Review: Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern

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I don’t mind being late to the party - sometimes it’s for the best. We’ve all been the guy who texts ahead to see who’s there and whether or not the DJ’s any good. With that in mind I let a little time pass, read a few reviews, and set out on a Sunday morning feeling confident that the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Tate Modern was just the party for me. Newsflash of the century: Sundays at the Tate are to be avoided. Between scores of toddlers rolly-pollying their way towards potential aneurysms in the turbine hall and the massive lines for an exhibition ticket (£18.60 for an adult and they are still trying to get £4 off me on my way out) anxiety levels were high. Nevertheless, keen for an artistic hit, I hopped into the world of Abstract Expressionism’s foremost darling.

The Tate loves a retrospective and, for the most part, they’re well-executed. That said, I’m becoming a little tired of the chronological approach the curation team seems to apply each and every time (see also last summer’s Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective). I can’t shift the feeling that I’m enrolled on a ten-week history of art programme - lecture one: ‘So who’s this Robert guy anyway?’ The Tate’s educational approach can be one of its greatest strengths and, don’t get me wrong, if I’m a student in an Art History programme, this one’s top of the range. Each of the exhibition’s 11 rooms are meticulously and beautifully laid out, and by the time you push through the door of the final room, blinking into the gift shop, you’ve acquired knowledge. Nonetheless, for a visitor whose familiarity with the artist in question is patchy, often the visit is spent waiting for the arrival of the room housing the most famous pieces (again, also true for the O’Keeffe show, which found most of its visitors crowded around the flower studies). I couldn’t help but feel that something more could be gained by having the rhythmic glooping of Mud Muse (1968-71) sound-track the viewing of the Inferno prints, or by witnessing a charged stand-off between Mirthday Man (1997) and Holiday Ruse (Night Shade) (1991).

Linear room curation aside, the exhibition is well worth a visit. Rauschenberg’s work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is not for me, but I can appreciate the necessity for dynamic experimentation in an artistic career that spanned nearly 60 years. The aforementioned Mud Muse – clay mixed with water in an enormous vat, with a sound-compressed air system creating bubbles - was a welcome addition and a hypnotic example of Rauschenberg’s total rejection of painterly form and physicality. It was in the final rooms however that the exhibition really hit its stride. Upon entry I was totally unversed in Rauschenberg’s later works, and found their discovery exhilarating. The vast canvases smother the walls; a mix of collage, explosive colour and asymmetrical composition bear down on its viewer, requiring time for contemplation. Rauschenberg’s aversion to self-repetition led him to destroy many of his silkscreens after becoming the first American to win the prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, so for me this was an exciting return to form that I hadn’t anticipated. The Tate’s flair for sourcing rare collections remains, and sea of infants and the ticket price notwithstanding I left satisfied. 

Key Highlights included:

Yoicks (Red Painting) (1954) – one of Rauschenberg’s most immersive works, also one of his earliest. Josef Albers’s influence is tangible, and Rauschenberg’s experimentation with colour and form has, by this point, hit the ground running. In two words: Dotted Violence

Factum I and II (1957) – keen to explore the role of the accident in his work, he painted these two works at the same time and decided on their compositional compatibility later. The seemingly mirror images confuse and delight, darting around the canvas in search of optical satisfaction. In two words: Happy Ending

 Albino (Jammer) – a favourite of mine. The white on white on more white is intoxicating, with wooden stilts erupting from both wall and floor. Mirroring the earlier White Painting (Seven Panels), also present in the exhibition, his return to a more minimalist approach excites and unnerves. In two words: Perfect Primacy

The exhibition runs until April 2nd 2017. 


 This photo is copyright the artist, Jac. de Nijs / Anefo -