At the Glass House, another side of Robert Rauschenberg
NEW CANAAN — Art lovers have a little over two weeks left to see some of Robert Rauschenberg’s works which currently line the walls of the Glass House’s Painting Gallery in New Canaan and, so far, the exhibit has been met by a good deal of surprise by the viewing public.
“When I went up and spoke to a group of 30 or so people at the Glass House in May, a gentleman came up to me afterward and said, ‘I thought I knew Rauschenberg’s work, but this is unfamiliar to me.’ Rauschenberg was so prolific and so varied in what he did, for some people this show is an eye-opener,” said David White, the senior curator at the Rauschenberg Foundation and the intellectual powerhouse behind the New Canaan show.
The exhibition, “Robert Rauschenberg: Spreads and Related Works,” highlights a selection of six little-known, mid-career works—including one, “Recital,” which is part of the Glass House permanent collection—created by the modern art titan, a painter, sculptor, photographer and printmaker whose breadth of work, versatility and inventive use of materials do not lend themselves easily to classification.
Rauschenberg, a Texas-born painter and graphic designer, found success in 1950s and 1960s New York on the heels of abstract expressionism and in advance of the pop art movement. The works shown at the Glass House were created in the years following a 1976 retrospective of his oeuvre at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C.
Four of the six pieces come from Rauschenberg’s “Spread” series. The series, White said, is, in a sense, a rethinking of Rauschenberg’s earlier “Combines,” made in the 1960s, which blurred the line between painting and sculpture, and, like Marcel Duchamp’s landmark “Ready Mades” that preceded them, sought to recontextualize seemingly ordinary objects.
“He used all materials. That’s what’s key to Rauschenberg,” Christa Carr, of the Glass House, reflected recently at the gallery. “He used plastic, newspaper, old tires. He used to go outside his building, go around the block and anything he saw he’d pick up and make art out of it. He thought that anything can be art, anything can be reinterpreted.”
As soon as one enters the crypt-like Painting Gallery, which is built into the Glass House’s sloping front lawn, Rauschenberg’s reinterpretations are evident. In “Recital,” a white fan blossoms flower-like out of a blue square of fabric near the center of the work and in “Bow,” two wooden panels are separated vertically by what White suggests may be a piece of driftwood that washed up near Rauschenberg’s Captiva Island, Fla., home.
“These are not late ‘Combines’ by any stretch of imagination, but they look like they might well have been Bob’s later response to looking at some earlier work,” White said.
Elsewhere in the works, transferred imagery from magazines and newspapers factors heavily.
“Robert had lots of subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. He’d go through and clip images and sort them according to various categories, like sports figures, nature, industry,” White said.
Once he had removed the images from their source, Rauschenberg would spray the images with a solvent and place them face down on paper, leaving an imprint of the writing or image in reverse on his work.
These images and writings often juxtapose natural and human themes with industrial and technological ones in a chaotic battle for prominence within the work. In “Recital,” mechanical images and pictures of human faces are assembled around the jutting white fan.
The collision of opposing forces, coupled with Rauschenberg’s outspoken views on climate change, could influence some viewers to seek a latent message planted by the artist, but White cautions against any such interpretive quest.
“Often Rauschenberg didn’t have a preconceived composition worked out. One thing could lead to another. He would put one object down and it would suggest something else,” White explained. “It’s hard to know the order that any of it came together, but he was not trying to tell any story.”
Crucially, Rauschenberg saw the spectator as an active participant in the artistic process.
“Each viewer has their own memories, recollections, ideas that they bring to an artwork when they step in front of it,” White said. “Rauschenberg often was quoted as saying that he felt every artwork, even when it was finished and it had left the studio, was actually completed by the viewer.”
Visitors to the Glass House have until Monday, Aug. 15 to experience the exhibit for themselves.