Robert Rauschenberg Mirthday Man
Mirthday Man is one of the strongest works that Rauschenberg has made in four decades. For Rauschenberg himself, this large painting meant something very special.
Mirthday Man is the principal work in the series Anagrams (A Pun). Rauschenberg made the painting in 1997 for his 72nd birthday. The painting features himself – his full-body X-ray first made for “Booster” in 1967. Surrounding this figure are photographs from his numerous travels all over the world of places and things he remembered with pleasure.
As a very personal painting, this piece seems to express the essence of what Rauschenberg’s work is all about: humour, beauty, everyday life, the clash of high and low, life and death.
Central motifs from his oeuvre are repeated: he recycles his skeleton, a very literal deconstruction of the artistic ‘aura’, and a concrete symbol of what we will all become in the end. There is the repetition of the blanket, already central to an early piece like “Bed”; here, though, it is as white as a shroud. The bright orange and red sunshades, so typical of the sunny South, are life-affirming, like the bicycle’s ‘wheel of life’. The wonderful clash of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with a profane dog in a car at sunset, the soccer shirts with their colourful patchwork of numbers, and the soup-cans of everyday life.
The three-panel painting is large, like the old allegorical history paintings, and the triptych is a classic format. What is told here is not one story, but a myriad of small tales.
Great warmth radiates from this central Rauschenberg piece; an appreciation of life as it is lived and seen.
We believe that a masterpiece like this deserves special attention. For us, it is, therefore, a privilege to encourage further research into this work by creating this publication.
In our previous exhibitions of Rauschenberg in our gallery in Copenhagen we have focused on different periods of his work e.g. the early sixties, his late ‘Scenarios’ series and in our Beijing space we hosted a retrospective of the past three decades.
On the basis of our serious interest in Rauschenberg’s works, we plan other such excursions into his work in the future.
We would like to express our warmest thanks to Michael Wivel for his passionate, personal and inspiring text on Robert Rauschenberg. Our gratitude too to David White and Thomas Buehler from Robert Rauschenberg, Inc. From the beginning they have helped, supported and supervised this project. We would also like to thank Arne Glimcher, Pace Wildenstein, The Menil Collection, Museum Ludwig, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, and the generous private collectors for their kind support for the realization of this book.
This publication is a tribute to an outstanding artist and an outstanding work of art.
Robert Rauschenberg died in May 2008, 82 years old and “full of days” – as they say without knowing if it is true. Especially when it comes to Rauschenberg, I don’t think it’s true – he never had his fill, either of days or of the impressions they left on his impressionable mind. On the contrary, he seems to have rejoiced over every one of them, and felt an irresistible urge to pass on that joy – to the rest of us. Every day was a new day that demanded his full attention. For the same reason he tried – with his whole unbounded capaciousness – to capture as many of them as humanly possible in his pictures.
Even in his final years, when a stroke had paralysed and crippled his right hand, he continued his work, undaunted. In this sense he bears no little resemblance to another generous figure, the old, rheumatic Impressionist Auguste Renoir. Both loved the day and the creative work too much to sit idly by, so they decided to use sensitive assistants now that their hands no longer obeyed them. Both were gifted with a rare, radiant optimism, and had no intention of letting age and its troubles overshadow it. So they just went on as if nothing had happened, thus turning a bitter blow of fate to good use.
With precise instructions and kind words to younger people who still had the use of their hands, the two masters of communication now brought their pictures into the world by proxy. For Rauschenberg this was probably less of a problem than for Renoir, since he had already long been using assistants. This was partly because he felt it was inspiring to have people around him in the studio – and partly because over the years his pictures had become more and more complicated to realize. For example, he made ever increasing use of materials that were difficult to handle and techniques that demanded both professional expertise and technical dexterity.
He did not work with oil on canvas like Renoir, but with acrylic and acid on metal; he did not form his figures in clay, like Renoir, but pieced them together from many highly varied materials. And he was more than likely to go up to formats of which the old Impressionist could only have dreamt, when he dreamed back to Veronese, Rubens and the Baroque.
In 1995 I wrote a text about Rauschenberg for an exhibition that the museum Ordrupgaard arranged in collaboration with Faurschou. It showed selected works from two of the series he was working on then, Night Shades and Urban Bourbons. Both series consisted of pictures done on aluminium, but they were otherwise quite different. The first was dark, the second bright; the first confined itself to a scale between black and white, while the second unfolded in all the colours of the rainbow.
