Retrospective

‘Nothing Will Make It Pretty’: Reviews of Robert Rauschenberg’s Solo Shows From the ARTnews Archives

John Ashbery, Irving Sandler, Jill Johnston, and more on the artist's work

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983, solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, umbrellas. ©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983, solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, umbrellas.

©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK

By the time Robert Rauschenberg died in 2008, at the age of 82, his reputation as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century had been cemented for decades. Rauschenberg brought elements of everyday life—a taxidermy goat, some newspaper, light bulbs—into painting, and in doing so he helped alter the course of art history. Last week, Tate Modern in London opened the first full Rauschenberg retrospective since his death. To mark the occasion, reviews of Rauschenberg’s shows from the 1950s and ’60s from the ARTnews archives are printed below. They show that, from almost the very beginning of Rauschenberg’s career, critics knew that his work was important. But what kind of artist was he? An Abstract Expressionist, a Pop artist, something else? The critics couldn’t decide, and still today these debates continue. —Alex Greenberger

“Reviews and previews”
By Dorothy Seckler
May 1951

Robert Rauschenberg [Parsons; May 14-June 11], who studied at Black Mountain College and the Art Students League, in his first one man show offers large-scale, usually white-grounded canvases naïvely inscribed with a weaving and whimsical geometry. On vast and often heavily painted expanses, a wispy calligraphy is sometimes added to thin abstract patterns and in other instances collage is introduced, either to provide textural effects—as in the picture whose ground is made entirely of road maps—or to suggest a very tenuous associational content. Prices unquoted.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (double Rauschenberg), ca. 1950, exposed blue paper. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SUSAN WEIL/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (double Rauschenberg), ca. 1950, exposed blue paper.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SUSAN WEIL/PRIVATE COLLECTION

“Reviews and previews”
By Frank O’Hara
January 1955

Bob Rauschenberg [Egan; to Jan. 18], enfant terrible of the New York School, is back again to even more brilliant effect—what he did to all-white and all-black in his last show and to nature painting with his controversial moss-dirt-and-ivy picture in the last Stable Annual, he tops in this show of blistering and at the same time poignant collages. Some of them seem practically room-size, and have various illuminations within them apart from their technical luminosity; bulbs flicker on and off, lights cast shadows, and lifting up a bit of pink gauze you stare out of the picture into your own magnified eye. He provides a means by which you, as well as he, can get “in” the painting. Doors open to reveal clearer images, or you can turn a huge wheel to change the effect at will. Many of the pieces are extrovert, reminiscent of his structure in the Merce Cunningham ballet, Minutiae, but not all are so wildly ingenious: other pieces, including two sex organs (male and female) made from old red silk umbrellas have a gentle and just passion for moving people. When you look back at the more ecstatic works they, too, have this quality not all overshadowed by their brio. For all the baroque exuberance of the show, quieter pictures evidence a serious lyrical talent; simultaneously, in the big inventive pieces there is a big talent at play, creating its own occasions as a stage does. Prices unquoted.

“Five shows out of the ordinary: Robert Rauschenberg”
By John Ashbery
March 1958

The junk that collects on New York City streets is used by Robert Rauschenberg to compose large canvases that sometimes look like walls in a house inhabited by very bad children. One painting in his latest show, at Castelli [March 3-22], The Bed, is a real bed whose quilt and pillow are caked with flung enamel, scribbled over with a pencil. Rebus is an enormous composition using a horizontal row of magazine photographs underlined by paint samples. It does not have the “Step along, please” feeling of a Schwitters collage; it is perfectly all right if you want to look at chuckle over the tabloid elements: that is entirely up to you. You also have the artist’s permission to get nothing out of looking at his paintings other than the marginal pleasure of being alive. But it is nevertheless impossible not to enjoy them and respond to them. Rauschenberg has what might be termed a “terrific talent”; he could be a sort of avant-garde Cocteau. Recent developments show that he is unwittingly or unwillingly forming a school of disciples. His latest paintings indicate that he is keeping well ahead of them in vast compositions which achieve a difficult serenity through the use of large square forms that are often just sheets of paper, smudged or almost pristine. It is this sense of plastic beauty that distinguishes him. In his small drawings he creates a mood of unbearable quiet with a pencil tracing of a smile or a glass of Coca-Cola, a piece of torn nylon, a stain. But he has not given up his early fireworks, as Interview and Satellite prove. The former is a shallow wooden closet lined with old photographs and such objects as a baseball, a paint-clotted fork, a brick suspended in front of someone else’s “genuine old painting” of palm trees; the latter is a scary mass of old bedding, doilies, funny papers and a stuffed pheasant clobbered with paint.

