A Little Indecision: Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces

To the average visitor to The Menil Collection, the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces must seem like an irritating joke. Wandering through what seems to be a bunch of cardboard boxes nailed to the wall, or rolled in sand and set piled on the floor, must be a frustrating experience for anyone looking for the Picassos or the Surrealist room.

Installtion shot by Paul Hester


The rhythmic placement of familiar, throwaway forms needs a bit of
attention to be appreciated, though recognizable forms like airplanes
do emerge in Nabisco Shredded Wheat and Bende de Sureté / Twin City / Nipples.
Eventually one sees the rectangular works as picture planes, even if
the image is made up of staple holes, masking tape and the name CASTELLI
scrawled on the surface. Still it may seem pathetic to someone familiar
with the blistering juxtaposition of images central to Rauschenberg’s
Combines of the 1960s. Context might help: the artist created these
works after moving away from New York to live on an island at a time
when he could have simply rested on his laurels.

Outside the darkened gallery is Rauschenberg’s Radiant White / 952,
a sprawling narrative of boxes dismantled and distressed but without
obvious trace of the artist’s hand. While Rauschenberg’s intent was to
have his work sold and preserved, its ephemeral quality is evident.
Indeed, the usually enlivening natural light provided by the unique
ceiling of the Renzo Piano–designed building is cut off here to preserve the precarious medium.

Installtion shot by Paul Hester


To historicize a bit, some works like Untitled (cardboard) and several of the Venetians look back to Eva Hesse’s work in their relation to the floor and use of flexible materials. Lake Placid / Glori-Fried / Yarns from New England seems to look to Joseph Beuys
with its creation of a suggested narrative by placing simple stuff in
real space. These works also relate to Rauschenberg’s early work in the
1960s. Nearly monochrome paintings (some in the Menil’s
twentieth-century galleries) were the artist’s forte after he left Black Mountain College
in the ’50’s, so the solid, sandy-muddy brown of the cardboard works
was not foreign territory to him. Perhaps they reflect on Donald Judd’s
writing about space as well. But the beaten, pliable, very human
cardboard varies much from other minimalist work; and distress was
never cleverly hidden in the Combines the artist constructed using
material collected in the debris-filled streets of New York. Perhaps
Rauschenberg, now working on Captiva Island in the face of the
impressive beauty of nature and without the typical discarded materiel
of his last body of work, chose to return to those first vibrant
reductive paintings, finding his own vernacular in that clarity of
composition.

Robert Rauschenberg...Untitled (Venetian)...1973...Cardboard, rope, plywood...26 x variable up to 277 x 12 inches...Collection of the artist


In the first body of work in the current exhibition, a 1971 series
labeled under the subset (cardboards), mixed slightly with the Venetians
of 1972-73, angularity is the mode. These works are missing the
negative space of the more sculptural narratives to come, and the
uneven rhythms of those longer, more complex works that demand the wall
behind them be seen as a ground. Reaching out from the wall in regular
heights determined by the material, boxes become vessels, voids,
pyramids and towers. In the opening gallery on the left, Gun Tackers / Skin Pack / Brushes / ITT / Glass
serenely presides over the rest of the room with its centralized
trinity of large boxes; several smaller boxes crowd together, suspended
by twine from the open end of the central box. In the second gallery,
the brilliant color of Volon is uncharacteristic of the other works. It
reveals a bit of its brown undercarriage in wear and tear, and provides
a sharp contrast to the earthy qualities of the large expanses of
cardboard in the rest of the exhibit. Also in this gallery is a work
familiar to the regular Menil visitor: National Spinning / Red / Spring is owned by the Collection and has resided next door to the Warhols for the last two years.

Robert Rauschenberg...Untitled (Early Egyptian)...1973...Sand covered cardboard with acrylic and objects...155 x 203 x 47 inches...Collection of the artist


As Rauschenberg focused on the cardboard medium, he began to consider
the banal branding, record-keeping notations and shipping labels as
worthy of a little tweaking. Hand-printed pieces of torn tape and
distressed labels first appeared in the Cardbird boxes, elements that
most would ignore as detritus or actively discard as waste. (I imagine
someone threw out one or two of the works as they were first
introduced, and I hope Rauschenberg laughed his ass off at his own
absurdity.) In another experiment, the decidedly smaller Tampa Clay
Pieces appear without the epic construction of the larger wall pieces;
their heavy, unglazed clay is molded and colored perfectly to simulate
the much lighter cardboard material, and the cognitive snippet of an
illegible label adds to one object’s throwaway appearance. Both groups
of work were made in small editions with the help of artisans,
including printmakers at Gemini G.E.L. for the Cardbirds and ceramicists at Graphicstudio Florida for the Tampa Clay works.

