Robert Rauschenberg: Autobiography brings together 26 original works of art with 56 archival objects primarily on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and centers on the artist’s monumental print, Autobiography, 1968. The exhibition will be on view at WCMA from March 17 through August 20, 2017, opening with the museum’s season celebration on Thursday, March 16 at 5:00 pm.
Rauschenberg created Autobiography with Broadside Art Inc., founded by arts patron Marion Javits and graphic designer Milton Glaser making billboard printing technology available to artists. Printed in three parts, the work measures nearly 4 ½ by 17 feet and comprises several significant motifs that recur throughout Rauschenberg’s oeuvre. Included in the exhibition are archival documents directly related to Autobiography such as the original 1968 advertising brochure for the print, and multiple source materials including a childhood photograph of Rauschenberg and his parents, the artist’s horoscope, and photo-reproductions of an x-ray of his body. Video and photographic documentation of Rauschenberg’s performance collaborations—in particular his first performance Pelican, 1963, which is featured in Autobiography—include photographs by Seymour Rosen, Peter Moore, Elizabeth Novick and others.
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has been processing the artist’s archives over the last two years and recently made them fully accessible to scholars. The Foundation’s “Shuffle” program facilitates collaborations with college and university museums, in which works from the Foundation’s art collection are made available for exhibition and study. The WCMA project is the first ever to mine the archives for an exhibition and a college course. In the Art History/Museum class, Robert Rauschenberg Art, Archives and Exhibitions, developed and led by professor of art C. Ondine Chavoya and curator of contemporary art Lisa Dorin, Williams students researched the artist’s life, work, and the often blurry lines between the two. The students studied the history and theory of archives and how exhibitions make use of them, and spent two full days in the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives in New York working closely with Francine Snyder, the Foundation’s director of archives and scholarship.
“This was a unique and exciting opportunity for the museum and the art department to build a course around Robert Rauschenberg and the archives, and to develop a collaborative exhibition that makes visible the students’ scholarship. We are thrilled the Rauschenberg Foundation made the archives and the art collection available for this highly original and experimental project,” said Christina Olsen, Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art. In the spirit of Rauschenberg’s inherently collaborative practice, the exhibition was a collective effort: the instructors developed the curatorial framework and made checklist selections, and then each student developed groupings and supporting texts based on their individual interests and research findings. Using Autobiography, from WCMA’s collection, as a jumping off-point and making deep use of archival materials and original works of art from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the course investigations culminate in a thematic exploration of the artist’s use of his body, performance and artistic collaborations, love of animals, and fascination with technology.
The exhibition features several photographic self-portraits made while the artist was at Black Mountain College and a series of small-scale blueprints from the early 1950s made in collaboration with his then wife, artist Susan Weil. Booster, 1967, the largest lithograph that had been printed to date, refers to the cutting edge rocket technology being developed at the time as part of the space race and incorporates the same x-ray imagery he used the following year in Autobiography. Revolver II, also 1967, a large-scale kinetic sculpture with 5 rotating screen-printed Plexiglas discs, was made as part of Rauschenberg’s involvement with the collective of artists and engineers, Experiments in Art and Technology, (E.A.T.). The sculpture inspired his design for the 1983 Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues, which is on view alongside archival materials related to his collaboration with the band. Hot Shot, 1983, from WCMA’s collection, reflects Rauschenberg’s sustained interest in technology and space exploration. Selections from Ruminations, 1999, the last print series the artist made, featuring photo reproductions of some of the people considered among the most important in Rauschenberg’s life, including Susan Weil and their son Christopher; composer John Cage, artist Jasper Johns, and dancer Steve Paxton, are on view along with selected archival source materials.
Rauschenberg’s deep involvement with dance and performance in the 1960s and his collaborations with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Alex and Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Billy Klüver and E.A.T. are explored through printed documents, photographs, video footage, and performance notes. Another source of inspiration for Rauschenberg were his pets. For Rauschenberg, animals were not only companions, (he kept a menagerie of beloved pets throughout his life) but also often the subjects of his art, and participants in his performance works: archival photographs and footage attest to the role animals played in his life and work.
“Collaboration was fundamental to Rauschenberg’s artistic practice. One of the ways in which the Foundation carries the artist’s collaborative spirit forward is through its Shuffle program, which provides a new generation of students with unique access to Rauschenberg’s art and archives, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on an exhibition. We are grateful to Ondine and Lisa for creating a class that so successfully supported this initiative, and to the students for their enthusiasm and dedication to the project.” Julia Blaut, curator and director of curatorial affairs for the Rauschenberg Foundation.
Partnership with MASS MoCA
The WCMA exhibition will coincide with MASS MoCA’s presentation of one of Rauschenberg’s little-seen, large-scale works as part of an expansion of the North Adams, Mass.-based museum in late May 2017. In addition to the concurrent Rauschenberg exhibitions, WCMA and MASS MoCA are also presenting the work of three artists who have been in residence at the Foundation’s artist residency program in Captiva, Florida. Meleko Mokgosi’s Lex and Love will be on view at WCMA and an exhibition with artists Dawn Dedeaux and Lonnie Holley is planned for a new gallery space at MASS MoCA.
(American, born 1925, Port Arthur, Texas, died 2008, Captiva, Florida)
A prolific artist who reshaped art throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Rauschenberg has been called a forerunner of essentially every postwar movement since Abstract Expressionism. When he began making art in the late 1940s and early 1950s, his belief that “painting relates to both art and life” presented a direct challenge to the prevalent modernist aesthetic. He worked in a wide range of subjects, styles, materials and techniques, remaining independent of any particular affiliation. He went on to invent “combines” as an art medium and to famously collaborate with performers, printmakers, engineers, writers, and artists from around the world. Learn more about the artist on the Foundation’s website.
About the Rauschenberg Foundation and Archives
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the artistic and philanthropic legacy of one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Through exhibitions, scholarship, grants, and a residency program, the Foundation furthers the Rauschenberg’s belief that art can change the world. The Foundation is in an exciting early stage of processing their rich collection of archival materials. Consisting of Rauschenberg’s personal papers and the records from his Captiva Island, Florida, and New York studios, the Foundation’s holdings contain the most comprehensive body of information on the artist’s life and career. Learn more at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s website.