Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern

Retroactive II, detail, 1964. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Partial gift of Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo by Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Sneaking in at the end of the year is, quite possibly, the art show of the year as Rauschenberg is given his first full-scale retrospective.

Emerging from the paint slinging machismo of 1950’s abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg surged through the subsequent decades as a boundless force of creativity, changing American art forever. His constant switching of mediums and thirst for experimentation saw him working with found object, painting, screen printing, collage, installation, set design and dense hybrids of all of the above.

All of his stages are presented in themed and roughly chronological rooms at Tate Modern with many of the works having travelled here for the first time. This includes his iconic Monogram, which has its first showing on these shores in 50 years and is worth the price of admission alone.

Monogram, 1955-59. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Monogram, 1955-59. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

It’s impossible to point at a standout era here as, unlike most artists who change mediums, Rauschenberg was master of all of them, generating more ideas in a couple of pieces than others would struggle to squeeze out during a whole career. Everything is standout, everything is good and you begin to realise this is a rarity of a show.

If we had to choose; personal favourites would be his silk screens, a medium he discovered at the same time as Warhol. But, unlike the blank, commercial monotony created at Andy’s Factory, Rauschenberg’s are richly layered and detailed, exuberant in their wider use of pop culture, found and scientific imagery with four colour process and graphic overpainting.

Triathlon (Scenario), 2005. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Triathlon (Scenario), 2005. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

It’s genuinely thrilling and life-affirming stuff and the positive excitement for Modern Art that the sixties was revelling in still radiates from these now as freshly as if the colour was still drying. Staring up at the bright imagery of Kennedy, layered with space race futurism and such creative optimism, you do wonder what Rauschenberg would be making in America today.

Then, to move from the buzz of these to a room full of 1,000 gallons of bubbling mud with a lone, retro sci-fi computer blinking in a corner is one of the greatest gear changes in contemporary curating. This is the great art we needed in a year when something great was needed the most. Thankfully, it’s showing through to next Spring so there’s a good chance of it also being the best exhibition of 2017.

Robert Rauschenberg
Until 2 April 2017 at Tate Modern, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG



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