Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Little Indecision

Monumental? Not so much. Personal? Naah… Evocative? No, not at all. To the average visitor to the Menil Collection these days the exhibit furthest to the left- past the vitrines of Tlingit masks - must seem like an irritating joke. Wandering through what seems to be a bunch of cardboard boxes nailed to the wall or rolled in sand and set piled on the floor must be a frustrating experience for anyone looking for the Picassos. Maybe a little lyricality permeates this disdain constructed by a perception of worth through traditional materials. The rhythmic placement of familiar, throwaway forms needs a bit of attention to be appreciated, but recognizable forms like airplanes emerge in Nabisco Shredded Wheat and Bende de Sureté / Twin City / Nipples. Centrally focused rectangular works hold a picture plane, even if the image is made by staple holes, masking tape and the name CASTELLI. Maybe it seems pathetic- even to someone familiar with the blistering juxtaposition of images central to Rauschenberg’s Combines of the 1960s. Imperceptible to viewers is the process of the artist; moving away from New York, living on an island, at a time when he could have rested on his laurels and reproduced his acclaimed images in luxurious retirement.

Even before entering the cul-de-sac darkened gallery one has the chance to compare an equally massive Northwest American Indian tapestry with Rauschenberg’s Radiant White / 952, a sprawling narrative of boxes dismantled and distressed but without obvious trace of the artist’s hand. With a little bit of backing up one can see the two large works at once, both narratives not tailored to be preserved in museums under ideal conditions. The former work’s transcendent nature is established anthropologically as one in a series- this painting will decay and be repainted, recreated. While Rauschenberg’s intent was to have his work sold and preserved he could not have known how long his compositions would last. The usually enlivening natural light provided by the unique ceiling of the Renzo Piano designed building is cut off here in the Cardboards and Related Pieces exhibit to preserve the dangerous state of color in the medium. They are all mounted on plywood and have a matte fixative coating- both steps Rauschenberg took to mitigate their susceptibility. Rauschenberg didn’t sell one at the initial opening in 1971. Quite a blow to the sustainability Robert has now shown through five decades of practice, this uncertain time in the artist’s career is demonstrated through the need to recover many of his paintings from European collectors in order to mount this exhibit. Why take such a radical, unreliable step at a peak of the artist’s career?

To historicize a bit some works like Untitled (cardboard) and several of the Venetians look back at Eva Hesse’s relation to the floor and flexible materials; and Lake Placid / Glori-Fried / Yarns from New England seems to look to Joseph Beuys with the impression of a narrative emerging from a simple staff into real space. Rauschenberg did not veer far from the path of thought he had helped forge in New York in the 1960s. Nearly monochrome paintings were the artist’s forte after he left Black Mountain College in the 50s with a bit of a Joseph Albers hangover, so the solid sandy-mud brown of cardboard filling space was not foreign territory to him- perhaps reflecting on Donald Judd’s writing about space as well. Some of those early monochrome paintings hang with the Picassos on the other side of the building. The beaten, pliable, very human cardboard varied much from Minimalist work; and distress was never cleverly hidden in the Combines the artist constructed in the debris-filled streets of New York, as the world convulsed with the upheaval of the 1960s. To paint all of these influences with an imperceptible brush Rauschenberg deconstructed himself on Captiva Island. In the face of the impressive beauty of nature and without the typical discarded materiel of his last body of work in New York, Currents #55, the artist returned to impressions of Albers’ vibrant reductive paintings, finding his own vernacular in his environment and in clarity of composition.

The first body of work, from 1971, is labeled under the subset (cardboards), and these painting take up the first four or so galleries- mixed slightly with the Venetians of 1972-3. Angularity is the mode here; Rauschenberg constructs rectangular picture planes for some works. They are missing the negative space of the more sculptural narratives and uneven rhythms of some longer, more complex works demanding the wall behind them be seen as a ground. Reaching out from the wall in regular, referenced heights determined by the material, boxes become vessels, voids, pyramids and towers. In the opening gallery on your left Gun Tackers / Skin Pack / Brushes / ITT / Glass holds serene service over the rest of the room with a centralized trinity of large boxes; several smaller boxes crowd together suspended by twine reaching up for the downward open end of the central box. Entering the second gallery the brilliant color of Volon is uncharacteristic of the typical cardboard box. The work reveals a bit of its brown undercarriage in wear and tear- illuminating the earthy qualities of the large expanses of cardboard in the rest of the exhibit through sharp contrast thrown by the color as a highlight in an expanse of aqua blue. Also in this gallery is a familiar work to the regular Menil visitor, National Spinning / Red / Spring, which is owned by the Collection and has resided next door to the Warhols in the museum for the last two years.

