Robert Rauschenberg: Spreads 1975-83
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London
28 November, 2018 - 9 February, 2019
Review by Claire Phillips
All things considered, 1975 was a pretty great year. The Vietnam War had officially come to an end, Jaws was in the cinema and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album was on the top of the charts. And in the world of contemporary art, Robert Rauschenberg had embarked on a new series inspired by some of the greatest works of his career to date.
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents the first UK exhibition of this series at their London gallery, playfully dubbed the Spreads. Created between 1975 and 1983, the name is designed to conjure huge expanses of green fields or pieces of toast slathered with jam. But what we really find are enormous panels of wood, coated with a huge variety of techniques and images, in collage and silkscreen, and just about everything apart from the kitchen sink. These are a smorgasbord “spread” of Rauschenberg’s most loved motifs, which made the whisky-swilling Texan one of the leading artists of post-war America. Strange hybrid creatures that lie somewhere between painting and sculpture, the Spreads are time capsules not only for Rauschenberg, but American art in the 20th century.
The last time London was treated to a Rauschenberg show, it was Tate’s colossal retrospective (2016 - 2017), which tackled everything from portraits of John F. Kennedy to an erased Willem de Kooning drawing by way of taxidermy goats. In contrast, focusing (rather bravely) on a single body of work, Ropac gives us a chance to hone in on a specific moment of Rauschenberg’s career. As a subject matter too, the Spreads are a wise choice as they naturally refer to other pivotal series including Rauschenberg’s Combines, Hoarfrost and Jammer works.
In Sky Marshal (Spread) (1978) a paddle interrupts a patchwork of dots and stripes, while in Bough (Spread) (1980) a pole with a metal head like a sickle divides up the ground. The wooden panels themselves are tested in the structure of Consul (Spread) (1980), which melts into a curve, and in Rumor (Spread) (1980) where the wires of a light fixture trail along the ground.
The sun-soaked palette of Rauschenberg’s home on Captiva Island in Florida, where he settled in 1970, is injected into works like Lipstick (Spread) (1981), with its crimson umbrella and smear of bubble-gum pink. Umbrellas find their way back into another highlight of the show, Untitled (Spread) (1982), where two open parasols like blooming sunflowers bring harmony to a reel of collaged pictures of the American flag, shipping containers and lithe athletes.
Silkscreen images are used inventively to tease and probe life in America. In Untitled (Spread) (1980) a sea of fingers point upwards alongside a group of football players leaping into the air, both stretched towards the red stripes of the American flag, just out of reach. In Awning (Spread) (1979) a canopy of tangled bodies are combined with organic pictures of nature and the sea, while shards of fabric in Reflex (Spread) (1979) mimic the outstretched wings of a bird and in Sentinel (Spread ) (1979) Rauschenberg finds space for some Tudor lords and corns on the cob. Taken from adverts, magazines and the press, these images are familiar signposts for American life, but placed side by side, they take on a new meaning that is entirely open to interpretation.
The Spreads refuse to take life too seriously. It’s hard to when you’re considering the meaning behind a bucket attached to a piece of wood or how a Tudor lord relates to a piece of corn. Windows onto the soul of American culture, the Spreads reveal Rauschenberg’s complete lack of interest in rules and tradition. They are a jabbing reminder that Rauschenberg was a radical with an unending imagination and in his hands just about anything could turn up on a gallery wall.