Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), who came to the fore in the 1950s, was one of the great artists of our age. He was also a prominent chronicler of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century, as evidenced in a new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America, on view at MMoCA from September 13, 2009, through January 3, 2010, concentrates on three major print series created by the artist in the late 1960s. Works in the series bear witness to American life at the end of that tumultuous decade. In 1969, postwar triumphalism had consummate expression in the first manned mission to land on the moon. This moment of collective pride, however, was compromised by political assassinations, massive urban riots, demands for social reform, ongoing cold war threats, and protests against the Vietnam War. The dichotomy between a confident and failing America--a result of these events--is the context for the exhibition.
Rauschenberg is best known for his “Combines” (the artist’s term for assemblages combining painting and everyday objects) and silkscreened paintings (photo-screenprinted imagery overlaid with freely painted areas). Working in a broad range of media, more varied than any other major artist of the century, he was also a sculptor, draftsman, photographer, performance artist, choreographer, theater designer, and printmaker. His extensive work in printmaking--which took place over a period of nearly 60 years--is a defining contribution to the history of the modern print.
The three print series that are the focus of the exhibition--Reels (B+C), 1968; Stoned Moon Series, 1969; and Surface Series (from Currents), 1970—are shown in their entirety. To create these works, Rauschenberg first juxtaposed and overlapped imagery appropriated from photographs, scientific diagrams, newspapers, and popular magazines. In two of the series, he unified his collaged designs with scrawled drawing and animated brushwork. The provocative collisions of images and ideas are layered in meaning, reflecting the energetic rhythms and contradictions of the country at a critical point in its history.
The six color lithographs of Reels (B+C) take their imagery from Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 movie that explored the defiance of authority and the glamorization of violence. The film raised the depiction of brutality and sexuality to a new level of candor in American cinema. Rauschenberg assembled stills from the movie, focusing on lead actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. He colored and streaked his compositions with fuchsia, canary yellow, lime green, and deep purple. Psychedelic in intensity, these colors amplify Rauschenberg’s strident metaphor for the American experience.
Stoned Moon Series was Rauschenberg’s ambitious response to the American space program and the landmark Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in July 1969. At the invitation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Rauschenberg witnessed the momentous launch of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In a matter of days, he began work on the print series. With printers working around the clock, he completed the series of 34 prints--including two prints measuring 7 feet in height--in one month’s time. As the basis for the project, Rauschenberg gathered photographs and charts from official NASA archives, to which he added imagery from various media sources, as well as his own photographs. The significance of the series lies in its prodigious execution, technical innovations, dense interweaving of photographic images, explosive crayon drawing, and the success of its epic reach. Most compelling is the ironic character of the series that at once honors and questions American technological achievement. Stoned Moon Series is one of the great print projects of the twentieth century.
Surface Series (from Currents) forms a flip side to the exhilarating nature of Stoned Moon Series. Solemn and harrowing, it is a more overt critique of society. The series consists of 18 large screenprints based on collages of clippings torn from the January and February 1970 editions of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Tribune, and New York Times. Superimposed and printed in a range of black and white inks (suggestive of newsprint), fragments of sensational headlines document the civic turmoil of anti-war marches, government and mob corruption, military violence, and drug abuse.
The question of who we are as Americans has been asked throughout the history of our country. In this spirit of self-examination, Rauschenberg’s print series wrestle with national identity, addressing the hopes and fault lines of the American Dream at the end of the 1960s. They are signs of their times.
An opening reception for Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America will be held on September 12 from 6:30 to 9 pm. A conversation between MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman and curator of collections Rick Axsom, who organized the exhibition, will take place in the museum’s lecture hall at 7 pm. Admission to the reception and talk is free for MMoCA members and $10 for the general public.
Generous funding for Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America has been provided by Bill and Jan DeAtley; Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C.; J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.; the Madison Print Club; Webcrafters-Frautschi Foundation; Paula and David Kraemer; Jim and Cathie Burgess; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company and the Overture Foundation; Associated Bank; RSM McGladrey, Inc.; Gina and Michael Carter; the Madison Arts Commission with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
The following events will take place at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America.
Saturday, September 12
Members' Opening Reception, 6:30-9 pm
Art Talk: A Conversation with Stephen Fleischman and Richard H. Axsom, 7 pm
As part of the opening celebration for Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America, MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman and curator of collections Rick Axsom will trace the development of the artist’s work during the late 1960s. Axsom, who organized the exhibition, is the author of an upcoming catalogue raisonné of Robert Rauschenberg’s prints. Axsom’s previously published works include print catalogues raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, and Frank Stella, as well as critical assessments of other contemporary artists. Sixty minutes. Lecture hall. A Lussier Family Lecture. Admission to the reception and talk is free for MMoCA members and $10 for the general public.
