Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks

Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks
July 6  - September 17, 2017 

Project Room: Ross Tibbles
July 6  - September 17, 2017 

Closing reception: September 17, 6-8 pm

Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks at Alden Projects™ (July 6 – September 17, 2017) maps the early exhibition networks through which the artist’s works were disseminated and publicized during the 1960s. Proposing a parallel, yet distinct exhibition structure to the brilliant Robert Rauschenberg retrospective currently at MoMA, Alden Projects™ shines a light on a frequently neglected class of materials: the artist’s poster, which Rauschenberg pioneered, devoting an herculean dedication to this particular ephemera throughout the span of his artistic career. (More than perhaps any other artist, he conceived hundreds.) Published by an innovative consortium of international galleries and collaborators, this exhibition narrowly examines Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking, early posters that procedurally materialized the artist’s newfound commitment to the semantic potential of reproductive technologies. Rauschenberg’s early posters—published by Galleria La Tartaruga (Rome), Leo Castelli Gallery (New York), Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles), The Jewish Museum (New York), Galerie Ileana Sonnabend (Paris), and Art & Technology (New York) hang along side those by, and of, his companions and collaborators: Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Art & Technology co-founder, Billy Klüver. Johns and Twombly were co-conspirators in creating some of the most graphically compelling and original artists’ posters of the era, while Klüver—the publisher of Warhol’s earliest screen printed print executed on top of a 33 rpm record (1962)—was also a re-generative collaborator with whom he created 9 evenings: theater & engineering (1966), the epic theatrical collaboration at the 25th Street Armory between artists and Bell Lab engineers. The collaboration is memorialized in Rauschenberg’s limited edition poster, hand-signed by 40 artists and engineers, and offered in 1966 for the substantial sum of $200.

Importantly, this exhibition tells a different kind of story, organized to highlight the specific gallery and museum exhibition networks where Rauschenberg’s work first took hold. Less known than the New York networks are the particulars of Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome—where Rauschenberg and Twombly travelled together in 1952 and where Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns all exhibited together early.  Here, they shared the stage with a surprising number of artists who overlapped with Leo Castelli’s early stable, but also with European artists who did not: Burri, Castellani, Manzoni, and Kounellis, to name a few.

While unknown to American audiences, Galleria La Tartaruga regularly issued elegantly screen-printed, mostly typographic exhibition posters on colored papers in small, squarish formats. About ten are on view in this exhibition. The rare exhibition poster for Rauschenberg’s May 1959 show at Galleria La Tartaruga and screen-printed in brick red ink—the designer is unknown—reflects not only the artist’s interest in typographic mark-making and the “flat bed picture plane,” but also, underscores Rauschenberg’s graphic connection to the legacy of Dada. By the time this was printed, Leo Castelli’s gallery had yet to inaugurate, with full force, what would become a leading poster-publishing program, particularly during the 1960s.

Johns and Rauschenberg created exceptional, slyly coded artists’ posters for Castelli in 1961: the former with his artist’s poster in January, incorporated stenciled typography along with an image of his infamous beer cans—this rare poster is present at Alden Projects™—an explicit nod to de Kooning’s comment about his friend, Leo Castelli, “That son-of-a bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” Following Johns, Rauschenberg’s November 1961 poster for his one-person exhibition also contained messages in code. The poster comprises photographic images of found urban detritus together with fragments of printed phrases on torn papers, including “Rauschenberg,” “Castelli,” as well as “2nd week of November” stenciled onto a “found” photograph within the photograph, all scattered throughout the rubble and nearly indecipherable. This complex, nearly hermetic composition communicates the graphic power of Rauschenberg’s materials, collage methods, and its semantic uncertainty. It is one of the earliest artist’s posters of the era, only very narrowly rising to announce the bare minimum communicative / instrumental functions of an exhibition invitation, which otherwise reliably provide clear, specific details about the event’s time and location. This poster provides clarity, instead, into Rauschenberg’s particular way of seeing, transforming his audience into collaborating urban detectives. It would not be any surprise if most people encountering this poster in its earliest reception missed both the event and the location of its encrypted messaging system.

With similar élan, Rauschenberg’s 1962 artist’s poster for Dwan Gallery in this exhibition incorporates various collaged elements, including a sealed telegram to the dealer, Virginia Dwan (slyly nodding, perhaps, towards his earlier portrait of Iris Clert in the form of a telegram), and incorporating a crossword puzzle into which the artist inscribes, among other clues, the dates of the exhibition.

Rauschenberg’s 1963 poster for his one-person exhibition at The Jewish Museum was handled with the same process and care given to the artist’s prints: lithographed onto thick paper from a large stone plate, the poster was struck by Universal Limited Art Editions, New York (ULAE), who would collaborate with Rauschenberg and Johns on their most consequential print projects throughout the 1960s. Prior to hitting upon the silkscreen technique in 1962, Rauschenberg first turned to lithography: “My lithography is the realization and execution of the fact that anything that creates the image on stone is potential material.” Rauschenberg’s poster for The Jewish Museum is an early example of the time, energy, and importance the artist gave to artist’s ephemera, in contrast with the earlier generation of artists (e.g. de Kooning) who were more interested in painting and the vertical axis of nature than they were in the horizontal, graphic axis of signs and their reproducibility (beer cans, scavenged photos, posters, etc.).

Following the critical success of the Rauschenberg and Johns shows at The Jewish Museum (1963 and 1964 respectively), its Director and curator, Alan Solomon was selected to organize the American contribution to the Venice Biennial in 1964. “Four Seminal Painters” at the American Pavilion included Rauschenberg and Johns along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. With the support of the Italian-speaking duo, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, Solomon was able to persuade the contested jury, to the chagrin of many, to grant Rauschenberg the Biennial’s top prize.  French critic, Pierre Restany wrote: “The Rome-New York axis between the two poles of neo-geometrism and modern folklore constituted the true scope of the Biennale.” Rauschenberg, Castelli and Sonnabend’s affinities with the Rome network (including Galleria La Tartaruga) paid off handsomely.

Rauschenberg, Johns, and other Leo Castelli-associated artists to follow (including Warhol and Lichtenstein) achieved worldwide notoriety through the support of visionary publishing and publicity programs. Innovated by a specific network of players who shared collaborative and expansive undertakings, they championed the ephemeral printed format of the artists’ poster that, in many ways, was particularly well suited to the reproductive visions of these artists.  Rauschenberg was drawn to the democratic promises of the poster, nearly all of which were freely distributed. But he was also drawn to the poster in the early 1960s as a freshly discovered context for printing ephemeral messages, fleeting and unfixed. While contemporary museum culture often looks upon the artist’s poster as the unwanted stepchild of art, it remains irrefutable that Rauschenberg’s graphic interest in the reproductive space of the exhibition announcement—including shifting markers of the here-and-now—manifests with particular, and local purpose the artist’s attempts to expand not only the materials, techniques and frontiers of art, but also to transform audiences into active collaborators who are invited to discover art in unexpected places—including, perhaps, the date-stamped poster arriving in yesterday’s mail.

© Todd Alden 2017