Raushenberg’s response to the post-war gloom and the self-absorption of the abstract expressionists who dominated American art in the early 1950s, was to revel in the stuff of real, contemporary life. This exhibition, a chronological survey, shows him acquiring materials, techniques and ideas like a squirrel, hording them up and rearranging them in sculptures and works which defy common labels.
He pushed his interest in photography into painting via blueprint paper exposures. He combined and then recombined found objects and paint. The famous Angora goat migrated from one arrangement to another, over fours years, before settling permanently into ‘Monogram’ in 1959 (Craft,2013). Even his paintings, perhaps his most conventional works, explored the use of fabric, applied objects, mirror, newsprint, photographs, mould, mud, in fact pretty much anything that caught his eye and was to hand.’Painting’ seems far too small a term, not least because some were big, really big.
Central to Rauschenberg’s work was the found image, reflecting the moment in popular culture. Images of J F Kennedy and astronauts capture the essence of the era and its optimism, shaking off the post-war despondency. Printmaking, especially screen printing allowed him to scale up these images, juxtaposition them with paint and other iconic images of American life.
The transfer of found images found its most poignant expression in his illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, begun in 1958 (Robert Rauschenberg Foundation). These 34 drawings are necessarily small because he used a method of image transfer which did not allow scaling up. He soaked the images in turpentine or lighter fluid and offset their ink by laying them on the support and hatching over them with an empty ball point pen (Craft). This produced a ghostly, painterly image which fitted the subject well and allowed pencil and paint additions.
He continued to push printmaking in different directions, including using lithography, producing ‘Booster’ 1967, at the time, the biggest hand-pulled lithograph ever printed (Craft) and reflecting his continuing fascination with scientific developments and the space race. When he moved to Florida in 1970, the materials readily available changed, but, undeterred he turned to using cardboard boxes as his medium, but printmaking and image acquisition was never far away and both kept reemerging in his later work.
His work is a celebration of experimentation, invention, optimism and wit, and his influence still reverberates in contemporary art.