Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville

August 2011

Publication: The Times

Robert Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 at the age of 82, was the a US artist of great stature – at least the equal of his contemporaries, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol.  Rauschenberg transformed the detritus of the technological and consumer society into art, elevating the mundane into the extraordinary. Although sharing some of the methods and aims of the European Arte Povera movement, Rauschenberg’s was an emphatically American vision, as demonstrated by his materials – discarded road signs, shiny mirrored steel, glass and enlarged, reproduced images.


This show, the first major collection to be seen in the UK for around thirty years, consists of nearly forty works, made between 1982 and 1997. These range chronologically from the assemblage (Rauschenberg’s term is  ‘combine’) Global Chute (Kabal American Zephyr) made from metal duct, a mapped globe and tool handle to Untitled (Glass Tyres) – a blown glass sculpture derived from car tyres.   Other works include Uptown Pig Pox (1988) – a painted, life-size aluminium sculpture of a pig ‘saddled’ with an assortment of garish ties; and Eco-Echo IV (1992-93) – a large, motor-operated fan activated by sound.


More than a quarter of the works here carry the term ‘glut’ in their title – the description derives from a series made during the recession of the ‘eighties which had its origin in a surplus of the world oil supply. Initially the series  consisted of work containing signs from defunct petrol stations but later included other materials. The idea of surplus economic waste is seen in works such as Le Coon Glut and Urban Katydid Glut, both dating from 1986, which include discarded aluminium US street signs. These works become not only a tangled mass of objects but also a lexicographical scrap heap where the broken, fragmented names such as ‘Tropicana Pkwy W’, ‘Palm Tree…’ and ‘Gulfs…’ create a bizarre, urban ‘found’ poetry.


As a foil to Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’ the artist also created a quite different series of reflective brass, bronze, copper and aluminium plates which he etched with words and images. A work such as Fossil Lace (Borealis) 1992 – which introduces the idea of palimpsest, where successive layers seem to have been removed and added – assumes a kind of ethereality quite at odds with its more garish, object-derived counterparts.


Often the imagery laid down on these burnished metallic surfaces is photographic and, in combination, these pictorial fragments create puzzling, quasi-narratives as in Party-Bird (Night Shade) (1991) where an exotic bird, foliage and various metallic structures enigmatically combine. Elsewhere the allure of some pieces is augmented by a combination of cryptic imagery and strange beauty as in Wire Fur (Night Shade) which appears to be derived from air-borne seeds caught in a metal fence.


What transpires from this inspiring show is the voracious, questing nature of Rauschenberg’s intellect, his willingness to experiment and his apparently boundless imagination.