Spectral Rauschenberg: Thaddaeus Ropac London Exhibits ‘Night Shades and Phantoms’

Above image: Robert Rauschenberg, Botanical Vaudeville (Phantom), 1991, Silkscreen ink on anodised mirrored
aluminium, 123,1 x 243,7 cm (48,5 x 96 in)

When Robert Rauschenberg passed away in May of 2008, it genuinely felt like an entire chapter of American art had been closed. Indeed, both de Kooning and Lichtenstein had died about a decade earlier, and the culture had already long been radically shifted by phenomena such as the Young British Artists and new fascinations with challenging performance pieces.

Rauschenberg himself was just such a pivotal figure in his own time, being one of the first of a new kind of multi-disciplinary artist, crossing over from painting to sculpture to photography and printmaking. His Combines series (1954 – 1964) strikingly reimagined the possibilities of collage, and some of his early work even anticipated Pop Art, before Warhol and Lichtenstein ultimately ran off with it.

A current exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac London focuses on his Night Shades and Phantoms, two series’ of metal paintings from 1991, when the art world was indeed being overtaken by a new generation and new ideas. The works were created during a decade-long obsession – beginning in the mid-’80s – that he had with the artistic possibilities of metal…during which time he swapped out canvases for copper, bronze, brass, etc.

Above image: Robert Rauschenberg, Holy Molley (Phantom), 1991, Silkscreen ink on anodised mirrored
aluminium, 123,4 x 149,8 cm (48,625 x 59 in)

For Night Shades (the title refers to the eponymous poisonous plant, also known as Atropa belladonna) he silkscreened eerie abstractions onto brushed aluminum, employing a brush-on blackener called Aluma Black. There is a kind of Expressionist methodology to his stroke-work, and at times the varnish and surface seem to work at cross purposes to fascinating effect. But for Phantoms, Rauschenberg switched up to a mirrored, anodized aluminum, whose repellent effect on the tarnish resulted in images that have a kind of haunted, almost apparitional quality.

But on a more visceral level, the works suggest a searching for the thread that connects peoples across geography and philosophy, as the images employed came from a series of photographs that he took between 1979 and 1991, whist traveling across America – and also from various trips abroad. More specifically, he undertook a project called the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange (’84 – ’91), which sought to comprehend the mutualities between disparate cultures and heritages.

Artist David Salle wrote for the exhibition catalog, and he so insightfully observes, “Rauschenberg knew how to let forms and masses invade and affect each other, energizing the surface to build a sense of pictorial consequence, itself part of something larger, deeper. What that something is exactly is hard to name, but it imbues the experience of looking with a sense of lift, of experience in motion, aloft.”

Robert Rauschenberg, Night Shades and Phantoms, will be on view at Thaddaeus Ropac London, in Mayfair, through July 31, 2021.

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