A new retrospective at UCCA Beijing kicks off a year-long discussion of Rauschenberg’s life and oeuvre.

Rauschenberg experts and curators Susan Davidson and David White join forces to create a powerful retrospective on the life and work of Robert Rauschenberg, on the 30th anniversary of a major show of the artist’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Beijing.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June - 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June – 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

A major exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg entitled “Rauschenberg in China” (12 June – 21 August 2016) is staged in Beijing at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in the city’s well-known 798 art district. However, this is not the first time Rauschenberg’s art is seen in China. Thirty years ago in 1985, a major show of Rauschenberg’s work was held at the National Art Museum in Beijing. The show at the UCCA will kick-off a year of global conversation about the work of Rauschenberg with other major shows, namely a posthumous retrospectives at the Tate Modern in London which will travel to the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A few days prior to the opening of “Rauschenberg in China”, Art Radar had the chance to sit down with two of the exhibition curators, Susan Davidson and David White, who have collaborated and worked closely over many years with Rauschenberg.

Susan Davidson has been engaged with the work of Robert Rauschenberg since 1990 and was a curatorial advisor to the artist from 2001 until his death in 2008. In this capacity, she prepared numerous exhibitions and catalogues on the artist. Davidson is currently a board member of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. In addition to her work on Rauschenberg, Davidson is Senior Curator for Collections and Exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

David White was the curator for Robert Rauschenberg from 1980 until the artist’s death in 2008. He is now Senior Curator at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and has overseen Rauschenberg exhibitions, publications and projects over the last 30 years.

Rauschenberg working on 'The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece' (1981–98) in his studio, Captiva, Florida, ca. 1983. Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Photo: Attributed to Terry Van Brunt.

Rauschenberg working on ‘The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’ (1981–98) in his studio, Captiva, Florida, ca. 1983. Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Photo: Attributed to Terry Van Brunt.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) is known for his great versatility and his work in a variety of disciplines and the inclusion of a multitude of media in his works. As the museum explains,

Rauschenberg engaged…with performance, photography, conceptual art, and technology, employing diverse mediums as Plexiglas, cardboard, textiles, hand-made paper, and salvaged materials both organic and synthetic.

Rauschenberg was a strong believer in art as an effective means for bridging cultural gaps and bringing people closer together. After his first trip to China in 1982, his vision for a more peaceful world was put into action through his ROCI (the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange), an initiative which he himself funded. He said:

I don’t believe that there is any culture that doesn’t have some expression of its own, and I believe that all of these cultures can understand each other through art. So ROCI was founded…” (Robert Rauschenberg in an interview when talking about ROCI)

This would culminate in a seven-year, ten-country tour to encourage “world peace and understanding”, through Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Beijing, Lhasa (Tibet), Japan, Cuba, Soviet Union, Berlin and Malaysia. He was influenced by the cultures he visited and in each country he also left a piece of art. The ROCI venture, supported by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., went on view in 1991.

The bulk of the show at UCCA is made up of a single piece of work, which has not been seen since 1999. It is the artist’s The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-1998), which consists of 190 two- and three- dimensional parts as well as a soundtrack. A ¼ mile or 402.3 metres was the distance between the artist’s home and his studio on Captiva Island, Florida.

Also part of the exhibition, are a selection of the artist’s colour photographs which he took during his first trip to China in 1982, entitled Studies for Chinese Summerhall. Taken with a Hasselblad camera these images of daily life in Reform-era China, are the only colour photographs throughout his career that the artist designated as art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June - 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June – 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-98) will be exhibited in its entirety during “Rauschenberg in China” at the UCCA and has been described as his magnum opus or a self-contained retrospective. Can you comment on its importance in the overall oeuvre of Rauschenberg?

Susan Davidson (SD): It is true, it is a kind of self-contained retrospective. In fact it is interesting… what happens with Rauschenberg, and why I think this painting in particular is so incredibly important, is that he will develop a set of vocabularies which he then continues to explore throughout his career. And this painting kind of brings all of those moments, explorations and experimentations and visual tropes that he has been using into one place. It is interesting that it took him until 1980 to actually start to do that. Because probably by the early 1980s Bob (David and I always refer to him as Bob rather than Rauschenberg because we knew him) had explored all those aspects of his visual vocabulary to a degree that he then thought, “Oh well, let me make a single painting”. And only Rauschenberg would have said I’m going to make it a quarter mile long.

Nobody would ever dream of doing something like that but he always thought on such a large scale… In that sense the work is a kind of magnum opus. At them same time that it is a magnum opus it is kind of unknown in his oeuvre as a single art work. People hear about it and they are curious about it but they don’t ever get to see it and that is why it is so important for us to be showing it now… And yet it was something that he was quite engaged with, and worked on intermittently, for a period of 17 years. He always said that it would never be finished until he died. He knew that he wanted it to be a quarter mile but because he would work on it here and there, as he was interested in new aspects and bodies of work that he was starting to develop. We did not know how long it would be until that day that he passed away.

David White (DW): He joked that it might even go on past a quarter mile. It has been referred to as a journal of his activities.

SD: And that is a great term, a journal rather than a self-made retrospective, because you do journey through the painting.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, detail showing a section using cardbaord. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, detail showing a section using cardbaord. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

Tell us about certain sections of the work that stand out for you.

DW: He had these periods that are referred to in the ¼ Mile, specifically involved with certain materials. There was a period in the 1970s where he did a series called Cardboards – they were really flattened cardboard cartons that were put on the wall and so there are areas of the ¼ Mile painting which are particularly and almost exclusively cardboard. There are other sections where the works are on metal panels. We also see the use of fabric in great quantity referring back to earlier.

