Robert Rauschenberg. A retrospective at Tate Modern

10 February 2017, Tate Modern, London

The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective currently showing at London’s Tate Modern until 2 April, is a remarkable exhibition. It brims with the known from Rauschenberg—Monogram, the famous Angora goat with tyre; Bed made from a quilt when Rauschenberg had no money for canvas; the early Black Mountain experiments; the fascinating sound assemblage, Oracle; his silk screen work; in fact memorable items from every decade of his working life.

Monogram 1955-59 Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Monogram 1955-59
Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters, 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm
Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

But it also has some fascinating lesser known items. They include a collection of personal boxes (Scatole personali) of various shapes and sizes containing an assortment of small items (including dead insects, pebbles, dirt and sticks) made in response to reliquaries Rauschenberg saw in the 1950s while touring Italy with fellow artist Cy Twombly; and a large, square, open-topped tank of bubbling mud, or actually bentonite clay and water, that is linked up with a sound system that records the sound of the bubbles plopping and spluttering.

What the exhibition shows quite clearly is that Rauschenberg was fearless in his approach to what constitutes art. He experimented with everything that came his way.

But I was especially interested in Rauschenberg’s collaborations with choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and a range of choreographers working with Judson Dance Theater, and also with his own endeavours in the field of performance art. These activities were nicely represented in the exhibition with video material, photographs and, in the case of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces, his workbooks in which he recorded his movement ideas. Of his own pieces, the best documented was Pelican first made in 1963 for Rauschenberg himself, Per Olof Ultvedt and Carolyn Brown.

Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965 © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965. © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

As video footage in the exhibition shows, Rauschenberg and Ultvedt performed the choreography on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs and Carolyn Brown executed some balletic moves, including a stunning series of posé turns on pointe. The piece evolved when Rauschenberg was inadvertently described as choreographer rather than stage manager on publicity material for the Pop Art Festival being held in Washington D.C. in 1963. He seized the moment and made Pelican. Others of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces that were well documented in the exhibition included Elgin Tie and Spring Training.

Other dance material on show included some footage from Minutiae, an early work from Cunningham featuring a screen designed by Rauschenberg. While the screen itself was not included in the exhibition, the footage showed several close-up shots of it, including a small revolving mirror and pieces of lace and other fabric, in addition to the largely red paintwork. What was especially interesting was the location of the footage in a room of Rauschenberg’s ‘red’ paintings, made in a period when he moved away from his early experiments with black and white paint. These red paintings, which included Charlene (1954), a stunning work from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, clearly set the context for the Minutiae screen.

Other dance footage included a section from Cunningham’s Travelogue, designed by Rauschenberg in 1977. Again the location of the footage within the exhibition was significant. It provided further context for Rauschenberg’s Travelogue designs. In 1975 Rauschenberg spent time in Ahmedabad, a city in India renown for its textiles, and his use of textiles in his works from this period were hung in one room of the exhibition, along with the Travelogue footage. In Travelogue, this Indian experience is reflected in the costumes he designed, with their ‘wheels’ made from sections of different fabric; in the sheer cloth that hung from overhead as the dance progressed; and in the long strip of sheer, white fabric that the dancers carried at various stages.

On the other hand, the painting Charlene from 1954 has, in one corner of the canvas, a flattened-out umbrella with its sections painted in different colours and his Travelogue costumes are redolent of this part of Charlene. In fact, I was surprised by the extent to which umbrellas and parachutes appeared throughout the exhibition. They seemed to permeate most periods of Rauschenberg’s output.

Untitled (Spread) 1983 Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Untitled (Spread), 1983
Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas
188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Then the exhibition also had on display material relating to Trisha Brown’s 1979 Glacial Decoy, for which Rauschenberg provided costume designs that required the use of sheer, white materials. He also provided the set, which consisted largely of a series of his photographs that were projected in a particular rotation onto four screens at the back of the stage space as the dance unfolded. There was video footage of Glacial Decoy for visitors to view and also, projected onto an exhibition wall in the manner in which they appeared on stage, were the photographs that made up the set.

