Robert Rauschenberg: Channel Surfing
September 10 – October 23, 2021
Fire hydrants, chains, nets, supermarkets, canals, sunsets, umbrellas, buildings, staircases, swans, cars, Corinthian columns, leaves, barbed wire, wheels, flags, dogs, oranges, people, clocks, arrows, stripes, curtains, neon signs, boats, many-windowed buildings, wolves, and interiors … these are just some of the images that populate the work installed in Channel Surfing, an exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s late paintings and sculptures. These images are drawn from Rauschenberg’s own archive of photography, rather than the appropriated imagery of his earlier work. Throughout the exhibition, Rauschenberg plays with the availability of narrative when abutting many images in a single picture plane. The works in Channel Surfing, split across two floors, embody the action of movement, of going, of living in and passing through a world glutted with image.
The largest work in the show, and the first to greet the viewer, Colonnade (Salvage), from 1984, offers itself to be deciphered. This painting muses on the state of verticality. Silkscreened onto this nearly 10-foot-tall canvas are single-tone images similar in form if not in content: a man on a ladder, three Greco-Roman columns, trees. On the right side of the canvas, Rauschenberg painted in thick, visible, vertical strokes two columns—in one red leads to yellow, the other alternates between blue and white (I can’t help but think of the pillars of fire and cloud that God sent to the Israelites to guide them as they fled through the desert in the book of Exodus). Colonnade (Salvage) shows how individual images within a single canvas can be reduced to marks. Indeed, within each individual work, the combination of multiple images with formal affinity suggests a narrative reading, yet that narrative—of making sense of varied and competing and overwhelming information—is up to the viewer to construct.
One remarkable feature of these later paintings is how consistent they are with his larger body of work. The “common materials” Rauschenberg used throughout his career—such as cardboard, textiles, found objects, and images available in print and television media—include this new common material: the digital photograph.1 Yet, despite this pivot, Rauschenberg no longer uses the photographs and images reproduced and circulated in global image culture, visual material that might be more readily recognizable to an audience (such as, famously, JFK’s portrait, or reproductions of recognizable paintings, or the moon landing). Rather, in the works made with the inkjet transfer process, novel in the 1990s, Rauschenberg availed himself of the large archive of photographs he made on his travels and in his daily life. Alternately arranged, juxtaposed, repeated, hidden, and highlighted, these are mundane, ordinary images, and it is their very commonness that interests Rauschenberg.
The proliferation of images within each work and the densely hung first floor reflects the increasingly saturated image culture of the 21st century. The “Anagrams (A Pun)” (1997–2002) and “Arcadian Retreats” (1996) series layer image on top of image on top of image in what could be called “random order.”2 Embracing the transfer process fully, Rauschenberg devoured the “constant stream of color prints” the Iris printer installed in his Captiva studio would spit out, assimilating his own archive through his hand, as if he, in his 70s and 80s, was digesting these photographs into his body, his touch visible in streaks and splashes and pools of luminous color.3 The works are propelled by the momentum of the process itself; he plays a compulsive game with himself. No image is especially special; each was valuable for its ordinariness and for what it might suggest—an affinity for others. The formal affinity among images taken all over the world is especially apparent in the works made after Rauschenberg suffered from a stroke and could use his body less easily. The “Scenarios” (2002–06) riff on the grid and revolve around one or two formal principles. Vermilion Plaza (Scenarios) (2006), for example, features the color orange and a shack advertising T-shirts for sale, on top of an image of a man not wearing a T-shirt, symmetrical tattoos decorating his back. To disrupt the rectangle-within-rectangle format, the “Scenarios” all feature standalone shapes (a pipe, a light, a stripe) held within the unprinted, white substrate. These paintings reflect the process of the artist at work, putting together images laid in front of him, an artistic practice rooted in availability.
On this floor, the title of the show Channel Surfing resonates. Rauschenberg would often work with the television on, a constant stream entering his studio. Just as one flips through channels (in the pre-internet days at least), one glides through the show, pausing only briefly at each work. The relative ease and speed of the inkjet transfer process allows many images to accrete onto a single surface, and in their accretion, they simultaneously suggest an internal logic to be interpreted and deny each other. The layering of images on a single surface is analogous to encountering a stream of images in time. The paintings are so full of image they reject my gaze. They are difficult to enter.
On the seventh floor, the paintings give space for pause, providing room to slow down, a sharp contrast to the energy of the first floor. It is as if Rauschenberg has stopped flipping channels and is instead watching a single program. The “Apogamy Pods” (1999–2000) are spare and elegant, full of restraint. In muted tones of copper, blue, and purple (a color Rauschenberg deploys beautifully), these inkjet transfer images are obscured and cropped in ways that suggest loss, or remains, or memory. Here, however, the paintings feel full, despite the fact that they contain much less image—or many fewer collaged images—than the works on the first floor. Indeed, the “emptiness” or “blankness” of the surface suggests Rauschenberg’s seminal act of erasing a de Kooning drawing nearly a half century earlier. The compositions are carefully calibrated, giving the works a feeling of stability, as in II (Apogamy Pods), in which two smaller sheets of polylaminate extend beyond the horizontal rectangle, balancing each other. Complementing the inkjet transfer process are almost wiry, graphite lines that are assured but not perfectly straight. Their unevenness echoes the imperfections in the transfer process itself: ink delicately smears beyond the edges of the picture, or drips down into the warm white of the polylaminate surface. These paintings resist cohesive image making and rebuff narrative, but enliven one’s perception of the space in which they hang. The windows that look onto Chelsea’s built landscape come into focus through the diaphanous curtains, filled with warm fall light.
Achim Borchardt-Hume, “Robert Rauschenberg: Five Propositions,” in Rauschenberg, MoMA / Tate Publishing, p. 16.
With this phrase I am looking to the work of Brenden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, October Books, 2007.
Sarah Roberts, “Quietness in the Ordinary: New Technologies of Transfer,” in Rauschenberg, MoMA / Tate Publishing, p. 383.