Earlier this year Robert Rauschenberg’s famous visual narrative, “The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” – the longest artwork ever made – was exhibited in its entirety for the first time. It was not shown in Texas, where Rauschenberg was born, nor in New York where he worked as a young man after the war and became close to Jasper Johns, nor even on Captiva – the island off the coast of Florida where he ended his days. It was displayed in Beijing at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Philip Tinari, UCCA’s director, knew his history and was convinced that the show would help persuade visitors that Rauschenberg was the first global contemporary artist.
In 1985 Rauschenberg became the first Western artist to exhibit in communist China. For the Chinese who had been raised on a diet of Soviet-style socialist realism, the show was a breath of fresh air. Ask any artist of a certain age – Xu Bing, former vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, or Qiu Zhijie, chief curator of the 2012 Shanghai Bienniale, for instance – and they can tell you just how the exhibition was hung at the National Museum of China on the east side of Tiananmen Square. “We had never seen anything like it,” Qiu says.
In considering America’s post-war artists, Rauschenberg has always been overshadowed by Andy Warhol, the man most Westerners see as the bellwether of the art world and the prism through which Western art of the past half-century is always viewed. But this may be about to change. A new exhibition, opening first at Tate Modern in London before travelling to MoMA in New York and San Francisco, will argue that Rauschenberg’s work was the compass that first showed where contemporary art was heading.
Nearly four decades before Damien Hirst put a sheep in a tank, Rauschenberg made an artwork out of a stuffed goat (pictured above). It sits inside a rubber tyre on a canvas plinth, its eyes as baleful as its watery successor’s. Fifty years before Sarah Sze filled galleries with the detritus of daily life, Rauschenberg chose the dustcart duties at Black Mountain College so he could gather up rubbish for artworks. The year Glenn Ligon was born, Rauschenberg put Dante in white boxer shorts in his illustrated version of the “Divine Comedy”. (Ligon, in 2000, put lipstick and blue eyeshadow onto a portrait of Malcolm X.) Humble available materials; paintings that morph into sculptures and almost walk off the wall; collages filled with the politics and preoccupations of the present day; performances that blend dance, music and imagery; projects that fuse technology and art: all the values, aesthetics and processes of contemporary art are there in Rauschenberg’s earliest work.
With its panels of oils, newsclippings, photographs and funny found objects, “The ¼ Mile”, on which Rauschenberg worked for 17 years, functions more as an experiential time-piece than a flat-work series, the 190 panels a stop-frame animation as you move past. It’s as close as you can come to a diary of his life, which began in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas – a town he escaped as soon as he could.
Rauschenberg worked with whatever was around him; his world was his art, which was far removed from the isolated, temperamental and fiercely heterosexual Abstract Expressionists who dominated the New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s. If Mark Rothko’s mesmerising colour studies are about total disembodiment – the angst-ridden pysche in paint – Rauschenberg’s “Combines” made around the same time were created from clothing, photographs, even taxidermy, like a life lived. “Bed”, from 1955, is a quilt, pillow and splashes of paint, hung on the wall. Six decades on, it still feels like a body has just stepped out of it. And while Warhol, with his superficial cynicism and co-opting of consumerism, turned objects and logos into ironic reflections on the times, Rauschenberg made them into existential truths instead. His “Gluts”, made in the 1980s, uses the fruit of junkyards – car bumpers, road signs, oil drums – to suggest the decadence of post-war profligacy, albeit in an exuberant way.
Perhaps because of his dyslexia, constant communication and collaboration seem to have been crucial to Rauschenberg’s work. Information was traded through, and ideas emerged from, conversations.
Rauschenberg was upbeat. He was a beneficiary of the GI Bill, which enabled him to study in Paris. He was taught by Josef Albers, a disciplinarian Jewish emigré who introduced him to the craft and rigour of the Bauhaus school. As an American in the 1950s, he could easily afford to travel in north Africa (where he also worked for a while in construction) and later to Rome, where he met Alberto Burri, an influential Italian painter drawn to sackcloth and plastic, and carried on an intense relationship with Cy Twombly. He witnessed the birth of television (on Captiva, several screens would be on at once, providing a continual stream of fresh imagery), lived through the cold war, saw the first Moon landing and railed against the Vietnam war. Both the optimism and the battles of the times can be found in his work.
Touring with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1960s and designing sets for its performances to John Cage’s minimalist compositions further fuelled Rauschenberg’s interest in the world outside America. In 1984 he set up the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), and defined it as a peace mission. He worked in ten countries, many of which, including Castro’s Cuba, had ideologies opposed to America’s. His exhibition in Beijing in 1985 was a ROCI project too; more than 300,000 people saw it in just 18 days and its legacy prevails. It showed what art could be.
Huang Yong Ping, now 61 and a French citizen, immediately went on to set up a group known as the Xiamen Dada; Song Dong, then 19 and a student of oil painting, moved into performance and ephemeral installation art.
In Beijing, as elsewhere, Rauschenberg tore up the rule book. We’re all still catching up.