Thursday, January 8, 2015

Was Robert Rauschenberg a Southern Photographer?

Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art has up through this weekend a retrospective show of work by the distinguished American artist Robert Rauschenberg.

One of the things I learned from this show is about Rauschenberg's long career as a photographer, a career grounded in his time as a student at Black Mountain College, in Black Mountain, NC, just east of Asheville.

The catalogue for this show -- which the Nasher happily includes in full on its website, go here -- includes a long and thorough essay entitled "Rauschenberg’s Photography: Documenting and Abstracting the Authentic Experience," by Guest Curator Lauren Acampora, go here.

Acampora notes that the beginnings of Rauschenberg's career as an artist lie in the study of photography, which he began while a student of
photographer Hazel Larsen Archer at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951. 

Larsen Archer took this photograph (see above) of Rauschenberg while he was her student at Black Mountain College. Interestingly, the College has an extensive website devoted to her work at Black Mountain, here. 

While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg was also exposed to the work of visiting professors Harry Callahan, Arthur Siegel, and Aaron Siskind. 

Rauschenberg continued to practice photography for a number of years. In fact, his first major recognition as an artist came in January of 1952, when Edward Steichen purchased two of Rauschenberg’s photographs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York: Untitled (Interior of an Old Carriage) (1949) and Untitled (Cy on Bench) (1951).

In the mid-1950's, Rauschenberg gave up photography to concentrate on his painting, only to return to it a few years later, as he found ways to incorporate his photographs into large mixed media compositions such as the one below, Untitled (1984).

As Acampora notes, Rauschenberg believed he never gave up being a photographer, both through incorporating photographic images into his paintings and multi-media works and through photography alone.

His engagement with photography finally resulted in his mounting, in 1981, a major show of over a hundred of his photographs, entitled Rauschenberg Photographe, in an exhibition organized by curator Alain Sayag at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Acampora demonstrates Rauschenberg's engagement with photography throughout his career, from its beginning to the end, in multi-medial works like the one above, from the late 1990's. 

She also gives a detailed account of the techniques Rauschenberg used to incorporate his photographs into his paintings and suggests that using photographs enabled Rauschenberg to introduce into his works an extended consideration of time, of the relationship between the ephemerality of the moment documented in the photograph and the traditional view that art transcends the temporal.

There is a lot more very thoughtful discussion in Acampora's essay of Rauschenberg's use of photography in his work, so much that I can't begin to cover it all here. 

I strongly recommend Acampora's essay to you, and encourage you to see the show at the Nasher, if you are able, before it closes on tJanuary 11th. 

I can say that from the perspective of Rauschenberg's practice as a photographer, his work looks even more ground-breaking and radically experimental than it does when we think of it as a development in the history of painting. 

Thinking of Rauschenberg chiefly as a painter obscures his radicalism as a photographer, and as a Southern one, at that.

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