Thursday, July 2, 2009

Robert Rauschenberg, Gilder, 1962 at the Menil

As a confirmed lover of everything grey, the Menil Collection down the street from the Rothko Chapel was like a dream come true. Even before we stepped inside the museum itself, everything around us was grey: the wooden bungalows in the tree lined street, and even the squirrels crowding around the door of the Twombly Gallery waiting for peanuts were grey grey grey. Renzo Piano’s building is grey, the carpet in the upstairs offices is grey and there is a surfeit of grey paintings on the walls.

Of the many discoveries of the day in grey was an unknown (for me) Robert Rauschenberg painting: Gilder, from 1962. Gilder is painted in an interstitial period in Rauschenberg’s career: historically it sits between the works in a single color – black, white, and later, red – and the better known combines of the sixties and seventies. And, like most things in grey, this interstitial status is translated into stasis, disinterest, and on the way to something else, not of great significance in and of itself. Works such as Gilder have not attracted the attention of better known ones. perhaps for this reason. Of course, they haven’t, they are executed in grey.

Gilder sits on a wall, appropriately, opposite Rauschenberg's flamboyant and loud Holiday Ruse (Night Shade), 1991, an enormous "acrylic and tarnishes on Aluminium", and one of Warhol’s grey screenprints, Little Race Riot, from 1962. Gilder’s place on the walls of the Menil reflects other aspects of its identity. Somewhere between painting and screenprint, Rauschenberg both paints and prints, as well as transfers photographs to canvas, and breaks the surface with his characteristic use of stencils and charcoal. The painting both looks back to the single color canvases because it is executed in a spectrum of greys, and it looks forward to the combines with its sense of collage, the introduction of the ordinary, newspapers, photographs, and other everyday objects onto the canvas – if only in two dimensional representation.

As such, occuppying this interstice between painting and combine, the work references Rauschenberg’s increasing interest in media of reproduction, mass cultural objects, the identity of the nation (the common reference to the USA is here executed through a stencil on a postage stamp). At the same time, it is tentative, a tentativity we see best in the loose strokes of the brush, scattered around the canvas. There is a slather of light grey paint that covers the bottom half of the right hand side of the canvas, and numerous instances of four or five connected strokes of paint, as though he is testing out the color and how it looks, making a swatch of the paint. It is as though something is being worked out on this canvas, something is not yet finished, the artist still unsure of where he is going. I wonder if this is indeed a characteristic of Rauschenberg’s paintings in general? Before the combines that is? Certainly, this tentativity is in stark contrast to the certitude, the force and power of Jasper Johns’ Voice in the next room. Rauschenberg drifts onto and away from this canvas, he is sometimes present, at others, the painting dissolves, as though he has forgotten it. It is as though he has moved on to other things, another phase in his career.

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