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Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg's America

September 13, 2009 - January 3, 2010


Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who came to the fore in the 1950s, was one of the great artists of our age. He was also a prominent chronicler of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century, as evidenced in a new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg's America, on view at MMoCA from September 13, 2009, through January 3, 2010, concentrates on three major print series created by the artist in the late 1960s. Works in the series bear witness to American life at the end of that tumultuous decade. In 1969, postwar triumphalism had consummate expression in the first manned mission to land on the moon. This moment of collective pride, however, was compromised by political assassinations, massive urban riots, demands for social reform, ongoing cold war threats, and protests against the Vietnam War. The dichotomy

Robert Rauschenberg is best known for his "Combines" (the artist's term for assemblages combining painting and everyday objects) and silkscreened paintings (photo-screenprinted imagery overlaid with freely painted areas). Working in a broad range of media, more varied than any other major artist of the century, he was also a sculptor, draftsman, photographer, performance artist, choreographer, theater designer, and printmaker. His extensive work in printmaking -- which took place over a period of nearly 60 years -- is a defining contribution to the history of the modern print.

The three print series that are the focus of the exhibition -- Reels (B+C), 1968; Stoned Moon Series, 1969; and Surface Series (from Currents), 1970 -- are shown in their entirety. To create these works, Rauschenberg first juxtaposed and overlapped imagery appropriated from photographs, scientific diagrams, newspapers, and popular magazines. In two of the series, he unified his collaged designs with scrawled drawing and animated brushwork. The provocative collisions of images and ideas are layered in meaning, reflecting the energetic rhythms and contradictions of the country at a critical point in its history.

The six color lithographs of Reels (B+C) take their imagery from Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn's groundbreaking 1967 movie that explored the defiance of authority and the glamorization of violence. The film raised the depiction of brutality and sexuality to a new level of candor in American cinema. Rauschenberg assembled stills from the movie, focusing on lead actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. He colored and streaked his compositions with fuchsia, canary yellow, lime green, and deep purple. Psychedelic in intensity, these colors amplify Rauschenberg's strident metaphor for the American experience.

Stoned Moon Series was Rauschenberg's ambitious response to the American space program and the landmark Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in July 1969. At the invitation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Rauschenberg witnessed the momentous launch of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In a matter of days, he began work on the print series. With printers working around the clock, he completed the series of 34 prints -- including two prints measuring over 7 feet in height -- in one month's time. As the basis for the project, Rauschenberg gathered photographs and charts from official NASA archives, to which he added imagery from various media sources, as well as his own photographs. The significance of the series lies in its prodigious execution, technical innovations, dense interweaving of photographic images, explosive crayon drawing, and the success of its epic reach. Most compelling is the ironic character of the series that at once honors and questions American technological achievement. Stoned Moon Series is one of the great print projects of the twentieth century.

Surface Series (from Currents) forms a flip side to the exhilarating nature of Stoned Moon Series. Solemn and harrowing, it is a more overt critique of society. The series consists of 18 large screenprints based on collages of clippings torn from the January and February 1970 editions of a variety of newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. Superimposed and printed in a range of blacks and grays (suggestive of newsprint), fragments of sensational headlines document the civic turmoil of anti-war marches, government and mob corruption, military violence, and drug abuse.

The question of who we are as Americans has been asked throughout the history of our country. In this spirit of self-examination, Rauschenberg's print series wrestle with national identity, addressing the hopes and fault lines of the American Dream at the end of the 1960s. They are signs of their times.


(above: Robert Rauschenberg, Signs, 1970. Screenprint, 43 x 34 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Robert Rauschenberg Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Dorothy Zeidman.)

(above: Robert Rauschenberg, Reels (B+C): Storyline I, 1968. Lithograph, 21-1/2 x 17 inches. Collection of Stephen Dull, Greensboro, NC. Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg and Gemini G.E.L./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Published by Gemini G.E.L.)


(above: Robert Rauschenberg, Stoned Moon Series: Sky Garden, 1969. Lithograph, 89 x 42 inches. Collection Stephen Dull, Greensboro, NC. Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg and Gemini G.E.L/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Published by Gemini G.E.L.)


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

the Press Event Opening Remarks (57:26 minutes) for Let the World In: Prints by Robert Rauschenberg from the National Gallery of Art and Related Collections hosted by Alan Shestack, deputy director, National Gallery of Art, with a tour by Charles Ritchie, associate curator of modern prints and drawings. National Gallery of Art.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Robert Rauschenberg: Inventive Genius is a 60-minute 1999 PBS / American Masters series video narrated by actor Dennis Hopper. Celebrates the life and work of American painter Robert Rauschenberg. As guru of the movement that transformed modern art Robert Rauschenberg is the ideal focus for an exploration of the revolution that has taken place in American art over the past 45 years...the revolution that he initiated. A rich mixture of visual images and engaging commentary examines the life of this revolutionary American painter. 1999. 57 min. DVD 4436; also VHS Video/C 6328. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Robert Rauschenberg: Man At Work. 57 minutes, filmed in 1997. Rauschenberg's "groundbreaking works, at times combining painting, sculpture and household items, were a major influence on the Pop Art schools. Filmed on location at his Florida island home, this documentary presents Rauschenberg discussing his art and his friendships with such notables s John Cage and Jasper Johns, and also offers the first look in its entirety at his 790-foot-long '1/4 Mile Piece.'" quoe from turnerclassic.moviesunlimited.com. DVD. A look at Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. For the last fifty years his art has encompassed all manner of experimentation and a vast array of media, including silkscreen, printmaking, photography, and current technologies. His collaborations with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Trisha Brown have greatly influenced contemporary dance and performance. The highlight of this program is Rauschenberg's autobiographical work, the multi-paneled 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, begun in 1981, seen here for the first time in its entirety. c1997. 58 min. Video/C 5997. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

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