Now that I've been trying to acquire a grounding on art theory (if you're looking for a primer I would wholeheartedly recommend Richard Osborne's and Natalie Turner's Art Theory for Beginners and/or Cynthia Freeland's Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction) I was extremely interested to visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern (01/12/2016 – 01/04/2017).
The loose assemblage of ideas known as Postmodernism (which are considered to have held sway roughly from the early 1970s onwards) systematically subverted, not just the Modernist project, but the very basics of the idea of art that had reigned supreme in the West since at least the Renaissance (with a few exceptions like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists which, more than anything, seemed to confirm the rule). A key component of the traditional view was the notion of authorship- That the creative process was a solemn endeavour undertaken by one or more individuals, carefully considering every decision and every ingredient that went into the whole in order to produce an object of artistic purity.
As brilliantly shown in the Tate exhibition, Texas-born artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), decisively influenced by his studies at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina (under the direction of former Bauhaus member Josef Albers), set off from the start to undermine this notion of authorship as well as traditional ideas on art making and art presentation. The first room of the exhibition shows Rauschenberg in the 1950s experimenting with arrangements of found objects, producing an artwork by inking up the rear tire of composer John Cage's car and having him drive over a very long piece of paper, and asking Willem de Kooning for a drawing and erasing it to create a new piece (titled simply Erased de Kooning Drawing).
The following rooms of the exhibition show Rauschenberg (who was determined to keep breaking new ground, as opposed to just becoming known for one strand of work and repeating himself ad nauseam) subverting received notions about art and art making in new and inventive ways. Rather than producing art that was pure and heroic, he picked garish and discordant elements from daily life (leftover bits of wood and metal, electrical appliances, a stuffed goat and a car tyre for his 1955-59 piece Monogram) and combined them in his paintings, often to withering criticism from an art world that was dominated at the time in the US by abstract expressionist painters (very much representative of the heroic tradition, see my notes here on the recent blockbuster exhibition on Abstract Expressionism at London's Royal Academy of Arts). Challenging the notion of creating pieces to be presented to viewers in a traditional way, at one point (with his Combines) Rauschenberg turned the act of painting into the artwork itself, creating pieces in front on an audience to a set time limit. Rauschenberg's interest in performance (documented in detail in the exhibition) is another extension of his pushing back the boundaries of art making, turning his actions and those of his fellow performers into the product to be presented to the audience.
In 1971 Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island, off the coast of Florida. His work from that time onwards, whilst compelling, feels less revolutionary, as if he was done making the big statements that had rocked the art world fifteen years previously (one could say that the times had finally caught up with him). Rauschenberg remained a socially engaged artist and, in 1984, he founded the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI, pronounced as Rocky, the name of his pet turtle), an initiative which saw him travelling to and engaging with audiences in countries where he felt artistic expression was being suppressed.
I think if I enjoyed this exhibition so much was because Rauschenberg was obviously much more than a conceptual artist. For someone so determined to subvert traditional notions of art, he had a highly developed aesthetic and compositional sense which he put into his work. His pieces may be anti-art, but they are also beautiful. That was his genius.