It was the former of the two that was most interesting, or enduring, and it prompted me to write that Rauschenberg now, at the age of 70, was on his way into the late phase where, like a few other great painters of the western tradition, he was abandoning himself to an idiom whose goal was a distinctively personal absorption in the actual material. After many years as an innovative, stylistically pace-setting talent, he had mobilized hidden reserves and taken his pictures out to a place where it was no longer possible for others to follow.
“Just as Monet used his lily ponds as a pretext for reflections on the nature of painting and the fundamental transitoriness of existence, Rauschenberg too scans his world with growing wonder at its definitive unfathomability. And just as the lily ponds so to speak closed around Monet and his vision, the shades of night now close in around Rauschenberg and his. Not ominously, but with their own unstemmable flood of emotive power. He envisages all the well known, familiar subjects and tries to hold them fast, but the darkness grows and takes over, and he is whirled along in the eddies and paints the motifs away and into the darkness”. So I wrote – and so I thought.
In the actual situation, I had difficulty conceiving how he could continue from there. How he could penetrate even deeper into the material. But Rauschenberg was never a painter for stick-in-the-muds, so of course he had long been well on his way forward. His gifts were too exuberant and his curiosity too great to be held back by previous results, beautiful as they might be. That very year, for example, he was in full swing working his way out of the darkness into another, brighter world – with another, crisper technique that was to hold sway over him until the stroke struck in 2002.
There can no longer be any doubt that this was a late and strangely captivating flowering like Monet’s, now that Rauschenberg’s oeuvre has been rounded off and can be overviewed. It started at the beginning of the 1990s with the two sombre series Borealis and Night Shades, and continued unabated throughout the 1990s with a couple of others, more transparent, called Anagrams, Anagrams (a Pun) and Arcadian Retreats, to culminate in a number of gauzy hints in the three series Short Stories, Scenarios and Runts from the beginning of the new millennium.
As always – and as in all the series mentioned – there was a medley of pictures in various sizes: pictures which, with their fundamentally transitory presence, are difficult to fix in the memory. For the same reason Rauschenberg’s things always have an oddly surprising quality. You think you are seeing them for the first time, even though you may very well have seen them before. They seem new, even though they have been there long. There are always details to discover that you have overlooked in earlier rendezvous.
Obviously, in the constant flow of pictures and in the many series that issued from Rauschenberg’s studio in the course of time, there had to be individual works where he more or less consciously summed up his impressions with statements of a certain iconic quality. It was not something he favoured, but on the other hand, neither was it something he could wholly avoid. He shunned the definitive and walked out of his studio at the drop of a hat if he thought his ideas were a little too good, a little too open-and-shut – and that the result was therefore predetermined. But sometimes the die was cast, and situations arose in the creative process that led to works where his efforts converged in a synthesis; in major works where he unfolded his knowledge with equal inevitability and authority.
In the series Borealis it happened in the work Bible Bike, now owned by the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, one of the strongest collections in Europe of art from the twentieth century; and in the series Night Shades it happened in the work Holiday Ruse, now owned by the Menil Collection in Houston, one of the most exquisite collections in the USA. Both pictures sum up the intentions of their respective series, and do so exhaustively and with supreme mastery. These are masterpieces of rare substance.
Holiday Ruse is five-panelled and pieced together from a profusion of civilizational motifs: house facades, statues, pedestrians, street lights, notices and neon signs. It is the city as a totality or as a condition that is spread out before our eyes. But at the same time it is also one of the very rare examples in Rauschenberg’s work of a picture where a figure takes on a role at the expense of the other elements.
“You Are Now Leaving the American Sector”, it says somewhere in the darkness, with a reference to Checkpoint Charlie. But it is of course not only about Berlin. There is something existential about the statement – and something highly personal. For just beneath it stands a man with a stack of wooden crates on his shoulder, waving and smiling at us. He is on a different scale from the rest, and impossible to ignore – nor is there any doubt that he is Rauschenberg’s alter ego in the picture.
What he wants to say with this optimistic self-representation is that you have to move on while there is still time, if you want to touch the unknown. Or as Søren Kierkegaard put it, if you want to lose your footing for a while. Rauschenberg himself constantly lost it, with infectious results. He was constantly tearing himself free of the safe and certain to confront the alien, the unexpected, the inspiring; it is therefore no coincidence either that he has Pegasus taking off towards the skies up in the left-hand corner of the picture.
