You know what?? I must be a pretty crap art student for not hearing of Rauschenberg before my tutor told me (in November might I add) that I NEEDED to see the exhibition of his work at Tate Modern, organised in conjunction with The Museum of Modern Art, New York. I had somehow managed to research the majority of his contemporaries, never even coming across his incredibly diverse practice until seeing hundreds of posters for the exhibition, featuring the iconic image of JFK, on the Tube.
I mean, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really fancy shelling out the 15 quid for a student (a bloody student!!!!!) ticket to the exhibition, so I put it off for a solid 2.5 months. Finally, I bit the bullet. Luckily, the Wolfgang Tillmans show had just opened the previous day, and if you buy a ticket to 2 exhibitions it’s £25 AND you get a free drink, which is a much more appealing offer.
So with the curation at the Tate exhibitions I’ve noticed they usually do it in chronological order of the artists career, which I mean isn’t bad like you’ve gotta start somewhere but like I’m not a fan of the layout of the gallery, they tend to cram a lot of the middle career work (often the most prolific) into those tiny little rooms at the back, which is a bit crap to be honest isn’t it. With Rauschenberg it was chronological to some extent, but then each room focused on a specific medium.
As soon as I walked into the room titled ‘Combines’ (number 3), I was instantly struck by by how evident his influence had been on the art world; abstract expressionism in particular. For Rauschenberg, a painting was not just a 2D representation – it was a performance, and the result was a sculptural art-object. Looking at his work, such as Black Market (1961, Museum Ludwig, Cologne), or Winter Pool (1959, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the painting literally projects into the physical space beyond it, physically breaking the boundaries of the canvas, the object suggesting an action – removing or taking items from the box connected to Black Market, or descending the ladder in Winter Pool.
Gold standard, 1964, Combine: oil, paper, printed reproductions, clock, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, shoe, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base, Private Collection.
Something that I realised as I walked through the display of Dante Drawings (1958, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and into the room containing his silk screen paintings, was that the collage style and Dada influence in his compositions resulted in a kind of madness that reminded me so much of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, (1955-6); he truly embodied the hysteria of this era, the turn of the century, the vast post-war advancement of capitalism that was to swell and burst in the 1980s. Lines from Howl, such as ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’ and ‘…battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of zoo’, involuntarily came to mind (maybe I’m just a wanker who likes Beat poetry too much), and even though Rauschenberg produced his final silkscreen paintings in 1964, nearly 10 years after Howl was written, they seemed like a natural progression in the cultural storytelling of the mid-20th century.
The small rooms at the back of the Eyal Ofer Galleries were not the right setting for Oracle (1962-5, Museé National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou), and Mud Muse (1968-71, Moderna Museet, Stockholm); they are large, dynamic installations that needed much more space. Furthermore, I really disliked how they had a theme of “Technology” for one room, cramming in work Rauschenberg produced for Apollo 11, Moon Museum (1969, MoMA, New York, collaboration between Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, David Novros, Forrest Myers, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain) in the same room as Mud Muse, where the minuscule microchip was very much lost, and felt like it had just been shoved there so that it had a place in the exhibition.
The final rooms were much better curated, however the work was not as impactful or iconic. Untitled (Spread) (1983, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York), was one piece that really stood out for me here, perhaps because it was similar to the combines and screenprints he produced in his youth; except here using a solvent transfer process instead of screens.
Despite some criticisms (largely due to the architecture and layout of the galleries), this is an incredible exhibition with such a diverse spread of work from a truly exemplary artist of the 20th century – a must see.
2017, was configured by Tillmans himself; the press release clearly states that it is not a retrospective, each room is a response to the current social, cultural and political climate, using prints from the artists own studio collection. The first thing that struck me as I entered was the display – the prints were all different sizes, different papers, and displayed differently – hung with dog clips, framed, hung high, low, massive print, small print. It did give off a hint of art foundation end of year show vibes; but you know what? it WORKED. There was such a freshness in this, the photos spoke not just as 2 dimensional digital prints, but as art objects, to one another. There was a coherence to each room, and although the photos may have been unrelated, that’s what made each room interesting – there was no “oh here’s a series of so and so”, where you breeze past 8 similar photos all the same size all framed and hung adjacent to each other. You had to look at each photo.
truth study center (2005), a collection of clippings, objects, drawings, and photographs comes together with enormous prints from his Silver project, an excellent use of the larger room, giving space for the massive collection to breathe underneath the glass topped tables, as I often find this was of displaying archival material boring, and easy to overlook.
Surprisingly, one of my favourite pieces from the show was Playback Room, a space designed to listen to recorded music. There is a correlation between recorded music and photography – both are usually experienced in a way that is detrimental to the work: listening to music with cheap headphones or looking at photos on a small screen. As able to see Tillmans prints as he truly wanted them to be seen, we listen to Colourbox as they wanted their music to be heard, and it’s fucking brilliant.
The final room was visually incredible, featuring a trio of sky prints and The State We’re In, 2015; depictions of nature in its most expansive and raw form, referencing a break from national borders and divisions. Tillmans work, and being able to see it here, in this way, has given me the kick up the arse I wanted; I left the exhibition determined, to take beautiful photographs of beautiful people, places, and things.