SD: Also in the late 1980s he made works on metal, so there is an entire section of various screened images on metals in all kinds of different uses and applications, which is just so typical of Bob.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June - 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June – 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

DW: And another thing about applications in the earlier panels the imagery is what is called solvent transfer where the images come from the media, newspapers and magazines. The solvent was applied and then with pressure the ink from the medium (from the journal or whatever) got applied to the surface of the painting. Later on he was silk-screening, so there was a change in the application of imagery.

SD: But always through his own lens. The photographs were for the most part images that he took throughout his travels and in and around his studio in Captiva. Because every day Bob carried a camera and everyday he photographed. And those photographs end up [as] what built the paintings.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June - 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June – 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

DW: There is also an old wheelbarrow, which in each the venue is filled with some growing plants that are indigenous to wherever the exhibition is taking place. So there is a living component in the exhibition as well.

SD: I want to go back to the idea of its importance in Bob’s oeuvre, it is really quite central because it explores many of the important themes and concepts that he was very involved with – seriality, scale and different materials and things of this nature.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, installation view. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, installation view. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

DW: Just watching their installation over the last couple of days, they are extraordinary in different ways. Even the simplest panels are so full of the combination of the imagery. The early ones where he uses transfer from magazines: often the humour in the imagery or the humour in the juxtaposing of the various images can be just wonderful. This last section, which was just installed, panels 179-183 are these incredibly elaborate panels where the surface against the wall is this straightforward mirror and then these triangular pods project from that mirrored surface. There are five of them attached and he has silkscreened images on those clear Plexiglas panels which form the pods, and the combination of what you see reflected and refracted, reverse and forward. The more you look at it, the more extraordinary it is that he was able to do this. It is very rewarding to look at.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, detail showing various shirts and fabrics. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece’, 1981–1998, detail showing various shirts and fabrics. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

What are the kinds of images the audience can expect to see as part of Studies for Chinese Summerhall?

DW: I think he remarked somewhere that he tended to choose the ordinary looking thing rather than the most exotic looking thing because then more people might be reminded of something that they are familiar with, like a glass of water or a telephone.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘Study for Chinese Summerhall’, 1983, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm image; 101.6 x 76.2 cm sheet. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation 2016

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘Study for Chinese Summerhall’, 1983, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm image; 101.6 x 76.2 cm sheet. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation 2016

SD: But yet, there are things that are very much representative of China in the early 1980s. There is a beautiful photograph of bamboo mats with a fan laid on top of it. And then that wonderful photograph of the drinks.

DW: Right, the bottles of soft drinks which are very typical, practically universal an image but with an incredible colourfulness.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘Study for Chinese Summerhall’, 1983, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm image; 101.6 x 76.2 cm sheet. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation 2016

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), ‘Study for Chinese Summerhall’, 1983, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm image; 101.6 x 76.2 cm sheet. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation 2016

SD: We always thought it is just Coca Cola that had changed colour, but when we were with our colleagues from the UCCA up at the warehouse in New York looking at the photographs, they all instantly recognised it as a particular drink from their childhood. So there is this kind of familiarity that you will see in the photographs.

What is the legacy of the ROCI project worldwide and particularly in China?

SD: I think we are just beginning to see it, really. I think at the time people thought he was a little bit crazy. He wanted the US government to support the project and they wouldn’t. And in his typical manner he just paid for all of it himself. In every venue he brought his own work and he would advance reconnaissance trips and gather materials and inspiration and then come back and make certain works and then add. It was like The ¼ Mile painting – it got added to and then moved on to the next country, incorporating each country. I think at the time, probably people were very excited to see the material because they had never seen that. Let alone met an artist so open. I think the unspoken aspect of the legacy was Bob’s openness and his willingness to just come and show his art and to be with artists and to try to learn. But at the time I think it was all very much under the radar. People were not really measuring it the way we look back at it now and see how incredibly forward thinking it was…

“ROCI CHINA” catalogue, 1985. Image courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and UCCA.

“ROCI CHINA” catalogue, 1985. Image courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and UCCA.

In 1985, during his second trip to China his show “ROCI China” was staged at the National Art Museum in Beijing marking a moment of warming relations between the two countries. Are you aware of the impact of that exhibition on the emerging generation of Chinese artists?

SD: We keep learning about it. We are probably not quite so specifically aware of it but I think that there has also been enough time. What usually happens with Rauschenberg is that he is just there, and then people are blown away and puzzled and as Bob often said, it takes 25 years for people to catch up with me. And I think maybe that is what we are going to start seeing and why we are so excited to have the show on now, because there has been that length of time, there has been a incredible forward movement and development within the Chinese art community since the “85 New Wave” came out and we will see those liberties and homages come forward.

DW: ROCI was also the name of his pet turtle. He loved word play and double meanings. There was not a whole lot of attention to the whole ROCI project in the different countries at the time, at least not much attention in America. More and more people are starting to talk about this extraordinary project.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June - 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

“Rauschenberg in China”, UCCA, 12 June – 21 August 2016, installation view. Photo: Li Sen. Image courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

SD: Bob was always interested in collaboration. He very much saw himself in a global platform before anybody ever talked about anything like that. He just had an insatiable curiosity. It just kept propelling him. The context for ROCI actually developed here in China in 1982 when he was here working in the paper mill and he was distressed as he would be that people did not have certain liberties in terms of movement and things of this nature. So he always was looking for solutions through his art, trying to bring a level of awareness and understanding to things.

Nooshfar Afnan

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Related Topics: American artist, mixed media, museum show, Beijing

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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