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955–59, oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque, rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters. ©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/MODERNA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM, PURCHASE WITH MODERNA MUSEETS VÄNNER AND THE FRIENDS OF MODERNA MUSEET

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955–59, oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque, rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters.

©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/MODERNA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM, PURCHASE WITH MODERNA MUSEETS VÄNNER AND THE FRIENDS OF MODERNA MUSEET

“Reviews and previews”
By Irving Sandler
April 1960

Robert Rauschenberg [Castelli; to April 16], in recent construction-collage-paintings, develops elements found in earlier works in new ways. He still uses the debris of the city with diabolic wit and delight. A ladder that divides one picture into two segments can be climbed; it provides one means of getting into a painting. But if Rauschenberg continues to make found objects more in terms of private sentiments and associations, more in terms of the environment from which they come—the street. The rawness of the city asserts itself increasingly in his work. The ugly, dirty piece of crumpled, junk metal “bulldozer drapery” that dominates Allegory may primp itself in a plastic mirror, but nothing will make it pretty. Newspaper illustrations and clippings have been largely replaced by big fragmented letters that seem to have been cut from peeling billboards. Content is ambiguous; it is no longer dependent on details which must be seen at close hand. One tends to stay away from the work. The letters and objects, such as the red umbrella in Allegory, work as color forms. Conversely, larger painted areas become object presences like the colors in a sign that has become too battered to read. In a different vein, the two knobs protruding from the surface of Radio Piece control three concealed synchronized radios that flood the room with noise. One’s attention is forced to the canvas which gets to resemble a multiple-image TV screen. Prices unquoted.

“Reviews and previews”
By Lawrence Campbell
January 1961

Robert Rauschenberg offers a remarkable sequence of small “pictures,” each one an illustration, or an illustrational continuum which one may read from top left to bottom right, of Dante’s Inferno. The series extends around the walls of the gallery with a written text below each work. Once one has learned to decipher Rauschenberg’s idiosyncrasies, one can follow Dante’s narrative through the images, but if one has no knowledge of the Inferno one will find in these works many interesting and poetic qualities—perhaps “fancies” is the better word. Rauschenberg is essentially a painter no matter what he does. He may use unusual materials, such as socks or neckties, but he doesn’t use these materials because they have certain qualities as material which he cannot find precisely in paint. He transforms his found-objects, and “found-objects” is the wrong word to use for them in view of his attitude toward them. He deliberately seeks out the things that interest him. In this series of works he has found Dante in the pages of glossy magazines and on the walls of the subway. It is as though he selected Betty Furness for his Beatrice. He has used these vapid images to create violently personal statements. He has done this, not by collage, as one might have expected, but by a transfer, a technique which destroys the original but in a controlled way transfers an image from one surface to the other, a trying and difficult technique involving considerable labor and much patience. With it he has grasped each canto and found the images to express it. It is an extremely poetic exhibition in more sense than one, or should one say, six? Prices unquoted.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, oil, pencil, toothpaste, and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt (previously owned by the artist Dorothea Rockburne), bedsheet mounted on wood supports. ©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/IMAGE: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, AND SCALA, FLORENCE/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF LEO CASTELLI IN HONOR OF ALFRED H. BARR, JR.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, oil, pencil, toothpaste, and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt (previously owned by the artist Dorothea Rockburne), bedsheet mounted on wood supports.

©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/IMAGE: THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, AND SCALA, FLORENCE/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF LEO CASTELLI IN HONOR OF ALFRED H. BARR, JR.

“Reviews and previews”
By Jack Kroll
December 1961

Robert Rauschenberg [Castelli; to December 4] hung one nearly impeccable mélange: Quixotic Polychrome, and several others which this viewer thought missed the moment of adroitness, the final flex of miscellaneity which chirps that all is ready and everybody better get on stage. John Cage has called Rauschenberg’s work’s “entertainments to celebrate unfixity.” That is a clangorous thought which as it has can be brought to bear on almost all of contemporary art, especially as it has come to the point in America. Poets like Cummings and Marianne Moore anticipate Rauschenberg as they confront the American unfixity with sage and cocky ragtime hauteur. It is “Taps at reveille,” in Fitzgerald’s phrase, and everyone in this formation is out of size places, with crushed lapels and pukey T-shirts. The tires in Rauschenberg’s shantied cenotaphs have rolled straight off Whitman’s open road to come to a great big rubbery stop against Castelli’s wall. In fact there is a tarry ozone of U.S. traffic here altogether, with its bogart roadblocks and crushed oilcans like the cuffs of bums’ trousers; Rauschenberg’s ulcerated Uffizi is like the airy dream of a fallen esthete flopped out at the Greenwich Hotel, it is a bottom dog becoming the top banana, the Baconian heresy in reverse, a fumigated and friendly masochism heaping ecstatic obloquies upon the architectonic ambitions of its artist’s soul, the Dadaesque hobby of an underground Chaplin rising slowly into view on a freight elevator. But Rauschenberg sometimes snags his sweater between the sanctum of private reference and the littered tundra of commemorative decay. A poof of incense disperses the bracing pungency of the urban miasma; the sharp punning weapons of the inscrutable ironist corrode gracefully with a lavender rust; a Firbankian frisson ripples the confident, humanly demoniac Baron Corvo incognito; we get too close to the artist in the wrong sense. We miss the cockeyed Eros that should intone, with an occasional cough, over this chaos of husked energies and ruptured scaffoldings. The rubber-spiked pitfall of Capotean indulgence, of Harper’s Bazaar sensibility, gargles menacingly before this art which should clatter an unflagging salute to the all-encompassing public domain of metaphysical pratt-falls. Esthetics is the succubus of this industrious dreamer. Prices unquoted.