September 13 • 1–2:30 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Kids will discuss the space imagery in Robert Rauschenberg’s Stoned Moon Series before moving to the classroom to make oil pastel prints, layering images of outer space, birds, planes, fruit, and palm trees. Kids’ Art Adventures activities are planned for 6- to 10-year-olds, but younger siblings are welcome. Children must be accompanied by a parent or other adult. Free.
Friday, September 25 • 6:30 pm
Andy Rubin Discusses Rauschenberg’s Creative and Technical Process
Robert Rauschenberg had long-standing relationships with print publishers such as the Los Angeles-based Gemini G.E.L. and Universal Limited Art Editions in New York. While at Gemini, master printer Andy Rubin had the opportunity to observe Rauschenberg at work. In this gallery talk, he will discuss Rauschenberg’s creative approach and technical innovations in the field of printmaking and examine the subjects and methods the artist chose in a selection of prints on view in Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America.
Andy Rubin has been master printer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Tandem Press since 1988. In that time, he has worked with many nationally recognized artists producing prints through collaboration and experimentation. He has exhibited his own work in more than forty national print exhibitions and has taught at the University of Southern California and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. His work is included in university and museum collections. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Friday, October 2 • 6:30 pm
Jeff Smith Discusses Bonnie and Clyde
Professor Jeff Smith will discuss Robert Rauschenberg’s print series Reels (B + C) from the point of view of the film that inspired it: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Reels (B + C) reflects the enormous impact that Penn’s 1967 film had on American culture. The controversial film polarized audiences and critics with its mix of sex, violence, and dark humor. As its production history indicates, Bonnie and Clyde also augured the emergence of the New Hollywood by combining traditional genre conventions with stylistic devices borrowed from the French New Wave. Rauschenberg’s art captures the spirit of the film, perhaps best summarized in its tagline: “They’re young . . . they’re in love . . . and they kill people.”
Professor Jeff Smith teaches film history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts. His book, The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music, was published by Columbia University Press. Professor Smith writes articles for film journals and other publications on such topics as film criticism, the Hollywood blacklist and cognitive film theory. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Friday, October 9 • 6:30 pm
Jeremi Suri Discusses Rauschenberg and the Late Sixties
Professor Jeremi Suri will explore the social, cultural, and political influences that affected Robert Rauschenberg’s artistic sensibility. How did Rauschenberg understand America? What were his messages to his audiences? How were his works received contemporaneously? Professor Suri will also discuss Rauschenberg’s influence on other artists, thinkers, and citizens.
Jeremi Suri is the E. Gordon Fox Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of three major books, including an extended study of society and culture in post-WWII America: Power and Protest (Harvard University Press). Professor Suri frequently writes for popular journals and newspapers. He is also a frequent public lecturer at local societies, festivals, and museums. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Thursday, October 22 • 12:30 pm
Robert Bless Discusses Rauschenberg and the Space Program
In 1969 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invited Rauschenberg and other artists to witness the launch of Apollo 11, the space mission that landed a man on the moon. This experience formed the basis of the 34 lithographs of the Stoned Moon Series, Rauschenberg’s celebration of humanity’s peaceful exploration of space. Professor Robert Bless will relate Rauschenberg’s response to the politics and space technology of the sixties.
Robert Bless, professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Astronomy, is a widely published author and frequent lecturer. His book, Discovering the Cosmos, describes the development of astronomy and science in general and defines major concepts of modern astronomy. Thirty minutes. Main galleries. Free.
Saturday, November 14 • 11 am
Docent Gil Hillman will lead an informal tour and discussion of Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America. This 30-minute tour will explore the artist’s choices in subject matter, style, and materials. Free.
Film / Ongoing
Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg
Open Score documents an amplified tennis match between artist Frank Stella and tennis professional Mimi Kanarek. The match was performed on October 14, 1966, before an audience of 500 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Rauschenberg conceived of the match as a dance: each time the ball was hit, the sound was amplified and one of lights illuminating the court was switched off. The work is an example of Rauschenberg’s spirited and multi-disciplinary engagement with science and technology, popular culture, and art. Open Score will play continuously during the exhibition Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America. Free.