In 1964 Robert Rauschenberg, whose works are currently on show at Tate Modern, became the first American to win the Gran Primeo at the Venice Biennale with his pioneering screen prints. It was the culmination of a highly successful 18 months. The previous year he had been given a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York; it was followed by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London which broke attendance records. Whereas his contemporary, Warhol, used his own popularity to feed the market, turning out thousands of screen prints, a strategy which even today sees him rank second after Picasso in auction revenue, Rauschenberg had a radically different attitude. The day after his Venice success, he phoned his assistant and asked him to destroy any silk-screens left in the studio so he would not have the temptation to repeat himself.
Only someone highly confident of his ability to come up with fresh ideas would make such a decision. Tate visitors can see that this confidence was fully justified. Everywhere you look, you see how he tried things nobody had tried before and which led to avenues which are still being explored by artists today. Perhaps even more important than this confidence was the desire to enjoy himself; repeating himself would have been work; what is abundantly clear is that Rauschenberg wanted his art to be fun.
He was one of the first artists to introduce objects into his works – the Combines. Some worked better than others. I rather liked the fans in the painting shown below but was less keen on one which incorporated a small table light.
It was good to see the goat, correctly titled Monogram – lent by the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm; it is fragile and rarely travels. Mounted on a horizontal canvas on the floor, it is, fifty years later, still a striking piece – though somewhat pointless, though I suppose that is the point. But what fun he must have had with it: – finding it in a used furniture store, fixing it first to a vertical canvas, then to a horizontal one, daubing its nose with paint, playing with the tyre, so that finally in his words, they came to live happily ever after.
But if tyre-wearing goats are not to your taste there is so much more to discover. One visit can hardly do the exhibition justice. I was intrigued by a small light-box, Shades, apparently a one-off as it was dedicated to his son Christopher. It contained six lithographs, only one of which was in a fixed position; the others could be re-ordered. Many artists would have created a practice around the concept; Rauschenberg was happy to make it and move on.
I loved the image of the tyre tread running along 20 of sheets of typing paper. Ruauschenberg had poured black house paint in front of the back wheel of John Cage’s car and then got him to drive over the paper. There was the carboard scuplture which made me want to play around with cardboard myself.
Most striking of his ‘art is fun’ works, must be Mud Muse bubbling in a satisfying way with the sounds amplified so that it feels as if you are in the cauldron.
All good art makes you see the world in a new light; I find myself pushing cardboard into new shapes, eyeing the table lamps and art now intrudes into breakfast; making porridge will never be quite the same.
Robert Rauschenberg is showing at Tate Modern until April 2.