The picture is an encyclopedic utterance about the diversity of western civilization, and about the place of the artist in its midst; a questioning work about cause and effect – and about the creative potential of breaking out of the routine.
The principal work in the series Anagrams (A Pun) is called Mirthday Man, and Rauschenberg made it in 1997, on the occasion of his own birthday. As so often before in his work, the title is a pun and an ambivalent joke. But in this case it is also a manifesto – and a self-characterization.
Life is not the worst thing we’ve got, to quote the Danish poet Benny Andersen, and the thing is to rejoice in it as long as it lasts. That’s what birthdays are all about. You celebrate that you still exist, that a year has gone by, and that a new one is about to start. You’re still alive and can think with your brain and see out of your eyes and let the impressions pour in. In that sense it is a picture borne up by exuberance and seriousness, joy and gratitude – a picture that sums up the past, analyses the moment and is bursting with expectations of all that is to come.
At the same time it is a picture where Rauschenberg once more lets a figure dominate at the expense of the other elements. Now it isn’t a human being of flesh and blood we see – rather the opposite, a skeleton that stands shining forth from a dark background. Nevertheless it is a living person – and we even know his identity. For it is Rauschenberg himself, as he looked when he was X-rayed.
The X-rays are from the mid-sixties, Rauschenberg’s most effervescent and carefree period, and at the time he used them in a large, programmatic lithograph that he called Booster. It is from 1967, and in the nature of things it is a kind of self-portrait, but a self-portrait where the likeness, characteristically, is transparent and thus intangible. Rauschenberg’s spectral figure towers up in its full length against a background, a confusion of slightly blurred photographs that are held in check and balance by a sober graphic image of a calendar year.
The title of the lithograph refers to the booster rockets that were one of the prerequisites of the American Apollo missions – and thus the epochal moon landings. But it also alludes more generally to mankind’s, and thus also the artist’s, ability to reinforce a visual statement, an aesthetic effect, a creative process. That can happen either through technological advances or through pure inspiration, but also – and this was what Rauschenberg practised – through a combination where technology could help inspiration on its way, or vice versa, so that hitherto unseen pictures found their enduring form.
The lithograph is one of Rauschenberg’s best known graphic works, and thirty years later, when he quoted it in his birthday picture, it should be seen not only as a greeting across time, but also as a summing-up of an entertaining nature. He may well have been in a different place in 1997 from in 1967, but his curiosity was the same, he was just as open to impressions as before, and his delight in their diversity was unchanged. As in the picture, he still existed in the midst of the world and its profusion of phenomena. They crowded in on him, and like a butterfly collector he caught them in flight and fixed them to his pictures – not systematically to emphasize the distinctive features of each species, but confrontationally, to elaborate on the beauty of their variety.
In Mirthday Man a parasol is confronted with a poppy field, and Botticelli’s foam-born Venus with a wagon wheel, and the shiny hood of a truck is confronted with a faded curtain. The differences are conspicuous. Soft forms alternate with hard ones, living beings with dead materials – and the associations come in rapid succession. The parasol unfolds in red and yellow, like the poppies in the field, and Venus’s seashell can be seen as an echo of the spokes of the wagon wheel – an echo that is further strengthened by the striped soccer shirts that cling to the shell, and by the zebra stripes that send the winds off towards Venus so she can rock on the waves.
The poppies appear again on the other side of Rauschenberg’s spectral figure, as does the parasol, now accompanied by a circus poster where a small lion stands guard. The zebra and its stripes also appear in two places, as do some large, softly folded tarpaulins of a decidedly sensual character. There are also car windows en masse in the picture, and all these many repetitions create a certain order in the chaos. But it is in the cracks between them that it flashes and gleams and Rauschenberg makes his personal impact.
At the very top, for example, one of his leitmotifs shoots down – a red arrow that abruptly turns off at an angle and points to a handle in a sliding door of metal. But it also points further towards another of the artist’s leitmotifs – a dog. It is sitting inside a car, with its ears pricked up, attentive eyes and its head resting on the half rolled-down window. Perhaps it is looking at the zebra? Perhaps it is guarding Venus? Or perhaps it should just be regarded as Rauschenberg’s alter ego?
