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Rauschenberg - Express Opens at Thyssen-Bornemisza
Robert Rauschenberg, Hallucination, 1960. Transferencia con disolvente, con lápiz y acuarela. 58.4 x 73.7 cm. The Menil Collection.

MADRID, SPAIN.- Opening on 7 November at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is the 20th in the Museum’s “Contexts of the Permanent Collection” series. Entitled Rauschenberg. Express, it is the first exhibition organised by the Museum to be devoted to a living artist. The exhibition, spronsored by Fundación Caja Madrid, aims to document and reveal the process through which the American artist Robert Rauschenberg arrived at the technique of oil painting with ink serigraphy – one of his most important innovations – and the way this became the principal element of his style around 1963, the year that Express was painted.

Alongside this painting, the exhibition brings together a total of 16 works: another six oils with serigraphy executed in 1962 and 1963, a selection of eight Cantos from the series of 34 illustrations to Dante’s Inferno -on special loan from the MOMA (New York)- and a work on paper. The intention, as with all the Contexts exhibitions, is to offer an in-depth study of a work from the Museum’s collection. This group thus establishes a context for Express while also analysing the invention of the transfer technique that Rauschenberg started to develop in 1958 and which allowed him from that point onwards to combine traditional, gestural painting with photographic images.

A world of art, work and technology - Robert Rauschenberg (born Port Arthur, Texas, 1925) is a multidisciplinary artist, working in photography, painting, sculpture and print-making. Rauschenberg is highly prolific and innovative, consistently manifesting a desire to experiment and a critical attitude to the established norms of whatever genre he is working in. His ongoing search for new forms of expression in art made Rauschenberg one of the most influential names for young artists in the last decades of the 20th century.

Between 1946 and 1947 Rauschenberg studied art history, sculpture and music at the Kansas City Art Institute and shortly afterwards entered the Julian Academy in Paris. He was also a pupil of Josef Albers, Jack Tworkov and Franz Kline at the prestigious Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His time at that multidisciplinary institution undoubtedly helped him to formulate his own distinctive artistic language. At Black Mountain College Rauschenberg was a fellow pupil of the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the musician John Cage, collaborating with both from then onwards. In 1951 he held his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Galler and, in 1952, he travelled to Italy, France and Spain. Between 1954 and 1965 Rauschenberg was stage manager of Cunningham’s dance company in which John Cage was also involved. In 1964, the year after he painted Express and the year after the first retrospective exhibition of his work, Rauschenberg became the first American artist to be awarded the Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennial. As a result of the prize he contributed in a crucial way to the international dissemination of Pop Art. In 1966, working with various scientists, Rauschenberg set up an experimental art and technology group with the aim of applying the latest technological advances to art.

Robert Rauschenberg’s career is illustrative of the transformation that came about in the mid-20th century with respect to the shift from the prevailing Abstract Expressionism to the new mode of Pop Art, whose starting point was an awareness of technological innovations and their cultural implications. The result was a reconsideration of the position and future of modern art. From his earliest works of the 1950s, in which he developed a monochromatic form of abstract painting, first in black and white then using red, accompanied by a marked interest in the study of different textures, Rauschenberg’s work evolved towards a more personal mode of expression and arrived at a unique artistic idiom. The artist’s contacts with other leading figures of contemporary art and the depth and breadth of Rauschenberg’s artistic training and professional activities would be crucial for the development of his ideas and for his interest in new technology and its incorporation into the artistic process.

A new technique: photographic serigraphy - The result of Rauschenberg’s friendship with Jasper Johns from 1954 was an artistic relationship that resulted in experimentation outside the prevailing field of Abstract Expressionism. Nonetheless, Rauschenberg always maintained various elements from this trend in his work even while rebelling against it, and never aimed to depart entirely from figuration. In fact, combining both tendencies took a decade of analysis and experimentation. Johns and Rauschenberg acted as the link between the generation of the oldest Abstract Expressionist artists and the young Pop artists.

Around the mid-1950s, Rauschenberg began to create his Combine paintings. These were a mixture of painting, assemblage and collage of photographs and found objects, generally thrown-away items from consumer society.

In 1962 Rauschenberg began to experiment with a new type of artistic technique that would became the basis of his work over the following years. This was serigraphy, a technique also used for the first time that same year by Andy Warhol, although the two artists’ intentions and ways of working were extremely different. This method allowed Rauschenberg to incorporate into his work blown-up photographic images on sensitised silk panels which he then transferred to the canvas, superimposing them and mixing them in the manner of a collage, then completing the image with oil paint. The enlarged images were reproductions of his own photographs or images taken from magazines. They depict historical events or images from current world events and many of them are systematically repeated in different works. As a result of being enlarged much beyond their original size, the images acquire a grainy appearance which Rauschenberg exploited visually by combining them with the thick, loose brushstrokes in oil that complete these paintings.

Rauschenberg achieved his first major popular success with his serigraph paintings. Through these works the artist was able to resolve the issue of reconciling figuration and abstraction in a bold and brilliant manner. In addition, Rauschenberg succeeded in finding a way of depicting his entire visual universe. The serigraph paintings are no less than “time capsules” which capture and freeze a moment: the world of images of the person who lived at the time when they were painted.

Express - Express is one of the most important serigraph paintings of those executed in the early 1960s and which mark the artist’s transition towards a mature style that combines figurative representation and abstract Action Painting. Some of the photographs that appear in this oil had already appeared in other works and would reappear in later ones. The painting’s title appears to refer both to a high-speed movement as well as to something very exact and precise, or possibly to the expression of a particular creative impulse. Whatever the case, both the title and the images that appear in the painting suggest the idea of movement, speed and co-ordination. We see a rider on horseback at the moment of jumping over a fence, a group of dancers in movement – undoubtedly a homage to Rauschenberg’s friend Cunningham – a roped climber and a nude descending some stairs in a clear reference to Duchamp’s famous work which by now enjoyed mythical status in the US.

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November 7, 2006

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