A Review of the Robert Rauschenberg Retrospective at Tate Modern, London


Walking into the Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern feels like the landing of Allied forces on the beach. A surge of raw, brilliant American energy on the banks of the river Thames. The works are powerful and as much ahead of their time today as they were fifty years ago. Tate’s show is the first full scale survey of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre since his death in 2008. The exhibition, produced with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it will travel next, is an assemblage of so many outstanding and rarely seen works in tight quarters it unleashes a sensorial chain reaction. As more than once critic noted, Rauschenberg could easily have taken over the whole floor, not just eleven galleries, but the juxtaposition of works, mediums, colours, sounds, and styles makes for an intoxicating result. 

Perhaps the artistic equivalent of Manhattan. The exhibition is divided thematically into 11 sections, tracing the development of Rauschenberg’s techniques.  These are:  1.     Experimentation  2.     Colour 3.     Combines 4.     Transfer Drawings 5.     Silkscreens 6.     Live 7.     Technology 8.     Material Abstraction 9.     Travel 10.  Metal 11.  Late Works



Born in Texas in 1925, Rauschenberg began his career in the 1950's at the height of Abstract Expressionism in American Art.  [To see the artistic context Rauschenberg was working from, visit Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts.  For an epilogue on his Transfer Drawings, visit the eponymous show at Offer Waterman].  Although Rauschenberg’s work on canvas is brilliant, he looked to challenge the dominant role of painting and perhaps even the use of paint itself.  A trademark of AbEx painters was the sheer quantity of paint applied and you can almost smell it at the Royal Academy. 

Rauschenberg looked to innovative forms of creating art, taking advantage of different methods and mediums, including every day objects or “readymades.”  He said: “I feel really sorry for people who think that things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” 

Perhaps the epitome of this is “Monogram” for which the artist took an Angora goat which he tried to attach to the canvas. The goat would not stick, refusing “to be abstracted into art” until Rauschenberg altered both animal and composition by placing a tyre around the goat.  The tyre has a wide, white stripe along the external rim while the goat’s head is painted like a colour palette. Another seminal work is “Erased de Kooning Drawing” for which Rauschenberg carefully took an eraser to a work on paper by William de Kooning, removing the work of the master to stake out his own artistic territory, taking ownership of what would become a new period in American art. 




The exhibition is monumental in its ambition to define and display Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. It will be a long time before so many of his pieces are brought together again and a rare opportunity for the public to view them.  Among the canvases are some of his rare “Red Paintings,” not to mention the “Erased de Kooning Drawing” or the many combines such as “Untitled (Spread” from 1983 featuring two large, open umbrellas like breasts at the top and a long sequence of American flags running down the middle.  As Jackie Wullschlager rightly pointed out in her review for the FT, “Bed,” a combination of a wooden frame, quilt, pillow, and sheets all covered in oil paint, nail polish, and tooth paste is suggestive of (sexual) violence and a clear precursor to the work of Tracey Emin (“My Bed”) among others. Emin’s own bed was the centrepiece of her British Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. 

The transfer drawings, featured in gallery 4, include Rauschenberg’s thirty-four illustrations of the Canti in Dante’s Inferno. The Divina Commedia, encompassing Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven) is Dante’s epic descent into the underworld, guided by the classical Roman poet Virgil - the representation of reason. Virgil (bearing the authority of Classical culture) can take Dante as far as Purgatory, but not beyond.  o reach heaven, the realm of a (Christian) God, Dante must turn to love, in the form of his muse and beloved, Beatrice. 




Seeking inspiration from Dante’s Inferno, Rauschenberg places himself in a long and illustrious line of artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Salvador Dalì. Dante’s struggle, of which Inferno is the most difficult and poignant part, is the struggle of man and his sense of purpose both on earth and beyond.  It is also the struggle of the artist to communicate and share talent and artistry with his fellow man.  Dante’s writing is steeped in the socio-political change gripping Europe and the Italian peninsula, the struggle between Church and State, and the birth of a new language, Italian, from the vulgate or volgare. Dante is its champion and the Divina Commedia recognised as the first literary text in Italian instead of Latin.  This must have been a very appealing model for Rauschenberg, as for so many transformative artists before him. 

In the next gallery, Rauschenberg’s large silkscreen paintings take imagery, including TV stills, from popular American culture. From 1962 when Rauschenberg began the paintings, the narrative would have been dominated by the Moon Landing, the ensuing Space Age, and Kennedy’s assassination. Notwithstanding that fateful moment, it was a time of great American optimism, unbridled energy, and growth.  A period echoed by Thomas Ruff in his show at David Zwirner (24 Grafton Street) and also channeled in the last American election.  As the exhibition’s curators point out, “the silkscreens proved to be Rauschenberg’s breakthrough.  In March 1963, he was given his first major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, followed by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery which broke attendance records.”  In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American artist to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.  The next day “removing the temptation to repeat himself, Rauschenberg called his assistant and asked him to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio.”  


Written by Nathan Clements-Gillespie, a contributor to Arteviste.