Recalling the optometrist’s huge spectacles on the highway billboard in The Great Gatsby, Robert Rauschenberg’s pair of big open yellow umbrellas pinned to the top of a vast horizontal collage look down like two wide eyes on the American dream: coloured maps of the 50 states on a pink panel; photographs of hurtling athletes, pick-up trucks, unending prairie; the Stars and Stripes as a fluttering strip of vertical fabric structuring the composition.
“Untitled (Spread)” (1982) was a standout at Tate’s Rauschenberg’s retrospective two years ago. Now it returns, like a burst of Florida sun brightening grey London, to Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, where it shines, freshly contextualised, as one of many illuminating pieces in a museum-quality exhibition dedicated to the large-scale “Spread” paintings. Rauschenberg created these lovely collages of objects, fabric, silkscreens, ghostly photographs soaked in solvent transfer, and gestural acrylic and graphite marks, at his home on Captiva Island from 1975-83. Fixed to wooden panels and defiantly solid yet fragile and evanescent in tone, most have not been shown in the UK before.
Teeming and vibrant in Florida colours — orange, yellow, rose, pale blue — they celebrate what Rauschenberg called “the excess of the world” and are offset by the pared-down simplicity and harmonious proportions of this gallery’s Georgian interiors.
Here a wooden oar juts out (“Sky Marshal (Spread)”), there a twisting tree branch climbs the wall (“Bough (Spread)”): materiality clashes with the weightlessness of washed-out transfer images. There is an oversized painting crumpling and unfolding on to the floor (“Consul (Spread)”) and a three-metre, three-dimensional greeting card on warm citrus grounds, “Palladian Xmas (Spread)”: a grid — Rauschenberg gently mocks the minimalist grid throughout the series — of striped cloths, wooden washboards and photographs of America at play, with images of ballroom dancing, sportsmen, wine glasses. Mirrored panels pull us — everyday life — into the frames. Alarm clocks studded on “Palladian Xmas (Spread)” bring to mind the one in Rauschenberg’s “First Time Painting”, created in a 1961 performance; the artist put down his brush when the clock sounded.
Temporal experience, memory, autobiography, wresting art from art: in these dreamy collages Rauschenberg, just turned 50 when he began the Spreads, considers deep themes in a light manner. Thus the pairs of split deflated tyres and their spectral outlines divided by a red mirror in “Ruby Re-Run (Spread)” recall both the tyre ringing the goat in Rauschenberg’s famous “Monogram” (1955-59) and “Automobile Tire Print” (1953), for which the artist asked composer John Cage to drive his car over 20 sheets of paper glued together, leaving juicy black tread marks in diminishing lines. “Ruby Re-Run (Spread)” is a work about time revisiting a work about time.
Why look back? Rauschenberg’s immediate impetus was his 1976 Washington retrospective, scheduled for the bicentenary of American independence and enshrining the artist, among the first to use specifically American iconography such as images of President Kennedy, as the nation’s living Old Master. It was partly to avoid that heavy status that Rauschenberg had left New York for Florida in 1970. Now in Washington he re-encountered his seminal works from the 1950s-60s.
The Spreads are his response. In form and mixed media, they are codas to the groundbreaking Combines, which changed art history by collapsing the hierarchies between painting, printmaking and photographs and using found objects. Rauschenberg never worked at the Combines level of inventiveness again, but although not as irrefutable as, for example, the paint-slathered quilt “Bed” (1955) — the series’ title alludes to that iconic bedspread — the Spreads show a mature artist considering new trends, including minimalism, and developing an almost elegiac expressiveness.
The Spreads, Rauschenberg said, were about making work “as far as I can make it stretch, and land (like a farmer’s ‘spread’), and also the stuff you put on toast”. That conveys the sense here both of America’s geographic expanse and all-over mass media — “multiple distractions are the only constant”, Rauschenberg declared, anticipating our internet age — and of the Spreads’ formal unity, with paint and solvent pulling disparate imagery together in textured veils.
In “Rumour (Spread)”, multiple layers of photographic images, paint, pieces of checked cloth elide the gap between actual material and illusion; at the bottom, concrete and certain, hangs a metal bucket, lit within by a green lightbulb attached to a socket in the picture, referencing a similar bucket in the trolley combine “Gift for Apollo” (1959).
Each of the Spreads is packed with allusion and remembrance. “Lipstick (Spread)”, my favourite, includes stencils of tyres and roller skates — these recall Pelican (1963), Rauschenberg’s performance as a roller-skater attached to a parachute — a road map, a wooden ruler that playfully emphasises the height of the collage (over two metres), and a flimsy red parasol with multicoloured edges billowing incongruously atop a gestural painting of a rocket’s bottom half. The parasol infuses the composition with airy grace, the contrast in textures is delicious, the play on two versus three dimensions comic.
“Lipstick (Spread)” looks back to the lyrical combine “Charlene” (1954), featuring a striated coloured umbrella, and also to the astronaut with a parachute in “Retroactive 1” (1963), most famous of Rauschenberg’s silkscreen collages. But the title surely refers to Claes Oldenburg’s “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks”, an eight-metre pillar with a soft red tip, attached to a military vehicle and surreptitiously installed on Yale University campus in 1969, the year women were admitted; there it became the focus for anti-Vietnam war protests, until it was removed.
So much of mid-20th-century America is distilled in the Spreads, which balance Rauschenberg’s restless vernacular and sense of everything randomly happening at once — “there is no reason not to consider the world as a gigantic painting” — with his unfailing instinct for composition and pictorial juxtaposition.
Printmaker Larry Wright remembered working with Rauschenberg on the Spread “Half a Grandstand”, over six metres wide, through a single night in 1978. “We were printing and we were painting and we were gluing . . . and Bob was just — he took everything off of my worktable. He put my ruler in it, he took my towel, my rag. I would work with something and he’d just take it and boom, it was in the artwork. It was kind of a snapshot of the free-for-all that the work environment was.” The napkins that Rauschenberg and Wright used for dinner are incorporated, an anatomical image of a leg is positioned to suggest Italy, with grapes above it referencing the wine drunk that evening. “‘Half a Grandstand’ was truly a party,” Wright recalled. So is this enchanting show.