Reflections on Rauschenberg at Tate Modern

Rauschenberg’s work does seem to have a streak of nihilism running through it and much of the work still has a ‘student’ level mannered irreverant quality. As critics have seldom if ever ‘gone through the motions’ in a studio, they are not fully geared to get under the skin of art in my opinion (worse still they would resent any real artists telling them otherwise) – many can be quite rabid in their unshakeable regard of the visual… hence this show is a smash. 

It’s funny how bravado dissipates to chic melancholy with the passing of time. It could have been the fact it was a lovely mild December evening, the hour was late and the gallery sparse, for I actually quite enjoyed wandering around the show and just let it wash over me. The late works in the last room had some pleasing passages of colour in them too – here he was finally taking on board the challenge of dealing with the transtions between sections (albeit on the same single expanse), decisions of whether to let an image bleed in or butt up to another in direct matter of fact ways, without any recourse to gimmick- I enjoyed seeing these. The light bulb combine does have a really good middle with terrific ‘in the moment’ paint handling. There’s a Frank Bowling in the ‘Recent Aquisitions’ room which puts things firmly in their place though; it’s a lesson in how to build pressure in the layering of dense closely hued and toned colours , from one of our finest artists. This work exposes Rauschenburg’s lack of real commitment to the problems of painting. He seemed happier to eschew these problems in favour of a more sugar-rush insouciant approach – a ‘naughtiness’ if you will. Art is bigger than the individual, though not here – which tells you the level of art achieved.

There is an early latex white multi-panelled work which was part of the collaboration with Cage and Cunningham. It set up the rest of the show (not by design) as it is a backdrop to something. That was what dawned on me in these über-trendy spaces. The work feels like a backdrop. Indeed a lot of work I see has that vibe – a museum readiness. It dissolves into the fabric of these kinds of spaces, in much the same way as one of Rauschenberg’s transfer prints – lovely little bits of nothingness – fade into the solvent stained paper. Alan makes a really intriguing comparison with the Picasso whose big fractured work still has an inventive coherence to it that is not there in the Rauschenburg. Working on big scales is very demanding (he would know more than most and clearly can spot it when things are not really happening). The visual stamina needed is exposed as lacking in “Ace”. It needed to be taken around the block a few times, rather than down to the diner and back. Many of the other works with the signature screen prints are immediate, slick and sexy with Popish references: a spaceman, weightlifters , JFK…”blown away, what else do I have to say”. Where they once jumped , now it’s more of a trip (probably literally to some) Picasso is much more athletic. Cézanne is positively Olympian and still hugely important for me and getting more so. The forces in Cézanne tumble dry you. Everything is visceral, visual and you feel every coloured brushstroke, building outwards. Work in this show closes inwards. Objects have a tendency to age badly, coloured cardboard and graphic design as art seems jaded now – if you remember seeing it back in the day, you couldn’t have seen it… back in the day.

Monet’s Nympheas paintings also have a closing in quality. They really feel like paintings – great big, juicy paintings by a master painter yet I for one am not pulled about by them. I love seeing them whetever the weather but I am not grabbed by them or feel that they build outwards, like Cézanne. Matisse owned a Cézanne for 38 years, drew his strength from it, yet he didn’t pinch its vernacular in the way that Braque and Picasso did. Clues are clues and nobody can say where they can be found though – it’s how one responds I suppose. 

Morris Louis was my hero as a student and I am still a huge fan of his work, not really the veils I’m afraid Carl. As lovely as many of these works are, they never really grabbed me. I remember leafing through a book in my first year as an undergrad and seeing a Louis poured work “While” I think and looking slightly bemused at it and remembering ‘not’ rejecting it. He made some wonderful paintings (The Stripes are my favourites) and the Unfurleds are so distinctive, but that rarefied approach can’t be taken anywhere really – the ambition to bear down on one’s materials and colour can though. He’s a touchstone and you find your clues – there are some things going on in Rauschenberg too. He’s no mug and with the healthy dose of critical scrutiny you find surprising moments of engagement – you have to be generous in your looking to be generous in your making.