Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends

Museum of Modern Art, New York

published in Wire No.405, London, 2017
Robert Rauschenberg - Mud Muse (1968-71); Oracle (1962-65)

Rediscovery and recontextualisation drive my thoughts on the fantastic survey of Robert Rauschenberg’s multi-media works in solo and collaborative configuration in the exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends”, installed first at Tate Britain, then at MoMA New York. The exhibition’s premise is founded on showing how open and fluid Rauschenberg was in his practice, and how that theoretically and formally shaped his working methods and artistic outcomes. Rauschenberg is notable in the immediate US post-war milieu for incorporating found objects and appropriating media imagery through his ‘combines’ (like the famous post-Surrealist tyre-wearing-goat for Monogram, 1958) and silk-screen experiments (like the iconic pop-culture collage-bomb of Retroactive, 1964). These now-canonical trajectories of his work are here effectively widened and redirected to show how sound, performance, scripting, staging, action, direction and collaboration laterally shaped his approach to the traditions of sculpture and painting. Most importantly, this large scale exhibition allowed for substantial performance and ‘event’ documentation, as well as the new installation of a range of technological works.

Two vital rarely-exhibited works in the exhibition were Oracle (1962-65) and Mud Muse (1968-71). Each has been fully restored through implementing legacy technologies (AM radios in the former, reel-to-reel tape in the latter). Following the association Rauschenberg established with the oft-neglected Billy Kluver from AT&T Bell Laboratories in the lead-up to the Experiments in Art & Technology (EAT) spectacular in 1967, these works reroute the multimedia eventfulness of EAT’s chaotic events into sculptural form. Most interestingly, sonics activate these works rather than kinetics or optics. Modernism’s history of technical experimentation is well documented in terms of how artworks generated movement or induced ocular overload, but the accounting of how sound has been integrated into artworks remains sketchy. “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” reverts mostly to discussing his mixed media and multimedia works in quasi-authorial terms by deferring to Rauschenberg’s diary notes and/or the Black College and E.A.T. documentation of the experiments that paralleled or directly shaped their development. But more than any other artist of his time, Rauschenberg was a sculptor with ears. His works’ power equally lies in their subsumption of the greater cultural world of his moment.

Billy Kluver, Robert Rauschenberg & the E.A.T. team testing Mud Muse (1968); Kluver & Rauschenberg installing Oracle (1962)

Oracle features radios programmed to randomly shift stations, amplifying bursts of illegible noise through the metallic tunnelling of air vents, car doors and bath piping. Their deep rumbling and blurred sonics advance a type of metal music before either Metal Machine Music or Metallica. Experiencing the complete set of five rickety tin sheet combines formed from building demolition detritus, I viewed their cacophonic concerto in line with both the Futurists’ intonarumori noise-makers and New York City’s urban cacophony produced by high density living conditions. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer In The City" (1966) and its bursts of traffic noise also came to mind—not to mention three decades of urban jazz magpie-mimicking Manhattan’s crosstown traffic.

This leads me to hypothetically query what exactly Rauschenberg and his friends were listening to at the time? The cult of Cageian aesthetics would have us believe that Cage et al celebrated the sound of everything as music, yet one can rarely find precise mention of what they heard on radio, at non-art concerts, on TV, or even in the street. Oracle strangely points to the specificity of this lost space of the moment more than anything Cage and Fluxus ever produced. By imagining how sound informs sculpture, Oracle’s captured and re-channelled radiophonic eventfulness demonstrates how the sound of music defines the atmospherics of urban sonography. Those rumbling and rattling shafts and tubes are the city’s noisemakers still: I heard the same congested soundscape catching the subway and traversing mid-town. Music played everywhere, but all song melted into noise. This marks Rauschenberg as a sentient multimedia artist who materially explored the ramifications of Cage’s poetic philosophical pondering. Many musicians and songwriters of the ‘60s talked about representing the sound of the city, the vibe on the street, and urban life in general. Oracle conceptually links to this drive by focusing on the materiality of how city noise is amplified and rendered.

Mud Muse is a fascinating folly in ‘visualising sound’ literally by having (originally) music and mic feeds trigger pneumatic pumps contained under the beige mud tank to affect explosive blobs of pseudo-molten sound. The exhibition presents the work as a prophetic synesthetic vision of the hyper-materiality with which Rauschenberg emboldened his experiments, which at the time would have to many appeared absurd or even Dadaist. Again, my mind shot through a network of unexpected tangential references. Viewed as a sculpture, Mud Muse playfully stretches the definition of sculptural form, here aligning its blobular unpredictability contemporaneously with Robert Smithson’s earth works and Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures. More than those artists, Rauschenberg’s moist approach is dynamic, aleatory, restless and changing—all within the moment of one’s encounter with its performative passage. I was instantly reminded of Disney’s experimentation with audiovision in Fantasia (1941) when lava bubbles are animated to Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring (1917). But even that transhistorical work was likely influenced by the La Brea Tar Pits which even today stand as a gorgeous gloopy testament to living archaeology and the effects of meta-time lines on objective forms. And then, I was jettisoned into a more recent past—that of the mud baths which eventually became a staple of throbbing rock festivals. Mud Muse was soft rock at its most fetid.

Robert Rauschenberg - Signs (1970)

Other works in the exhibition riff on this type of ‘intercultural’ phenomenology, wherein an artist like Rauschenberg likely absorbed all sorts of impressions and affects from the noisy post-war Pop world around him. Automobile Tyre Print (1955) out-Cages Cage with its mix of chance, encoding, temporality and performative inscription. Large mixed-media print-paintings like Retroactive (1964) and Signs (1970) arguably transform the US radiophonic/broadcast soundscape of the time into mock rock poster reconstructions of the same. I might be over-reading some of this, but surely one could be encouraged to do so when an artist like Rauschenberg is in this exhibition being honoured as bearing a vibrant musicological connection to sound, scores and sonic performativity.

Maybe what most impressed me most about “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” was the latent power of these works’ aural component, which I found far more engaging than much contemporary ‘Sound Art’ and its fetishization of mics, speakers, earphones, turntables and the like. By eschewing those markers, Rauschenberg’s broad and lateral experiments in audio-vision paint a very different picture, wherein sound literally comes from within objects. Walking through the last section of the exhibition and its documentation of Rauschenberg’s later work with Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, I tried to locate the source of amazing low-end thuds, thumps and rumbles. They sounded like a monumental distortion of Mud Muse’s subsonic envelopes (due to the machines controlling the pneumatic pipes expressing air into the mud bath). An attendant informed me it was the sound of pile-driver construction for the new extensions to MoMA. It was a truly Rauschenbergian experience of being in the moment of cacophonous space.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Robert Rauschenberg.