At any rate it is present in the world and observing with interest as the phenomena pass muster. And it is free – unlike its fellow over on the opposite side of the X-ray. For here too a dog sits inside a car. But it sits behind closed windows, and you can just make out its form in the middle of the glowing sunrise reflected in the glass. Free or unfree, outside or inside? This is one of the themes suggested in this riot of information that Rauschenberg has whirled up around him to mark the festive day.
Just as Rauschenberg uses a motif from the sixties as the central element in the picture, he also turns back compositionally to this great period, when he worked especially with silk screen on canvas, and when he juggled freely with the elements, so the same motifs could recur in ever-new combinations. Yet it is no longer silk screens he uses, but a particularly sophisticated digital printing method. In the same transparent way as in the sixties, he can make the individual motifs slide in over one another, and the print is not applied mechanically, but with the bare hands and a squeegee. This not only enlivens the various images, it also gives them a different, greater materiality.
Yet the materiality is also in the materials themselves. The surface is no longer made of hard metal, but of more sensitively absorbent material like paper, polylaminate, wax or plaster, and the material is no longer acrylic but a water-based, organic vegetable dye. Both contribute to the higher degree of transparency characteristic of the motifs, and the strangely dusty consistency of the colour.
Compared with before, the pictures have taken on an almost faded look, as if they have hung too long in the sun. In one of the series, Arcadian Retreats, this faded or worn look is actually an integral part of the message, since the pictures have been made with the aid of a kind of fresco technique that makes the individual pictures resemble those excavated over the years at Pompeii.
This remarkable materiality and crisp transparency give Rauschenberg’s late phase an element of memory or retrospection. The pictures have the look of recollection, as if the many visions that appear and slide in over one another on the surface have been called forth from the most recondite shelves of the great storehouse inside the skull. They are called forth without further ado and land one after another on the open surfaces in a kind of nonchalant disorder. It is as if the surface has absorbed them in passing, so you feel they could disappear any time.
These transitory impressions are rather reminiscent of the miraculous image which, according to tradition, adhered like a silhouette to the veil that the merciful Veronica used when she wiped the sweat from the face of Christ. The miracle is said to have happened on his via dolorosa up to Calvary, but there is nothing about it in the Gospels. It is a later myth, but since it has such evocative power it has enjoyed a long life afterwards in the history of art, where the cloth is called the Veil of Veronica, or simply The Veronica.
The most powerful renditions of the theme are in the work of the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco Zurbaran. He is the only one who has literally taken the myth at face value – in the sense that he has imagined how the impression, which was direct and on a scale of 1:1, must have looked. Time and time again he tried to come close to this – in a way photographic – likeness, and call it forth on the white cloth in the same way as one develops a photograph from its negative to its positive existence.
There is something almost magical about Zurbaran’s solutions to this difficult problem, and the resemblance between them and Rauschenberg’s late pictures is striking. These too have the successive character of developed pictures – the many motifs appear to come only hesitantly, only to be fixed in all their transience somewhere between presence and absence.
They are – in short – alive, just as the artist himself was, in the midst of the process. The subjects came to him and he developed them, one by one, as impressions on the open, white surfaces. Mirthday Man is in that respect classic, partly because it is so rich in its messages, and partly because the painter has put himself right in the middle – as the one who both recalls and calls forth. The picture is Robert Rauschenberg’s Veronica.
Abundance, extravagance and exuberance are all concepts we immediately associate with Rauschenberg’s work. And as the poet and painter William Blake said, that is just fine. “Exuberance is beautiful,” Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – probably thinking less about art than about nature, whose exuberance is endless, and whose wealth and diversity of expression can only be described as exuberant, or – if you are that way inclined – as the brilliant result of a divine imagination.
Rauschenberg’s imagination is, of course, closer to earth, but it is as fertile as any, over the years engendering pictures in absolutely overwhelming numbers and of absolutely amazing variety. His work is not for puritans. His bandwagon has been quite an act to follow in more ways than one. I myself jumped aboard in 1964, when I had seen his works at the Biennale in Venice, and ever since I have tried to hang on tight during the trip, no matter how risky the pace might seem. And it has very much been worth it; the journey has been unceasingly inspiring.
Rauschenberg himself was once asked whether he could imagine having become anything else but an artist, and with witty precision he promptly answered that he would probably have made a good taxi driver. And he wasn’t wrong: he had all the qualities you need in that job: he was accommodating, he was communicative, he had a steady hand, he could find his way around, and he wasn’t afraid of the unfamiliar.
