In one of Robert Rauschenberg’s most famous works, Monogram (1955-59), a stuffed angora goat sits with a car tire around its body. It’s unconventional, to say the least: oddly charming, somewhat rebellious, a kind of artistic conundrum. The animal stands atop a horizontal abstract image, its mouth covered in paint, as though devouring and digesting colour. He is the subject of the art, while also partaking within it; he exists as both the medium and the creator. ‘He’ is not just the goat, but also Rauschenberg himself.
Indeed, when it comes to introducing an artist as monumental as Rauschenberg, it’s easiest to let the art speak for itself. In a career that spanned six decades, his output and his influence on the course of American art and beyond is perhaps easy to underestimate, but one of extraordinarily creative and experimental breadth. In his first full-scale retrospective since his death in 2008, the Tate Modern pays particular testament to the relentlessness of his innovation and the grandeur of his versatility.
For Rauschenberg, art had no bounds. According to him, ‘there is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting.’ He began his career in the early 1950s, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, but was more interested in the fluidity than the universality of meaning which preoccupied the artists of the time. Instead, along with peers such as Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg’s ideas fell within Neo-Dadaism, a movement which found artistic expression within popular culture and the everyday, and led to the later rise of Pop Art.
From his earliest days studying at the Black Mountain College, his attempts at discovering new techniques and pushing boundaries are relentless. His all-black and all-white paintings tested the limits of abstraction; he commissioned a painting by de Kooning with the sole purpose of attempting to obliterate it; he discovered ways of transferring drawings across different surfaces using lighter fluid, and began to make paintings with silkscreens at the same time as Andy Warhol.
This unique and yet evolving aesthetic stemmed from a fervent belief about the nature of art and the role of the artist: ‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to act in that gap between the two.’ Nothing fell beyond the scope of art, and as in works such as Untitled (1983), he assembles together ordinary materials, recycled or even picked up as junk. Neither did he restrict himself to paint, or even a single medium. His oeuvre encompasses sculpture, photography, digital printing and performance, often blending them in what he referred to as ‘combines’ to create three-dimensional pieces of art.
This constant dialogue between materials, techniques and ideas results in a rich and dynamic body of work. Rauschenberg is rightly considered a crucial figure in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to later modern movements, with an aesthetic that both reuses the techniques of his predecessors and sowed the seeds for future contemporary artists. In Bed (1955), for example, he merges painting and sculpture by turning his bedsheets into a canvas, an idea which Tracey Emin would take further over 40 years later, and throws paint across them in the style of Pollock and de Kooning.
With such prolific body of work by such a multifaceted artist, this exhibition could have been laid out in any number of ways. Here, the rooms are organised to each represent a new technique or mode of working, which cleverly emphasises the inventive, unpredictable approach with which Rauschenberg embraced each new decade. In popular culture terms, you might think of him as the Madonna of the art world, forever adapting in response to the times. I can’t recall another artist whose work demonstrates such sheer, open inquisitiveness.
According to art historian Robert Rosenblum, ‘Every artist after 1960 who challenged the restrictions of painting and sculpture and believed that all of life was open to art is indebted to Robert Rauschenberg’. It’s a bold assertion – but as this exhibition alerts us to how far Rauschenberg’s creative powers extend beyond the walls of the Tate, one which rings true. An artist truly ahead of his time.