Salvaging 1950s Rauschenberg: The artist's early work goes on show in San Fransisco

This exhibition recovers missing works and provides clues for his development


The exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s early work reaches the conclusion of its four-city, fifteen-month tour when it opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the middle of this month (14 May-2 August). Previously shown at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, where the tour was launched almost exactly forty years after his first one-person exhibition held at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951; at the Menil Foundation in Houston and at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s” concentrates upon the artist’s activity between 1949, when he enrolled at Black Mountain College after a short apprenticeship in Paris, and 1954, when he embarked upon the most important series of works of his career, the combine paintings and constructions. In this respect, San Francisco’s version of the exhibition gains from the proximity of “Collection”, that important triptych of paint and collaged material belonging to the museum, in which Rauschenberg rehearsed the full range of the combined techniques which he would employ for the next ten years.

The period covered by the exhibition is not entirely unknown to scholars and collectors. Twenty-five works including one blueprint monotype, two white paintings, four black paintings, a red painting, the “Automobile Tyre Print”, a collaboration with John Cage, and the celebrated “Erased de Kooning Drawing” prefaced the artist’s major touring retrospective organised by the Smithsonian Institute in 1976. Ten years later, in 1986, Larry Gagosian showed a selection of the White and the Black Paintings in his gallery in New York. But the present exhibition is more comprehensive and, with its accompanying monograph, reveals an even more precocious and diverse artist.

Walter Hopps, the exhibition’s curator, and previously responsible for the Smithsonian retrospective, has performed a salvage job worthy of the artist’s legendary search for materials on the streets of his neighbourhood. In the course of his research, he has discovered missing works and found documentary photographs recording paintings and objects which have been lost or destroyed. From this evidence, he calculates that Rauschenberg may have produced as many as 300 works of art during this five-year period, of which one-half may have survived. Sixty-one works are presented in the exhibition. Among them are the four remaining pictures shown by Betty Parsons, whose checklist notes seventeen works, the complete set of five White Paintings conceived in 1951 and recreated, under Rauschenberg’s instructions, by Brice Marden in 1968, twelve Black Paintings, three gold leaf paintings, fifteen collages created in Rome and North Africa in the last months of 1952, and thirteen box sculptures incorporating stones, thorns, an insect and other material. Disappointingly, the exhibition omits Rauschenberg’s portrait and still-life photography, which is richly illustrated in the catalogue.

It is not a tidy development. Rauschenberg’s fertile imagination oscillates among styles and techniques, and only the Black and Red Paintings, with their richly textured surfaces of paint and newspaper, look properly accomplished. But the seeds of the artist’s powerful progress in the great decade from 1954 can be traced in other and lesser works throughout the exhibition.

Walter Hopps Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991) 240 pp., 70 col., 143 b/w ills. $35