By Sandra Schulman
Bicycles, T-shirts, tin cans – everything was fodder for art materials for Robert Rauschenberg, the radical 1950s artist who used the beauty and detritus of the world as his aesthetic.
For the next major show in its newly expanded gallery space, the Norton Museum of Art is presenting a large survey of the work of Rauschenberg (1925-2008), tracing the arc of the artist’s career, from the 1950s to the 1990s. The show opens Friday and runs through June 28.
Rauschenberg manipulated everyday objects in his hybrid works, which combined painting, sculpture, collage, photography, and printmaking. A large show of his unseen work from private collectors just closed at the Rauschenberg Gallery in Fort Myers, the city near the oceanfront paradise of Captiva he called home for decades and that now houses a residency on his multi-acre property. He was represented for many years by West Palm Beach artist/writer/curator Bruce Helander at his first gallery in Palm Beach in 1983.
Now the Norton will exhibit key examples from five decades of his career that exemplify his unconventional approach to materials and the creative process. The work comes from the collection of Whitney Museum in New York City as well as works that have been given to the museum by Emily Fisher Landau and Barbara and Richard S. Lane.
Curator Cheryl Brutvan said the show, while representing five decades of work is a “succinct survey,” beginning with an early, rare untitled work from 1951 that depicts four black panels, and Blue Eagle, a classic “combine” artwork from 1961.
“Many pieces were acquired by Leonard Lauder for the Whitney. It is a survey, perhaps the first in Florida,” she said. “It’s also important to note that Rauschenberg spent most of his life in Captiva so we’re celebrating a major artist with a strong Florida connection. Working with the Whitney is always a pleasure, too.”
In addition to major examples of Rauschenberg’s work, the exhibition also includes a provocative portfolio of seven photogravures called Soviet/ American Array VII (1988-89).
To the question of what this exhibition can add to the art world’s already extensive knowledge of Rauschenberg, Brutvan simply says that this show has found its moment.
“It’s time to examine Rauschenberg again,” she said. “He is one of the earliest practitioners who included the mundane, castoff, quotidian as major elements of his work or as the inspiration for his work. It’s a practice that is common today, revealing how influential he was.
“His collaborative spirit was remarkable and carried into efforts to overcome the tension of politics throughout the decades of the 1960s-90s in his travels and the ROCI: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange project,” Brutvan said.
“So he preceded much of what is happening today and we’re thrilled to acknowledge his importance through these great examples of his best works and recognize this is a rare opportunity.”
On opening night of the exhibition, Carrie Springer, assistant curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who helped organize the exhibition, discusses Rauschenberg, his work, and his tremendous influence on today’s artists. The talk begins at 6 p.m.
Robert Rauschenberg: Five Decades from the Whitney’s Collection opens Friday and closes June 28. Admission: $18, except Friday and Saturday, when admission is free; hours: 10 am to 5 pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; 11 am to 5 pm Sunday; 10 am to 10 pm Fridays. Call 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org for more information.