Friday, November 4, 2016

Robert Rauschenberg—Salvage, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Marais

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Robert Rauschenberg, Rollings (Salvage), 1984
Continuing on my Autumn of American postwar modernist painting, today I went to Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac’s Marais space for their appetizer to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern, opening December 1. It’s called Salvage, a cryptic title that could be taken in a number of different directions. Of all the postwar American artists, Rauschenberg is probably the one I am least familiar with. Not because his work doesn’t interest me, but more because of circumstance. I haven’t seen a lot of his work since the MoMA retrospective in 2000. 
Robert Rauschenberg, Shade (Salvage), 1984
Salvage is a series of works made in 1984, but there is something about the images that makes me want to see the 1960s salvaged from the shelves of history. There is something, not nostalgic, but many traces of the lost past in both the things that are seen in the images and in Rauschenberg’s technique of silkscreening and overpainting. The remnants of the past in the images are obvious – old cars, statues, old photos, death by hanging, and worlds that have emptied out and become ghost like. In the techniques Rauschenberg uses the past is more difficult to pinpoint. I see the past, for example, in the not fully articulated–ness that results from the screen print process. The visible traces of a blade or squeegee pulled across the screen so easily translate to the remnants of a lost past. In addition, I immediately associate the technique with Warhol and Rauschenberg’s work in the 1960s. Thus, in my mind, even the technique is from another era. And because it’s got the reference to Warhol, I see death everywhere – the repetition of the press photograph ad infinitum, that can only ever indicate emptiness and superficiality. Plus, in the pictures in Salvage there are skulls, tyres hanging from hooks that immediately bring up ideas of lynching, next to a stenciled photograph of black faces. 
Robert Rauschenberg, Razzle Down (Salvage), 1984
I was struck by the relative sparsity of the painted canvas. There is a thinness of paint, especially because we, or I, immediately think The Combines when I think of Rauschenberg. His most famous works are cluttered, filled with things and objects, they are canvases that have things pasted onto them and extend well beyond the frame. Here in Salvage the flatness of screen printing is exacerbated by their contrast to our expectations. Despite the flatness and sparsity, my overwhelming response to Salvage was one of sensing their anger. Again, the anger is generated by the reproduction of violence and decayed scenes from the newspaper. But in addition, there is a proliferation of fences, barbed wire, icons, flags, cars—old, decayed smashed up. Over the top, thin and sometimes thicker layers of overpainting work to mask, erase, and cohere the fragments underneath. It is as though the anger is alleviated by overpainting. However, we interpret them, Rauschenberg’s work retains a political edge, if in a traditional form, that makes these images just as relevant today.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bumpter (Salvage), 1984

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