Art Basel has a grittier feel this year, and not just because construction crews are renovating the Miami Beach Convention Center. As a survey of work by the US artist Robert Rauschenberg opens at Tate Modern in London today, galleries are presenting a rejoinder to the candy-coloured, shiny and bejewelled works for which the fair is best known. Amid the glitz, there is an array of assemblages by artists from across the generations who take a cue from Rauschenberg by transforming junk destined for the dump into art.
Rauschenberg began scavenging as a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and did not stop until his death in 2008. His assemblages of cast-off materials perplexed critics and found few buyers when they hit the market in the 1950s, but times have changed. Quartermoon Snare (Spread) (1979), a large, late collage, is on hold for $1.55m at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.
The work, which comes directly from Rauschenberg’s foundation, incorporates a shirt off the artist’s back. Part of his Spreads series, it recalls the artist’s early Combines, says the gallery’s director Polly Robinson Gaer. Works by Rauschenberg are also on offer at Waddington Custot, Galeria Luisa Strina and Acquavella, including Mainspring (1965), a large-scale transfer drawing priced at $2.5m.
“He opened up so many paths for artists,” says the curator Leah Dickerman, who co-organised the Rauschenberg survey, which is due to travel to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in May. “Rauschenberg was radically egalitarian about what art could be: a sock, a brush-stroke of paint, a movement that was non balletic. Every time you enter a Chelsea gallery and see something of the real world, you see the possibilities he allowed,” Dickerman says.
Works at the fair that owe a debt to the US artist include the towering assemblage Savior (1996) by Nari Ward, who participated in the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s residency programme at his former compound in Captiva, Florida. The work, on Lehmann Maupin’s stand (priced at $150,000-$175,000), incorporates a shopping trolley and bin bags topped by a wooden chair. It was seen in the artist’s solo show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami last year. Next stop will be the ICA Boston in April. “It is a throne for homeless African-Americans,” says the gallery’s co-founder David Maupin.
Meanwhile, Blum & Poe has literally brought a piece of the street into the fair: the gallery is presenting a graffiti-covered wall and a tonne of dirt that the artist Henry Taylor appropriated from an empty lot on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. The street vibe continues at Galleri Nicolai Wallner, where a salvaged Danish lamppost hangs upside down, courtesy of the collective A Kassen.
There is also no shortage of work by Rauschenberg’s contemporaries. A solo presentation of Betye Saar at Roberts & Tilton includes Mti (1973), an altar-like assemblage ($350,000) that is on hold for a museum and is due to travel to Tate Modern next year. “I’m interested in accumulation, of taking something else to make something new,” Saar says.
Some of the artists knew Rauschenberg personally. New York’s P.P.O.W. gallery has a rare painted collage from 1961 (around $300,000) by Carolee Schneemann, who attended his happenings in the 1960s. John Outterbridge, whose collage Dreads (2011) is at New York’s Tilton Gallery ($40,000), was working at the Pasadena Art Museum when Rauschenberg had a solo show there in 1970.
Outterbridge was one of a number of artists, including George Herms and Noah Purifoy, who were making assemblages out of discarded materials on the West Coast while Rauschenberg was doing the same on the East. Tilton Gallery is presenting a 1966 assemblage by Purifoy ($140,000), created from detritus he collected in the wake of the Watts riots.
These artists are well aware of their alchemical powers. As George Herms—whose Matisse L’assemblage (1963), complete with fungus and items found in flea markets, is at New York’s Franklin Parrasch Gallery—told the luxury magazine W in 2013: “I turn shit into gold.”