One other item (or two items) interested me—Factum I and Factum II. These two works (combines) were painted simultaneously in 1957. Rauschenberg apparently said he made them because he was interested in ‘the role that accident played in my work’. They reminded me of those ‘spot the difference’ games, and the differences included drips of paint in one that were not the same in the other. But given the date at which they were painted—a time when Rauschenberg was closely involved with Cunningham and John Cage—that interest in ‘accident’ in a work must surely reflect the influence of Cunningham and Cage.

This was an exceptional exhibition, curated jointly by curators from Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was a great insight into the long and varied career of one of the world’s boldest artists, and there was much to be enjoyed for those whose major interest is in dance and collaboration.

Michelle Potter, 12 February 2017

Featured image: Costume from Travelogue (detail) as displayed in the exhibition INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and Collaborators, Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York, 2007. Photo: Neville Potter

travelogue-costume-detail

‘Crises’ (1960). Merce Cunningham

20 June 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Merce Cunningham made Crises in 1960 and it premiered on 19 August of that year at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. Made for four women and one man, it was, in Cunningham’s own words, ‘an adventure in togetherness’. He said: ‘I decided to allow for the dancers … contacting each other, not only through holding or being held, but also by outside means. I used elastic bands around a wrist, an arm, a waist or a leg. By one dancer inserting a hand under the band on another they were attached but also at the same instant free.’ It has always seemed to me, however, that Cunningham’s explanations are interesting, as indeed is this one about Crises, but that watching his dances is an entirely different experience. What the dance is ‘about’ is secondary to the nature of the vocabulary and the structure of the choreography.

Crises, which is performed to music by Conlon Nancarrow, was reprised for just three performances at the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New  York as part of Anywhere in time: a Conlon Nancarrow festival. It was reconstructed and staged by former Cunningham dancer Jennifer Goggans and performed in the Whitney’s Susan and John Hess Theater, a beautiful performance space where white translucent blinds create a hazy backcloth of the Hudson River.

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham's 'Crises' (1960)

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham’s Crises (1960), New York, 2015

All five dancers, freelance professional performers working with the Merce Cunningham Trust Fellowship program, were beautifully in command of those features that make Cunningham’s choreography such an articulate and visually beautiful vocabulary. All five dancers filled the space around them as they moved and every movement was cleanly executed and beautifully in balance, whether via a centred or an off-centred movement. And there was a lovely flow to each movement as it moved smoothly onto the next. Then, every dancer was able to isolate different parts of the body to achieve particular effects. Tessa Montoya, for example, had moments when the upper part of her body shook wildly as her arms rippled up and down. At the same time the lower part of her body was held firmly and perfectly centered.

I especially enjoyed Erin Dowd’s dancing, right from the start when she entered from downstage and about halfway up the diagonal executed a stunning and unexpected grand jeté. Perhaps the highlight of her performance for me though was a duet with Benny Olk. He walked her down the diagonal supporting her from the waist. She faced upstage for the entire time and lent back from the waist as she stepped backwards, her long hair almost sweeping the floor. Her supporting leg was bent at the knee with the supporting foot on demi-pointe, while the working leg executed a high developpé to the front. Amazing control!

Another highlight was a sequence performed by Vanessa Knouse and others that again involved enormous control and core strength. It consisted of a slow rise, a bend of the knees while still on demi-pointe, a lift of one arm overhead and a bend back (with the dancer still on demi-pointe, knees bent) until the lifted arm reached the floor behind the dancer. The move, performed completely unsupported, was repeated many times. It was hypnotic viewing.

The discussion afterwards mostly concerned Nancarrow’s music, given that the performance was part of a festival devoted to him. We were given a brief history of how the music came to be recorded for use in this restaging of Crises, and heard some of Nancarrow’s music on a player piano. It seems that the Cunningham company used Nancarrow’s music before it had ever been recorded commercially and so gave a boost to his career. But some interesting comments were made and queries raised about whether, with Crises, the dance and the music reflected each other. Cunningham himself said: ‘The music … by Conlon Nancarrow was added after the dance was choreographed.’

