.
This is further demonstrated by two pieces from his Night Shade series (1991). Whereas the Photem works use sculptural relief to demand the viewer’s attention, the Night Shade pieces entice with reflection. The mirrored aluminum is silkscreened with a ghostly selection of disparate images: a towel, a hen, an industrial fan (all regular Rauschenberg motifs). The surface reveals the artist’s gestural marks. You imagine that wiping the work with a wet cloth would reveal more of the overall image.
The metal works made towards the end of Rauschenberg’s life fulfill the ambition that is apparent in the earliest photographs on display. In “Ceiling and light,” a later inkjet edition of the 1950 work, you can imagine tiredly fumbling to reach for the light cord, a response engineered by the image’s soft focus.
Looking at these early works alongside the later metal pieces, it is clear that Rauschenberg continually aimed to master photographic tactility. In early images, you can feel the crevices of a pavement or the gritty surfaces of a studio space. This is also the case with his metal works, which by virtue of their material, end up fetishizing their own surfaces as well. Indeed, it was the borrowing and combining of various media that allowed Rauschenberg to achieve his artistic ambitions, a process that defines his legacy.
While everything is beautifully presented, the grouping of works feels confused. The show isn’t arranged wholly chronologically or formally; its approach lies somewhere in between. So for instance, a 1991 Night Shade work is hung alongside a late ’70s photograph because they share the same motif. But elsewhere, two works from the late ’70s have been purposefully displayed together. There are also other bodies of work that haven’t been represented, such as the Phantom series, which is similar to the Night Shades, but which use negative images instead. All that said, Robert Rauschenberg and Photography isn’t a museum show. Despite it’s indecisive hanging, it’s a small, neat exhibition that achieves a great deal of understanding with the work that it has.
Robert Rauschenberg and Photography is on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery (32 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 2.