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Exhibition of prints and posters by Robert Rauschenberg opens in Hamburg
The exhibition of 120 works represents the most comprehensive survey of this facet of his oeuvre ever to go on show. Photo: Michaela Hille / MKG.

HAMBURG.- Along with Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) numbers among the art-world greats of the second half of the 20th century. All three began their careers as young artists in the post-war period, when people still believed, with an optimism difficult to understand today, that art could do anything. And their understanding of art is correspondingly all-encompassing. For the first, everything is beautiful; for the second, everyone is an artist; and the third, Rauschenberg, sees material for his art in everything around him. Thanks to a generous donation from the Hamburg collector Claus von der Osten, the Museum fr Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg is devoting an exhibition to Rauschenberg, comprising prints and posters from his extensive collection. Because of this donation, the MKG boasts the world’s most comprehensive collection of its kind with approximately 160 posters designed by Rauschenberg. The exhibition of 120 works represents the most comprehensive survey of this facet of his oeuvre ever to go on show. Robert Rauschenberg, who grew up in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas, attended art academies from 1947 to 1951 in Kansas, Paris, North Carolina, and New York. He created his two most famous series, the Combines and the Silkscreen Paintings, in 1954 and 1962 respectively. From then on, new series followed regularly, in which Rauschenberg constantly found variations on his typical way of working, employing new techniques, tools, and materials and exploring their connections with new visual ideas. There are, among others, the Cardboard Series (wall reliefs made of previously used, deconstructed boxes), the Jammers (compositions made of translucent coloured fabrics), and large-scale works such as the Quarter Mile or 2 Furlong Piece or Quake in Paradise, a four-piece installation of printed aluminum plates.

Amid this overwhelming volume and the constant beginning of new series, there are also constants in Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. These include the posters and all of his printmaking. The importance of this medium for the artist is evident in the fact that, when he moved from New York in 1970 to his new primary residence on Florida’s Captiva Island, he set up a printing press there. Rauschenberg produced his first posters in the years around 1960, as the Combines brought success leading to regular opportunities to exhibit his new works. His main gallerist was Leo Castelli in New York. But he also was regularly shown by the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibitions were always announced by posters designed by Rauschenberg himself – at first rather small and unassuming, but before long bigger and more colourful.

By 1968, at the latest, it became obvious that Rauschenberg was interested in posters more than other artists were. He began to use the collages on his posters to tell little stories and increasingly designed them for occasions organized by others. Usually, his designs in these cases were for the purpose of fundraising – the proceeds from the sale went to the organizer. In this way Rauschenberg supported, for example, a gallery that guaranteed its artists a censorship-free zone, or the re-election of the Democratic U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, who stood up for artists’ rights. In 1968, Rauschenberg was among the founders of a poster printing press in New York that made its machines available specifically for artists. Here he printed his famous Autobiography Poster, a three-part offset lithograph of over six metres in height or alternatively – depending upon its arrangement – scarcely four metres in width.

International success arrived in the second half of the 1970s with large exhibition tours through major cities in the United States. Rauschenberg regularly sketched posters, no longer printing his name (which was in most cases the same as the title of the exhibition), but instead using his large and clearly legible signature like a proper brand name. The 1980s were characterized by one of the largest undertakings a modern artist has ever realized. With Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), the artist organized an exhibition tour that extended across seven years, from 1986 to 1991, and eleven nations. Primarily, the sites were countries with which the United States had a tense relationship, including Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union. The exhibitions were largely developed on-site, and of course each was announced by a poster.

In addition to these announcements of exhibitions, he increasingly created posters for other clients. Since the years around 1970, Rauschenberg was increasingly asked to support specific concerns with his art. The artist helped AIDS organizations with his designs, strongly opposed Apartheid, was committed to the conservation of the environment, and designed prints for the anniversaries of symphony orchestras and theatres. He canvassed for children’s rights and promoted organizations that cared for abused and disabled youth. He held workshops for teachers who taught at schools with handicapped students. For the UN and its agencies alone, he designed over 20 posters. He helped announce the Earth Summit ’92 in Rio and the Habitat Conference in Istanbul. Generally, Rauschenberg’s poster designs were sold in comparatively small editions like a print, and proceeds then benefited the organizations to which they corresponded.

As a rule, Rauschenberg’s posters were rarely actually meant to be ‘posted’. They rather made their way, primarily, to collectors and enthusiasts. Rauschenberg designed almost 180 posters in over four decades. Many are signed, often numbered as well. Many of them are now great rarities that are traded internationally. His last poster design was created for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005. It announces an exhibition of his own posters. A stroke had left the artist unable to write by hand; he certified the poster with his thumbprint and a certificate.

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