Robert Rauschenberg may be best known for his New York-based work, but he became an artist in Los Angeles. While stationed at the Navy Hospital Corps in San Diego during WWII, Rauschenberg visited an art gallery in San Marino where he saw paintings for the first time. Before then, masterpieces from the late 1700s such as “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough and “Portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse” by Joshua Reynolds were simply images printed on playing cards in the small, Texas oil-refining town where he grew up. At the gallery, they became the works of practiced painters.
Speaking of these paintings in an interview with Time magazine, Rauschenberg recalled, “[T]that someone had thought those things out and made them. Behind each of them was a man whose profession it was to make them. That just never occurred to me before.” A frequent drawer from the age of 10, Rauschenberg now understood what it was to be an artist and that he was going to be one.
“Rauschenberg: In and About L.A.,” on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, exhibits the ongoing significance that Los Angeles had on Rauschenberg’s work and artistic development. Well known for the mixed media works he dubbed “combines,” this show focuses on Rauschenberg’s interactions with L.A.’s urban landscape and ground-breaking work that he did there, especially in printmaking.
Gemini G.E.L was founded in Los Angeles in 1966 by Sidney B. Felsen and Stanley Grinstein at the shop of master printer Kenneth Tyler. After Tyler left in 1974, Felsen and Grinstein re-envisioned the shop. It became an invitation-only workspace where selected artists were given the opportunity to work alongside skillful printers with the freedom to create original and innovative works. Rauschenberg was one of these artists.
At the time he was invited to work at the shop in 1967, Rauschenberg had some experience with lithography. This he had largely gained courtesy of an invitation from fellow-artist and companion Jasper Johns to create some prints at Universal Limited Art Editions, a print shop run by Tatyana Grosman in Long Island, New York. The work that he would create at Gemini G.E.L, however, would be a first of its kind.
“Booster” (1967), on view, was Rauschenberg’s initial print with Gemini — a self-portrait. When finished, “Booster” was, at 72 inches tall, the largest hand-pulled print ever known to have been created. It was also the first print to combine lithography and silk screening processes. At its center is a composite X-Ray of Rauschenberg’s own body, around which he placed additional images. An astronomical chart dated 1967 flanks his body. A chair is positioned by his right shoulder, its ribbed back reaching up to his head. Two large drill bits float by his hips. An Olympic athlete jumps by his feet. The piece is scientific and mathematical, while also being quite intimate and personal.
Following a fire at his New York studio in 1969, Rauschenberg moved to Malibu where he began work on “Currents” (1970). Printed at Styria Studio in Glendale, California, “Currents” is a colossal collage of newspaper clippings from January and February of 1970. The piece is a reproduction of 36 original prints arranged into two rows, stretching to a length of 54 feet. It was the largest print of any sort known to exist at the time of its completion and a precursor to other large-scale Rauschenberg works such as “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” (1981–98).
“Currents” now spans a gallery wall at LACMA. Words and images from major American papers depict violence, political and economic upheaval, and environmental concerns. Photographs of athletes are interspersed throughout. Boxing match victories, finish line shots and hockey brawls all contribute to an overwhelming sense of brutal competition.
As the label for “Currents” notes, Rauschenberg said, “I want to shake people awake. I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility.” Fittingly, the piece ends with an all-white panel, perhaps referencing his early white paintings, which were meant to reflect light and passing shadows. A nearly 3 hours long audio montage, which can be found on LACMA’s website, accompanies the collage, creating a similarly overwhelming effect with sound.
Also on display are selected works from Rauschenberg’s “In + Out City Limits” series (1981) and “L.A. Uncovered” series (1998), which feature real and assembled intersections of L.A.’s cityscape. The “L.A. Uncovered” series comprises several color printed collages that were further collaborations with Gemini G.E.L.
The “In + Out City Limits” photograph series spans L.A., Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Fort Myers and New York. On view are a selection of the series’ L.A. based works. With them Rauschenberg expertly captures pieces of the city in black and white, honing in on the existing language and geometry of the city’s storefronts, machinery and larger architecture.
Robert Rauschenberg’s work was revolutionary and ever evolving. He was continually changing the way in which art might be conceived and made and understood; and the urban environment was a crucial source for both his concepts and concrete materials. A long-time supporter of Rauschenberg, LACMA pays tribute with its current exhibition to the role L.A., in particular, played in the artist’s development and innovations.
Rauschenberg: In and About L.A.
August 11, 2018–February 10, 2019
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036