As Rauschenberg obsessively focused on his medium in 1971, he began to consider the banal branding, record-keeping and shipping labels worthy of a little tweaking. First hand-printed pieces of torn tape and distressed labels appeared in the Cardbird boxes; the artist focusing on the reproduction of an object most would ignore as detritus or actively discard as waste. I imagine someone threw out one or two of the works as they were first introduced, and I hope Rauschenberg laughed his ass off at his own absurdity. In another experiment, the decidedly smaller Tampa Clay Pieces appear without the epic construction of the larger wall pieces, even more boring. Going to throw out one of the pieces would shock the hell out of you though- the heavy unglazed clay is molded and colored perfectly to simulate a much lighter material, the cognitive snippet of an illegible label adds to the object’s throwaway appearance. Both groups of work were made in small editions with the help of artisans, experimenting with printmakers at Gemini G.E.L for the Cardbirds and Graphicstudio Florida on the Tampa Clay to figure out how to create them.

Concurrent with such an investigation into his material, Rauschenberg moved forward with his minimal compositions by embracing emotional curves and more fluid materials. Nastier trash. Trash that has been in a wet gutter for a week. Tar paper mashed into slashing amorphous brushstrokes. Sackcloth and soiled, wet cardboard mashed into turbulent waves and leathery skin. Usually titled Untitled (Venetian) although there are exceptions, this series was inspired by trips to the Roman city of Titian and Giorgione and their violence of expression and penchant for emotional outburst is alive in the crumbling, magically gruesome contextualization of worthless materiel lurking here in the darkened gallery.

Less connected by experience is the Untitled (Early Egyptian) series featured in the last (or the second) gallery in this circular exhibit. While the artist did want to travel to Egypt, he never did make it there, content to study in books and his own imagination the implications of early Egyptian art, artifacts and life. The resulting pieces carry the thought of a man slathering glue on ten-foot boxes and rolling them in the sand on a Florida beach, a whimsical construction for the most mystical of the cardboards. Behind utterly banal vertical constructions familiar to anyone who owns a garage. The artist painted hyper-neon colors that become light- a faint fluorescent glow- when the work is about eight inches from the wall. Peer around if the guards let you and the source of light is a flat plane of paint; either exposing the Early Egyptians as fake antiques or lending a mythic glow to what appears to be boxes covered in sand. Through the Venetians diverse found materials began to creep back into Rauschenberg’s mind, and a bicycle included in one Egyptian seems to signal the artist’s intention to return to the land of imagery after purging from his work the very thing that made his career in the 60s after four years.

Hopefully a cathartic period in the artist’s career, the early 70s were a painful time for much of the progressive movements and utopians of the previous decade. Hunter S. Thompson put it vividly; “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Much of the art world felt the same sentiment; political artwork grew sharper and harsher than Rauschenberg’s collages and Combines that won him the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1964. Minimalism and Conceptualism tried to wipe imagery and the object off of the map. Painting was dead, as it has been many times since. Though Rauschenberg’s work received quite amiable criticism at its introduction in ’71, it was not the success his previous work had established. It has been thirty years and only now are the Cardboards receiving retrospective attention.

Are we “filling in” the artist’s career by exploiting his lesser works? I like the show too much to agree with that, and it seems perhaps very relevant to art now. Cardboard has grown in acceptance as an art medium in the meantime, as has impermanence in general. Making the world more real by exploiting perceptual and conceptual breakdowns, or “a filter to make it look more real”, is appreciated and these Cardboards benefit from that. Radical restrictions and the resulting focus of imagination or clarity is a focus of contemporary work by artists like Andrea Zittel and Lars Van Trier’s films. Hell, it was even on Oprah last week. Rauschenberg started off where anyone does; you begin with the possibilities of the material. The image of JFK floating under an astronaut is lodged in art history as these cardboard constructions will never be, but in the frame of our new century this group of works evoke the complexity of even the simplest of structures and an exercise of impermanence that we can see reflected widely and often in art today. Perhaps the preservation of objects, ideas and artwork is the responsibility of the art world- not in making them permanent, but in constantly remolding the object in our eyes. The boxes will one day be archaic, the labels are already nostalgic. While they are still within our grasp as ordinary objects they evoke a strong disdain for the commodity of it all, especially important to be preserved by the institution.