Concurrent with these investigations into his material, Rauschenberg
moved forward by embracing more fluid materials, nastier trash, trash
that has been in a wet gutter for a week. Tarpaper becomes slashing
amorphous brush strokes. Sackcloth and soiled, wet cardboard simulate
turbulent waves and leathery skin. Usually titled Untitled (Venetian)
although there are exceptions, these works were inspired by trips to
the Roman city of Titian and Giorgione, and are notable for their
violence of expression and penchant for emotional outburst.

Robert Rauschenberg...Tampa Clay Piece 3...1972-73...Fire and glazed ceramic with tape and silkscreened decal...19-1/2 x 24 x 5-1/2 inches...Collection of the artist


Less connected by direct experience is the Untitled (Early Egyptian)
series featured in the last gallery in this circular exhibit. While the
artist did want to travel to Egypt, he never made it there, content to
study in books and his own imagination the realms of early Egyptian
art, artifacts and life. Slathering glue on 10-foot boxes and rolling
them in the sand on a Florida beach is a whimsical construction method
for these most mystical of the cardboard works. The artist has painted
hyper-neon colors on the back of each box that reflects a faint
fluorescent glow when placed about eight inches from the wall, lending
them a mythic glow. A bicycle included in one Egyptian seems to signal
the artist’s intention to return to the land of imagery.

The early ’70’s were a painful time for many of the progressive movements and utopias of the previous decade. Hunter S. Thompson
put it vividly: “You can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look
west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water
mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Much
of the art world shared that sentiment, and political artwork grew
sharper and harsher than Rauschenberg’s collages and Combines that had
won him the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale
in 1964. Minimalism and conceptualism tried to wipe imagery and the
object off of the map. Though Rauschenberg’s cardboard works received
quite amiable criticism upon their introduction in ’71, they did not
achieve the success of his previous work. It has been thirty years and
only now are the Cardboards receiving retrospective attention.

Robert Rauschenberg...Radiant White / 952 (Cardboard)...1971...Cardboard...90-1/2 x 390-1/8 x 14-1/4 inches...Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany


Are we “filling in” the artist’s career by exploiting his lesser works?
I like the show too much to agree with that, and the work seems very
relevant to art now. Cardboard has grown in acceptance as an art
medium, as has impermanence in general. Making the world more real by
using art to exploit perceptual and conceptual breakdowns is
appreciated, and these Cardboards
benefit from that. Radical restrictions and the resulting focus of
imagination or clarity typifies contemporary work by artists like Andrea Zittel and filmmakers like Lars Von Trier.
Rauschenberg started off where anyone does — you begin with the
possibilities of the material. The image of JFK floating under an
astronaut is lodged in art history as these cardboard constructions
will never be, but in the frame of our new century, this group of works
evokes the complexity of even the simplest of structures and is an
exercise of the impermanence that we see reflected widely and often in
art today. Perhaps the preservation of objects, ideas and artwork is
the responsibility of the art world — not in making them permanent, but
in constantly remolding the object in our eyes. The boxes will one day
be archaic; the labels are already nostalgic. While they are still
within our grasp as ordinary objects, they evoke a strong disdain for
the commodity of it all, especially important to be preserved.

Images courtesy The Menil Collection

Sean Carroll is an artist and writer currently living in Houston.

also by Sean Carroll

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2 responses to “A Little Indecision: Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces”

  1. I enjoyed your review of the Raushchenberg pieces. I wasn’t aware of them specifically, but remember the times in which they were made and what artists were using for materials. As my friends used to say after a fruitful dumpster diving trip, “The street giveth and the street taketh away.”
    These works fulfill the artist’s purpose of making us see differently.

  2. in the 60s he used with a lot more debris, but it is odd that in Captiva, FL he did not reach out to more natural materials (save a coconut or two and a layer of sand)- instead focusing on what little bit of society’s waste was around. Was the reductivism philosophical, or myopic?

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