From Beijing via Hong Kong to London, it’s the year of Robert Rauschenberg

Influential artist whose work some see as providing the ‘missing link’ between abstraction and pop art is having a moment, with a show in China recalling his 1985 visit, a major retrospective and smaller shows in various galleries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2016, 4:54pm

This year is not a particularly significant anniversary for Robert Rauschenberg, the American artist born in 1925 and who died in 2008. But the launch of an in-depth touring retrospective in the winter and a major Beijing exhibition starting in June, plus countless gallery shows – including two in Hong Kong – make this a great year for exploring the work of an artist credited with sparking a move towards the everyday in art.

He rebelled against the abstract expressionism of Pollock and Rothko, which he felt was merely art for art’s sake rather than art that reflected the dramatic changes sweeping through America’s post-war society and economy.

Rauschenberg turned his focus towards the ordinary and, Duchamp-like, made discarded objects such as a rusty bicycle frame into an art installation. In addressing the hedonism of post-war consumption, he opened the door to pop art, inspiring artists such as Andy Warhol, even if he rejected the label for his own work.

Since his death, the Rauschenberg Foundation has continued to promote the artist’s oeuvre. His work is hard to categorise; he spent his long career experimenting with all kinds of materials, merging paintings with sculptures and moving beyond visual art to collaborate with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Its main focus this year is a retrospective that starts at the Tate Modern on November 30, travels to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 2017, and finishes at the expanded San Francisco MoMA in the winter of 2017.

That exhibition will feature some of his best-known pieces in the possession of the three museums. There is Bed (1955), a work thought to be made out of his own pillow, sheet and quilt with found objects attached that is a harbinger of Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation; and there is Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), the result of a young Rauschenberg using a rubber to obliterate a drawing by the well-established abstract expressionist artist.

At the same time, the foundation is trying to remind China of its earlier ties with Rauschenberg amid growing interest from East Asia in post-war Western artists: in March this year, Pace Gallery, which represents the foundation, sold two large Rauschenbergs at Art Basel Hong Kong, where most of its buyers were from Asia.

From June 12, the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing will have a Rauschenberg exhibition centred on The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-98), a 305-metre work made up of 190 parts that Rauschenberg worked on for nearly two decades and which has not been shown publicly since 2000.

Next to it, the foundation will display photos Rauschenberg took during his 1985 trip to China as well as documentation of him running workshops for local Chinese artists.

Leng Lin, partner and president at Pace Hong Kong, was an art student in Beijing then and says he remembers the exhibition well.

“The 1985 visit was very special because it opened up many local artists to the idea of using variable materials. The National Art Museum of China was completely transformed into a white cube space just for him. It was shocking. It was fresh. Very few famous Western artists came to China then but he came at a time when the whole country had opened up and everyone, including officials, were hungry for new things,” he says.

Shortly after his China trip, Time magazine decided to make Deng Xiaoping its Man of the Year and asked Rauschenberg to design, in his own style, the magazine cover. The result was probably the first ever pop-art-style collage of China’s then paramount leader.

Lin thinks that Rauschenberg’s main contribution was moving from the abstract to real life: “He used external, materialistic materials. He didn’t go for Rothko’s kind of intense self-meditation. He opened up a window which many other now use to see the world.”

On the walls of the Pace gallery until May 20 hang five panels that feature Rauschenberg “transfers” and “combines” – two techniques often associated with his work. The former refers to a technique he picked up during a trip to Cuba where he used solvent to transfer images from newspaper and magazines to a new surface, such as metal plates, paper or fabric. “Combines” was the word he used to refer to collages made from mixed materials.

Laure Raibaut, executive director at de Sarthe Gallery, is preparing for a Rauschenberg solo exhibition opening on May 26. Her selection aims to go beyond the “combines”, now seen as his signature style.

“We will focus on the less expected works which show off his range, his sense of humour and how he explored the way people reacted to art. There are three pieces from the ‘Scenarios series that were from 2005 and which all said it was meaningful to look at the least glamorous levels of life. They are called Roundabout, Rehab and Tenant,” she says.

Another work, Page 10, Paragraph 3 (2001), is from the “Short Stories” series which suggests he was telling a story, except it was an unfinished one that the audience have to complete themselves.

Raibaut says Rauschenberg would have brought something quite revolutionary to China in 1985, when young artists were first allowed to break free from the realm of social realism.

“With him, it was all about constantly pushing boundaries, constantly innovating and finding new techniques. To him, nothing was mundane. In some ‘Scenarios’ paintings you have collages of people collecting trash, a dog missing an eye,” she says.

Sandra Walters, who has been an art dealer and consultant in Hong Kong since the 1970s, says the exhibition she put on for the artist in 1994 was perhaps ahead of its time.

“We did have nearly two hundred people come to the opening,” she says.

But Rauschenberg was mainly known by artists then for the work he did during the China trip involving traditional xuan paper-making techniques, she adds.

Rauschenberg attended the exhibition at Mandarin Oriental Fine Arts and stayed for a few days.

“It was a great occasion but early for our audience. I greatly admired him and his inventive mind,” she adds.

Today, there is growing interest in artists who filled in the “missing links” between major art movements, Raibaut says, which may explain the rise in interest in Rauschenberg.

“We have given a lot of focus on the Dadaists, abstract expressionists and pop art. The art world is now realising that there are missing links, that we didn’t just jump from abstraction to pop art. He was the person who worked together with others during that time,” she says.