Robert Rauschenberg designed the work, dressing the dancers in leotards and tights in various shades of red (including yellow as ‘an exaggerated extreme of red’). For this restaging, unitards were used and colours kept as close as possible to those of the originals.

It was an absolute delight to see this early Cunningham work with its inventive and surprising choreography. What luck to have been in the Whitney at just the right time!

Michelle Potter, 22 June 2015

NOTE: All quotes above are from David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham 65 Years, an iPad app from the Merce Cunningham Trust.

‘Darkness is hiding black horses’, ‘Glacial decoy’, ‘Doux mensonges’. Paris Opera Ballet

2 November 2013, Palais Garnier, Paris

Triple bill programs can be mixed experiences. The Paris Opera Ballet’s recent program, with works by Saburo Teshigawara, Trisha Brown and Jiri Kylian, was a case in point: three choreographers from three very different backgrounds dealing in very different ways with the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown, the spaces in which dance takes place.

The newly created work, Darkness is hiding black horses, by Japanese choreographer Teshigawara opened the program. Made for just three dancers, a female and two males, it was the most difficult to make sense of as it appeared to have no choreographic structure beyond a quite simple floor pattern of straight lines of movement. The dancers very rarely interacted with each other and the movement itself also seemed to have no obvious structure with the dancers moving in a kind of slinky, bendy fashion as if collapsing into and around themselves. An interview with Teshigawara in the printed program noted that the choreographer was interested in surrealism and the act of automatic writing as favoured by some artists of Dadaist bent. Darkness looked a little like a form of automatic choreography.

To tell the truth I have no idea what the work was meant to be about although publicity kept using words like black, obscurity and the like. It was performed in a kind of black box space and little puffs of smoke kept escaping into the air from jets on the floor of the stage. It was mystifying and I think presumptuous. And as for the black horses…?

Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, a work she made in 1979, was welcome relief. Its exploration of the space beyond centre stage, including wing space, was lively and playful and her beautifully exuberant use of dancers picking up phrases from one another was a delight. Robert Rauschenberg’s background projections of his own black and white photographs, mostly of assorted suburban and industrial subjects, seemed to echo the choreography as they slipped across the stage from left to right in groups of four with the far right image constantly disappearing and being replaced by another on the far left.

The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet handled Brown’s loose limbed, swinging movement and idiosyncratic gestures with style although with perhaps a little too much classicism, a feature of the performance that was more noticeable than it might have been given that Brown’s New York company was performing its own program concurrently at the Théâtre de la Ville.

But it was Jiri Kylian’s exquisite Doux mensonges that was the highlight of the evening. It is a beautifully coherent combination of dance (for four dancers only), film (shot under the stage of the Palais Garnier), song (from the group Les Arts florissants), lighting (Michael Simon) and a fabulous, hanging pinky-orange cloud-like structure that turns, folds and unfolds slowly to display varying facets of its composition (also by Michael Simon).

Doux mensonges was created in 1999 for the Paris Opera Ballet and its title might be translated as Sweet lies, although I prefer Sweet deceits. Kylian has explained that his inspiration for the piece is the duality of our personal world, the world that we show to others and allow them to share and the world that we prefer to keep hidden from others. This is best seen in the work when, after performing onstage, the dancers sometimes disappear from the stage via a trapdoor only to be seen below the stage on film (projected back up onto the stage) where a less pleasant and sometimes quite violent side, perhaps a more honest side, of their relationship is shown.

Choreographically Doux mensonges consists largely of duets, on this occasion between Eleonora Abbagnato with Vincent Chaillet and Alice Renavand with Stéphane Bullion. With its focus sometimes on extended legs and arms stretched fully to the side in lifts, it reminded me a little of the duets from Stepping Stones. But I loved the opening duet executed on the edges of a trapdoor and a later moment when in one lift the woman held her legs straight down in a 5th position and executed a series of quivering beats as she was carried across the stage.

There were so many moments of sheer inventiveness, visually, kinaesthetically and musically. Doux mensonges for me is a work of breathtaking, expressionistic beauty. It is hard to think of anything that equals it.

