This spring, students in Art Since 1960 honed their skills as critical writers. Art critics introduce work to a wide variety of audiences, suggesting ways that museum and gallery visitors might approach work, putting artists and artworks in historical context, and explaining why the work excites them. In this essay, student Audrey Gleason reviews the current exhibition, “Robert Rauschenberg’s World,” on view at the OSU Museum of Art through June 10.
New Friends, Old Friends: Works from the Collection is an exhibition series starting with Robert Rauschenberg’s World at the OSU Museum of Art in Stillwater, Oklahoma. This particular installment of the series is on display from January 24th to June 10th, 2017. I have the incredible opportunity to be on the student staff at the museum. As a result, I spend a large amount of time with the artworks on display, and I learn a lot about the shows, as well as getting to hear from visitors about their thoughts and interpretations.
Robert Rauschenberg is an American artist whose career spanned nearly half a century. He is well-known for his experimental “combines,” which blurred the lines between painting and sculpture, as well as using non-traditional materials for both. In the early stages of his career when he did not have a whole lot of money and resources, he would walk around his neighborhood and look through trash for interesting pieces to use in his work. He had a rule that if he could not find anything useful on his own block, he could walk around one other block directly next to him, but that was it. He really had to get creative and push himself to make do with what was available. There is also the infamous story of the time he painted on his own bedspread after running out of canvas. Rauschenberg kept up this experimental and discovery-seeking spirit throughout his career. Whenever he at last received good recognition for any one medium or project, he felt it was time to move on and try something new. He worked in painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance, as well as combinations of two or more of these.
The exhibition at the museum highlights two distinct periods in Rauschenberg’s career. There are two large-scale mixed-media prints on stainless steel, which were part of Rauschenberg’s ROCI project in the 1980s and 90s, and there are four different photo lithographs on paper from the 1960s. The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange project (ROCI) aimed to promote global peace and appreciation for other cultures by traveling to ten different countries and making art with the native people of those countries. The pieces at the OSU Museum of Art, Narcissus (1990) and Venus Rapture IV (1991), were done in the American phase of ROCI (Figures 1 and 2). In my experience of guarding art at the museum, people are drawn to these pieces more than Rauschenberg’s lithographs, mostly because of the reflective surfaces and more easily recognizable imagery such as Venus, a bicycle, and a photography studio. However, people also enjoy looking at the lithographs and hunting for more subtle but still recognizable imagery such as a turtle and a “Vote Baby Vote” poster. As for me, I can spend hours upon hours standing in the same room with the same art and somehow I know I’ll go to the museum tomorrow and make a new connection that I hadn’t noticed before.
The OSU Museum of Art features an artLAB space for families and art enthusiasts of all ages to engage with exhibitions. During Robert Rauschenberg’s World, there are plenty of collage materials available for people to make their own work inspired by Rauschenberg. But these materials aren’t just limited to cut-up magazines. There are huge bins of recycled materials like cardboard, wood, pop tabs, rocks, and old jewelry, just to name a few. Plus, there are mirrors set up for people to draw on them with dry-erase markers to mimic how Rauschenberg created work on reflective surfaces. On Family Day in February, parents and their children did these activities together, opening up new doors for how parents think about introducing art to kids. Who needs premade coloring pages when kids can create their own compositions and expand their creativity with collaging?
Even more exciting is that the activities have expanded since February so people can make connections between Robert Rauschenberg’s World and Oklahoma and Beyond, the other exhibition on display at the museum. There is a community collage project in the artLAB inspired by Joseph Glasco. At Family Day in March, people helped paint two different canvases, and now visitors are encouraged to cut up pieces from one canvas to collage on top of the other. Although the activity is associated with Oklahoma and Beyond, there are strong ties to Rauschenberg’s creative process as well.
Robert Rauschenberg’s World successfully introduces viewers to Rauschenberg’s legacy, while also leaving room for them to want to know more. People can experience two separate stages of his career, and then go on to ask, “What happened in between?” Perhaps they will look him up online or open one of the many books about Rauschenberg at the museum. A lot of people ask me what his pieces mean, and I tell them that Rauschenberg purposefully does not reveal his intentions because he wants the audience to make connections and draw meaning from his work on their own. They usually seem relieved to know there isn’t a right answer they’re trying to dig out, but rather anything they come up with is one of many right answers. It is a good way to introduce people to looking at and thinking about art. Plus, they gain new perspectives about what art can be after experimenting for themselves.
Whether you’re an art student, an art enthusiast, a professional artist, a parent, a teenager, a chemical engineering major, age 73 or 37 or 3 or 7, art is relevant to everyone and everyone can learn how to appreciate it and engage with it. Robert Rauschenberg’s work especially does not claim to be for only a small highly intelligent percent of the population, but for everyone to think about and create meaning from. He made his work on reflective surfaces just so that everyone could be a part of it. The student staff loves having conversations and answering your questions, and we hope you become inspired by Rauschenberg to experiment and try new things, not just in art but in all aspects of life.
Student essays are lightly edited for grammar and length, but their content is not changed. Read more student writing about Robert Rauschenberg on the blog! And make sure you visit the exhibition before it closes this Saturday, June 10.