Robert Rauschenberg (19252008), 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 Rauschenbergs 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 between a confident and failing America--a result of these events--is the context for the exhibition.
An opening reception for Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenbergs America will be held on September 12 from 6:30 to 9 pm. A conversation between MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman and curator of collections Rick Axsom, who organized the exhibition, will take place in the museums lecture hall at 7 pm. Admission to the reception and talk is free for MMoCA members and $10 for the general public.
Robert Rauschenberg is best known for his Combines (the artists 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 Penns 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 Rauschenbergs strident metaphor for the American experience.
Stoned Moon Series was Rauschenbergs 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 months 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, Rauschenbergs 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.