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964, oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. ©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/IMAGE: NATHAN KEAY, ©MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO/MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO, PARTIAL GIFT OF STEPHEN T. EDLIS AND H. GAEL NEESON

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964, oil and silkscreen ink print on canvas.

©ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/IMAGE: NATHAN KEAY, ©MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO/MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO, PARTIAL GIFT OF STEPHEN T. EDLIS AND H. GAEL NEESON

“Reviews and previews”
By Jill Johnston
May 1963

Robert Rauschenberg [Jewish Museum; to May 8] is seen in a comprehensive survey of his work from 1949 to the present. His earlier work is represented by a White Painting (’49), a Dirt (relief) painting (’52), two large White Paintings (one in seven vertical panels) and a Black Painting in three panels, all done in ’51. Rauschenberg moved out from these monochromes to incorporate newspaper comics and cloth pieces into his canvases, still keeping the surface flat. In a Black Painting of ’52, torn, charred comics establish a faint element of print and color which brings the artist’s intention into a transaction with his environment, producing results in some degree beyond his intention. By 1954 Rauschenberg’s interest in the environment had bloomed into his well-known “Combines.” Charlene (’54) is a big, dazzling structure which begins to protrude and recede from the surface and which includes a metal sheet (mirror), a blinking light, flattened shirts, vivid color reproductions and parasol, as well as the cloth and comics in a variety of textures through crumpling and over-painting. In many Rauschenberg Combines, especially the big ones, between ’54 and ’60, the choices look as random as picking up whatever you might stumble over in a cluttered room. Anything became possible, and it becomes clear from this virtuoso exhibition that Rauschenberg is a pivotal figure in the latest freedom to use any environmental object in a paint-construction. For Rauschenberg this freedom (always extending toward new materials and free-standing constructions) has been coupled with a classical construction for distribution and organization. Thus the choices are never as random as they might appear; nor is the swift action of scrubbed, brushed and dripped oil paint. Most typical of the structures before ’60 is vaguely rectangular, Cubistic juxtaposition of images. Rauschenberg here marshals a great variety and complexity of images and materials into open and closed spaces which always seem suitable in relation to each subject. Also, the clarity and obscurity of the images are juxtaposed with feeling for how much clarity (or obscurity) a particular space can stand. In his most recent work the artist has brought his images back to a black surface. And his love of photographs (for their matter-of-factness, their poetic and associative potential) is exploited in a new, more exclusive way, with the silk screen method. Barge is a mural size (30 foot) black and white work of great complexity and delicacy in the handling of diverse images. There are clouds, key, umbrella, truck, helicopter, action shots of a fireman, football players, a cage with parrots, an aerial view of a highway, seven levels of a construction job with works and more—all integrated on a massive scale; the images tilted, held straight, enlarged or reduced in size, black or white, clear or obscure depending on the placement or interference: a panoramic painting of “everything.”

“Reviews and previews”
By Lawrence Campbell
November 1963

Robert Rauschenberg [Castelli; to Nov. 21] has a show of nine or ten vertical canvases subdivided into unevenly rectangular shapes which combine elements of collage and frottage—photographs, illustrations, advertisements, close-up photographs of New York street signs—with painted and drawn elements. Viewed as a whole, the series of works relate to the other as a kind of homage to New York, offered in cinematic, cut-up fashion; like, to quote the apt words of Ivan Karp, “the beginning of the movietone news.” Rauschenberg has a formal, plastic quality which usually manages to come through even his most outrageous efforts. He is essentially a painter. He has a real feeling for arrangement, for color, and these virtues are at his beck and call in the expression of a mood of gentle, romantic reverie. Although now seen as a forerunner of Pop Art, he is not to be classed with this group. In fact, he has a secure place all of his own in New York Painting.

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