But although Rauschenberg lived in New York for most of his creative life, it wasn’t only a Yellow Cab he drove us around in. He got around more than that. In the end he had tried to appropriate and map the whole wide world so the rest of us – his fellow-travellers – could better understand how rich it is; and not only in Blake’s sense, which was about the exuberance of nature, but also in Rauschenberg’s, which was more about civilization and its multifarious expressions.
Viewed over time, it almost seems that Rauschenberg was put in the world to tell us all how wonderful it is. That was his message, right from the time he started at the beginning of the 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War. But it had nothing to do with cosmeticization or idyllization. Rauschenberg didn’t avert his gaze from the world. On the contrary, he tried to accept it in all its vast diversity, unfiltered, without prejudice. He was neither pessimist, moralist nor ironist, like so many of his younger, more popular colleagues.
His work was borne up throughout by the above-mentioned optimism, rooted in his spontaneous joy in existence, as manifested in his curiosity and his remarkably untainted sense of wonder. This was an openness towards impressions whose most distinctive feature was the total absence of any regard for hierarchies.
In principle, nothing was less important than anything else – everything had the same value for Rauschenberg, both when it came to the content of a picture and when you got down to the individual elements of which it as pieced together. An old sock, a tie or a blanket had the same painterly function as a brushstroke – and a road sign, a ladder or a stuffed goat had the same gravity of content as a photograph of Lincoln, Kennedy or the Brandenburg Gate.
It is liberatingly unceremonious, which doesn’t mean that it lacks seriousness, and in that respect Rauschenberg also has affinities with the other great Spanish painter of the Baroque, Diego Velazquez, who painted the King of Spain with exactly the same intensity and interest as he painted the King’s wife, the King’s horse, the King’s dog, the King’s jester or the King’s First Minister. As a court painter, of course, he knew better than most that society was hierarchically structured, but when it came to art – or to the crunch – he accepted absolutely no hierarchies. Everything had equal rights before the eye.
But Rauschenberg’s approach is also liberatingly witty, and in this he has affinities with Chaplin, when the latter for example sits in one of his films flirting madly with a beautiful girl while cleaning his nails with a trowel; or when in another he cooks soup from his old boot and elegantly swallows his bootlace al dente. And, bringing him all back home, he perhaps has a particular affinity with Hans Christian Andersen, the greatest animator of all, and an artist for whom hierarchies were by no means fixed.
Everything had equal rights when the world was to be put into pictures: collars, fir trees, tops and balls, dog with eyes as big as the Round Tower, and children who can see that the Emperor has nothing on. And the odd thing is that Andersen, a hundred years earlier than Rauschenberg, worked in the same genre – with collage and paper cut-outs. The famous screen he made of cut-out reproductions for his bedroom in Nyhavn, for example, has much in common with Rauschenberg’s silk-screen pictures from the 1960s – and the many amusing picture-books he cut and pasted together for children of his acquaintance are informed by the same light-heartedness and total disregard for convention as Rauschenberg’s exuberantly experimental works from the 1970s.
What links Rauschenberg with figures like Andersen and Chaplin is not only his humour and his artistic precision, but also his undifferentiating fascination with all the phenomena of this world and his huge appetite and urge to communicate it. His good friend the composer John Cage called him a giver of gifts – because his communicative urge stemmed from a fundamental beneficence and generosity of mind; a staunch generosity, one could call it – for it was lifelong.
All that interested Rauschenberg, and all that he considered beautiful in this world, he wanted to share with the rest of us. He wanted to draw us into the experiences he himself had, and the wonderful thing is that when you are in the company of his pictures they affect the senses so much that you can’t help seeing the world as he does. When you leave his exhibitions, whether in New York, Berlin, Bilbao or Copenhagen, everything seems to be changed – and changed for the better. Suddenly you are able to see beauty in places you have not been able to see it before. Mirthday Man, indeed!
Robert Rauschenberg Mirthday Man
St. Strandstraede 21
1255 Copenhagen K.
Catalogue © Faurschou, 2009
Images © Robert Rauchenberg/billedkunst.dk
Translation James Manley
p5 Ib Henriksen
p6 Larry Massing
p8 Anders Sune Berg
p10 George Holzer
p13 Anders Sune Berg
p16-17 Anders Sune Berg
p20-47 Anders Sune Berg
Design Anne Solmer
Printed in Denmark by Strandbygaard Grafisk