Robert Rauschenberg and Me: My Big Day Out

You must be finding it especially frustrating, a friend of mine said recently, living in London surrounded by all those galleries you would normally visit and they’re closed. Well, no longer. Not all of them. By some curious sleight of hand, while Tate, the Royal Academy and other major public galleries remain locked down, smaller commercial galleries of the kind that populate Mayfair have been allowed to open. Masks. Hand sanitiser. No more than half a dozen visitors at any one time.

When I set out, the morning was sunny but cold; the wind biting enough to make me reconsider, not the whole enterprise, but the wisdom of leaving the house without a scarf. The bus, the trusty 88 from Parliament Hill to Clapham Common, was almost empty and would remain so for most of the journey; three, myself included, on the upper deck, some half a dozen below, all of us masked. Roadworks aside, progress was uninterrupted; even the usually busy crossroads where Oxford Street meets Regent Street failed to slow us down. A few moments more and I was ringing the bell, heading for the stairs and off out onto the pavement, turning west towards Mayfair.

It was a long time since I’d ventured into the heart of London for anything other than a hospital appointment and, even though I’ve now had both my jabs, an awareness that it’s possible for me, nevertheless, to transmit the virus to others, has made me cautious. But how often were there two exhibitions of Robert Rauschenberg’s work in London at the same time?

It was the Rauschenberg show at the Whitechapel Gallery back in 1964 that confronted me for the first time with art that was contemporary and exciting – and American – and which challenged so gloriously my conception of what art should be. No longer something statuesque upon a plinth or neatly in a frame, but a collage of images splattered and smeared with paint, an unmade bed hanging from the wall, the taxidermied head of an Angora goat!

The Bastian gallery – small, smart and cool – is on Davies Street, which – conveniently – runs along the western side of Berkeley Square; convenient, as I could sit on one of the many benches, eating my lunch – an egg & cress sandwich from the Pret a Manger opposite – before entering.

There are ten pieces on display on two floors [plus an eleventh by Cy Twombly], all coming from a time when Rauschenberg was living on the island of Captiva, off the coast of Florida. Three are assemblages of various metals – Gluts, as he called them – two lithographs, the others collages of images transferred by various means onto paper or polylaminate.

Robert Rauschenberg: Pimiento Late Summer Glut, 1987. Riveted metal parts
Robert Rauschenberg: Flue, 1980. Solvent transfer, acrylic & collage on paper.

Where Bastian is cool and minimal, allowing the work to be the immediate focus of attention, Thaddeus Ropac – at Ely House on Dover Street, near the Royal Academy – is opulent and grand, its black and white tiles, nevertheless, a near-perfect setting for the work on display. A selection of the artist’s photographs aside, this comes from two series of Rauschenberg’s metal paintings [silk-screened photographic images plus paint on aluminium]- the dark, noir tones of Night Shades and the lighter, reflective Phantoms.

Robert Rauschenberg: from Night Shades
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms
Robert Rauschenberg: from Phantoms (detail)

Oh, and one other thing … the first room at Ely House features three abstract paintings by the Canadian artist/writer Megan Rooney – luminous, rich in colour – think, maybe, Sam Francis merged with Helen Frankenthaler – which act as a nice contrast to what is to come. Rumour has it, Rooney will have a show of her own here later in the year …

Author: John Harvey


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