Michelle Potter, 6 November 2013

'Glacial decoy' Trisha Brown Dance Company Photo © Julietta Cervantes 2009
Trisha Brown Dance Company in Glacial decoy, 2009. Photo: © Julietta Cervantes

Unfortunately I have been unable to convince the Paris Opera Ballet of my bona fides as a writer. The press office has ignored my requests for access to images, which is a shame because Teshigawara’s costumes in particular need to be seen rather than described. C’est la vie I guess. The image above of Glacial decoy is of the Trisha Brown Dance Company and comes from their media site.

John Baldessari installation

’13 Rooms’. Kaldor Public Art Project

13 Rooms, 11–21 April 2013, Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay

The city of Sydney has just finished playing host to an ambitious project of installation art, or more correctly perhaps of performance art in which human bodies behaved as sculpture, sometimes moving sculpture, sometimes talking sculpture, existing for a moment in time before going home, or in some cases being replaced by another shift of bodies. The event took place in the mysteriously cavernous space of Pier 2/3 with individual installations/performances showing in purpose-built, small white rooms designed by Harry Seidler & Associates.

'13 Rooms', the space

There was a dance element to one installation, Revolving Door by American artists Allora & Calzadilla. This piece of performance art was choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by dancers of Sydney Dance Company augmented by students from Brent Street, a Sydney performing arts academy. The human ‘door’ of what was a circular space inside one room was a line of bodies representing the internal structure of a revolving door. This human chain of bodies came to a standstill occasionally, as indeed revolving doors do when no-one is using them, then took up the movement again sometimes with linked arms, sometimes with raised arms. Occasionally they would clap hands, lift arms, sit down or engage in some other simple activity.

O

There was of course no music for the dancers to keep time with so to keep the rhythm and to maintain a straight line they had to rely on body time, a concept with which Bonachela is, I’m sure, familiar given his interest in the work of Merce Cunningham. The need to maintain a completely blank look appeared to be another requirement and there were one or two unsettling moments for me, and perhaps for other viewers, when it became apparent that one dancer was focusing on me in order to maintain his blank expression. Does one look away or stare back, I wondered?

Revolving Door also had its amusing moments. Some viewers ventured into the circular space, which had an exit door on two sides, and got caught up in the movement, escaping just in time as the human door pursued its relentless pathway.

And just as body time, where dancers have to sense how and when the bodies of their colleagues move, is a characteristic of Cunningham’s work, so was performance art a component of the early aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their designers, in particular Robert Rauschenberg. Together Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg and a collection of dancers and other artists and musicians presented at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 what is generally regarded as the first ‘happening’ in the United States, Theatre Piece No. 1. Rauschenberg went on to create many acts of performance art, usually with dancers involved, while Cunningham’s Events reflect an ongoing interest in one-off activities.

The whole event was interesting from the point of view of what is generally regarded as the impermanence of performance art. These installations were largely works that had been installed elsewhere around the world including in Manchester in 2011 and Essen in 2012. As John McDonald remarked in his review of the show for The Sydney Morning Herald on 13‒14 April: ‘It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance…Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor-quality stills’.

Another installation I especially enjoyed was Damien Hirst’s work, first made in 1992, in which a set of twins sits in front of two of Hirst’s spot paintings, which although they look alike are quite different from each other. The situation gained an added interest when a set of twins from amongst the onlookers asked to be photographed in the installation.

O

And on the day I visited, the performer in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs was engaged in repainting her room from aqua to flamingo pink.

13 Rooms was an undertaking of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2013

Featured image: Moment from John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art project. Photo: Michelle Potter

Legacy program. Merce Cunningham Dance Company

In the final year of its legacy program, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has just completed a season at the Joyce Theater in New York showing CRWDSPCR (1993), Quartet (1982) and Antic Meet (1958). This program not only spanned three decades of Merce Cunningham’s creative output, but it represented three major strands in his creative process.

