ART REVIEW : Enlightening Look at Early Rauschenberg


Between 1954 and the mid 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg created an extraordinary body of work that became a principal pivot for postwar art. In it the painter asked: For a fading industrial world increasingly filled with the fleeting images of an evanescent mass culture, what is the utility of painting?

The question had informed Rauschenberg’s work almost from the start. His famous “Erased de Kooning Drawing” of 1953 is a good example. A drawing in ink and crayon by the most painterly of the new breed of Abstract Expressionist artists--and a European immigrant to boot--the De Kooning sketch represented the kind of armature on which Western painting had been constructed since the Renaissance. When Rauschenberg erased it--then carefully matted, labeled and framed the blanked-out sheet in a gold leaf frame--it was like exalting the eradication of the sturdy foundations on which a building normally would stand.

The “Erased de Kooning Drawing” is among the chief pleasures of “Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s,” an important exhibition of nearly 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, collages, assemblages and prints made between the spring of 1949 and the summer of 1954. Organized by Walter Hopps for the Menil Collection in Houston, the show has now been given a spacious and elegant installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it completes a tour that already has included Washington and Chicago. Of all the exhibitions that have toured in the past season, this is the one that should be lamented most for not having come to Los Angeles.


It isn’t just that Rauschenberg settled in L.A. for a year or so after discharge from the Navy in 1945, or that his first epiphany in art came from seeing the lush and romantic 18th-Century English portraits at San Marino’s Huntington Art Gallery.

More important, the 11 “combine paintings” owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art (which date from 1955 to 1961) form the most significant collection of Rauschenberg’s pivotal work in any American museum. Throughout the exhibition in San Francisco, you find yourself mentally reading backward from the classic combines (and the subsequent silk-screen paintings) to the work before you from the early 1950s. What an opportunity it would have been to see the combines in MOCA’s collection with their immediate predecessors!

Hopps also organized the great Rauschenberg retrospective in 1976, and his knowledge of the artist’s full career has been brought to bear on this highly focused examination of a five-year period. (The catalogue is indispensable.) Certain omissions are notable--and painful, especially at the end of this intimately detailed show. Having been through selections of the notorious “white paintings” executed at Black Mountain College in 1951; assorted “black paintings,” made in different ways between 1951 and 1953; and a few of the small 1953 “gold paintings,” with their fragile surfaces of torn gold leaf, it’s a disappointment to come to the brink of the great combines and find a sizable hole: The “red paintings” of 1953-54 are poorly represented.

The loss isn’t fatal--especially with powerfully resonant works like the erased De Kooning on the premises. It’s important to point out that this sheet of paper isn’t totally blank. Faint traces of ink and crayon in De Kooning’s familiarly vigorous style can still be detected.

Presumably Rauschenberg had selected an ink and crayon drawing, not a pencil one, because erasing the foundation of an entire artistic discipline had to manifest a certain degree of difficulty and effort. Like a pale ghost passing across the page, the faint array of marks that remain is a fragile yet distinct acknowledgment of loss--and, ironically, of a commitment to tradition, too. Rauschenberg’s deft inversion of a standard creative gesture was not a bolt from nowhere; in order to have full meaning, the “Erased de Kooning Drawing” required a thorough understanding of what had come before.

Likewise, the modus operandi of “Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s” is to focus on the scantily known foundations of the artist’s subsequent achievement. Much of the work in this assembly--made while a student at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, in Rome or in North Africa during the time he spent with painter Cy Twombly, and in Rauschenberg’s shabby Fulton Street studio in New York--has been shown only rarely, and some has never before been on view.

But, it’s fundamental to a full grasp of the nature and significance of the mature work he began in 1954.

Make no mistake: This is a show of often brash and unresolved work by a decidedly young and rapidly evolving artist. (Rauschenberg was just 23 when, in 1949, he made the bound suite of woodcut prints that is the earliest piece in the show.) His art is all over the map, darting here, looking there, experimenting with this and that, returning to things that had been set aside to have another go. Rarely are those manifold endeavors fully resolved.

Still, the implications for what was to come are everywhere in evidence--nowhere more than in the all-white paintings from 1951. The blank canvases initially caused an uproar because, flatly painted with ordinary house paint, the paintings seemed to some a silly joke--a kind of “unclothed Emperor” hoax. Shown here with a sizable selection of Rauschenberg’s abundant photographic work, including the body prints he made with artist Susan Weil by lying on blueprint paper and exposing it to light, no such jokiness emerges.

Clearly, in the white canvases Rauschenberg is thinking of painting in terms of undeveloped photographic paper. They’re just waiting for the light and shadow of ordinary life to fall across their surfaces, in ever-changing patterns.

The black paintings are a formal reversal of the white ones (conceptually akin, you could say, to the idea of erasing a drawing). In some, light-reflective black enamel has been loosely brushed over surfaces rudely pasted with what appear to be torn grocery bags. The result is tattered paintings that seem to be in a state of unstoppable decay--peeling, as if ancient or charred by fire.

Visually, they bear a striking resemblance to Aaron Siskind’s contemporaneous close-up photographs of ruined, paint-peeling walls. (Siskind was among Rauschenberg’s teachers at Black Mountain College.) The red paintings that follow thus assume a heightened drama: Here collaged with great strips of cloth, as well as bits of wood and newsprint, and slathered in runny crimson pigment, the paintings seem like heroic invalids wrapped in bloody bandages.

Side by side with these paintings, Rauschenberg was making small collages and assemblages of salvaged cast-offs. Many of these are very small--even tiny--and they have a talismanic feel, like a pocket charm or a momento mori .

Indeed, art conceived as a redemptive activity is pervasive in Rauschenberg’s work, where images (and processes) of suffering, death and resurrection are prominent. For this Baptist boy from small-town Texas, the ritual death of painting turned out to be essential to contemporary artistic rebirth.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 401 Van Ness Ave., (415) 252-4000, through Aug. 16. Closed Mondays.