Though London is in pre-Christmas gridlock, making it difficult to go anywhere that can’t be reached on foot, there are some important shows to be seen, including the remarkable Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery (until 15 January if you can get through the traffic to Trafalgar Square). Though it has only a handful of the naughtiest-painter-ever’s pictures, it is a wonderful exploration of work by his followers, of Caravaggism.
And you can ignore the feebleness of this year’s Christmas lights displays in the West End, and try instead to fight your way to see a pair of major American-themed exhibitions. I’ve written already about the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy, and Tate Modern’s huge Robert Rauschenberg show (until 2 April, when it goes to MoMA New York and on to San Francisco) is its logical and historical sequel.
Rauschenberg (1925-2008) began his artistic career at the acme of the careers of the abstract expressionist painters, in the 1950s, challenging them and the medium of paint equally. The first room at Tate begins with exposed light sensitive paper images of him and his about-to-be wife, Susan Weil, and contains both a black painting and a white painting, as well as the notorious “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (not vandalism, but the first stirrings of conceptual art) and the “Automobile Tire Print” made by driving an old car with an inked tire across 20 sheets of paper. There are also works made in collaboration with Cy Twombly and John Cage, with whom he had relationships following the amicable end of his marriage; and vitrines containing all sorts of bits and bobs, including his “Scatole personali” personal boxes with feathers, twigs, beetles, earth, pins, pebbles and thorns, all a bit home-made, and presaging so much of what the international art world would get up to ten years later.
The curators have been lucky, or very convincing, or both, but they have even persuaded the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, to lend his stuffed goat encircled by a rubber tire, “Monogram 1955-59″, which hasn’t been seen in the UK for half a century; as well as MoMA’s “Bed 1955”; and the Swedish museum’s totally zany “Mud Muse 1968-71.” This last is a vast tank, 12 feet long and 9 feet wide, filled with 1,000 gallons of water-logged Bentonite clay, which burbles, bubbles, belches and farts, triggered by its own sounds, so that it is a self-perpetuating artistic swamp – a sort of Modernist’s mudbath.
Rauschenberg was a collaborative artist and the show does justice to his projects with Cage, with Merce Cunningham and with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. As an artist Rauschenberg not only got his hands dirty (figuratively and literally) but even appeared as a dancer in addition to creating sets and costumes. In this he was in at the beginning of the happenings movement that prefigured performance art.
With all this busy-ness, it comes as a shock to see a couple of rooms of what appear at first to be traditional graphics. One is of almost transcendent beauty – his 1958 illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. But nothing is simple for Rauschenberg. These turn out to be transfer drawings, made when he discovered that, as the brochure says, “by applying lighter fluid to a magazine clipping and rubbing the back of it with an empty ballpoint pen, he could transfer the image onto another sheet of paper.” Thus Dante’s angels become astronauts and uniformed riot cops his demons. The muted colours make these breathtakingly ethereal. In the next room are his statement-making silkscreens of the 1960s, with their images of the assassinated President, combined with printed imagery, and urgent brushwork gestures – so impressive that they won him the gold medal for painting at the Venice Biennale – the first American to win it, to the outrage of some of the American art establishment.
You might think from this brief account that Rauschenberg was an artist who was always changing his style and his mind. Nothing could be further from the truth – his style, his practice, his art was catholic and encyclopaedic. This stunning show has made a convert of me – and you can get to Tate Modern by Tube.