The program moved backwards in time, although this was probably not a wise programming decision. Antic Meet, which closed the program, did not have the strength to bring the evening to a conclusion on a high note. It was, however, totally fascinating as representative of work from the early Cunningham period when money was short, the company was small and collaboration between three artistic giants—Cunningham, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg—was a highlight of the company’s work. A series of slight unrelated moments for six dancers (four women and two men), Antic Meet is vaudeville, theatre of the absurd and a dada event rolled into one with the strength of the piece coming from the visual and musical accompaniments and the juxtaposition of sections rather than from the choreography itself.

Rauschenberg’s costumes, consisting of various additions to basic black tights and a black leotard, are an eclectic mix of  ‘found’ items.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM Dance Company

In one section the four women wear dresses originally fashioned from government surplus parachutes. The women are joined by a male dancer wearing a four-armed neckless sweater (made originally by Cunningham) and the sweater in fact becomes the dancer as it is swung, twisted, stretched and struggled with by the live dancer underneath its eccentric construction.

Others of Rauschenberg’s costumes include a fur coat (originally racoon), a long Victorian-style nightdress (both found by Rauschenberg in thrift shops), and some remarkably contemporary-looking black T-shirts with a plastic hoop inserted around the hemline—a little like very short, misplaced tutus. Along with a chair strapped to a dancer’s back, an assortment of props including a door on wheels that leads nowhere, and the accompaniment of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra played live at the Joyce by five distinguished musicians, the whole is light heartedly bizarre.

The middle piece, Quartet, is the most powerful of the three works on the program and represents Cunningham’s engagement with electronic music and with two major collaborators from the 1970s and onwards, designer Mark Lancaster and composer David Tudor. Although called Quartet, it was made for five dancers, a quartet who perform Cunningham’s signature choreography of off-balance poses, asymmetrical partnering and fast turns, and a fifth dancer who remains separated from the four and whose choreography is composed of twisted, sudden movements especially of the arms, largely made while standing on the spot. This fifth dancer was originally Cunningham and the work was created as arthritis was beginning to take its toll on Cunningham’s body. In the Joyce season the role was danced by the company’s current director of choreography, Robert Swinston. It is tempting to suggest that Swinston was posing as Cunningham. But he isn’t Cunningham and what Swinston was able to suggest was that Quartet is a work about belonging and not belonging.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM Dance Company

With the dancers dressed simply by Lancaster in functional dance wear in luscious colours of olive, brown and burnished reds and blues, Quartet was performed to Tudor’s electronic score Sextet for Seven, played live by Takehisa Kosugi, the company’s current music director. Despite the theme of alienation and the somewhat chilling sound of the score, described as ‘six homogenous voices and one wandering voice’, Quartet is not a depressing work. In fact it seemed to me to be a very peaceful work as if in Cunningham’s mind the concept of outsider had been resolved.

The opening piece on the program, CRWDSPCR, is perhaps best summed up by a member of the audience who sprang to her feet as the work finished and shouted ‘Bit of work!!’ It is indeed a ‘bit of work’. It begins with its full complement of thirteen dancers on stage and for the twenty-five minutes or so that the dance lasts, apart from one slow solo section, the dancers weave themselves cross the space to John King’s electronic score, blues ’99. The energy is frenetic as the dancers manoeuvre past each other like the crowds at Grand Central Station, gathering momentum as they proceed. Pronounced either Crowd spacer, or Crowds pacer, a double edged notion that gives a clue to the nature of the work, CRWDSPCR is a little like ordered chaos but brilliantly designed choreographically and as brilliantly executed. The excitement it generated in the audience suggests that it would perhaps have been better placed at the end of the program.

CRWDSPCR represents Cunningham’s early but ongoing interest in using computer technology as a choreographic tool and he created it using the software program LifeForms (now DanceForms). It is costumed by Mark Lancaster in tights and leotards in fourteen blocks of colour to echo the software program. King’s score was again played live by King and Kosugi.

What a pleasure it was to see this this outstanding company in works from across the repertoire with music played live by such remarkable musicians. It was clear reinforcement of the vital role Cunningham, his company as it existed across many decades, and the astonishing collaborators with whom he worked, have made to the world’s dance culture.

Michelle Potter, 27 March 2011