Drawing largely from its permanent collection of his works, the Vancouver Art Gallery has mounted “Robert Rauschenberg 1965–1980,” featuring collage, sculpture, screen printing, and more. Three big themes in evidence are the American artist’s fascination with consumer culture, his love of mixed-media work, and his belief that everyday materials could be the stuff of the fine arts. You can find these things in some early-20th-century art, but they really took off in popularity after the Second World War; that’s when Rauschenberg started out, and his work features so many important tendencies of postwar art that it’s almost tempting to think of him as a one-man aggregate.
At its best, this show reveals an artist with a canny, distanced understanding of how to manipulate pop artifacts and, more importantly, a strong sense of wonder. Passport (1967) features a mélange of found images; each is brilliantly tinted, and they’re printed over each other on a circle of Plexiglas. The hard, smooth surface contrasts with the messy overlap effect, and the radiant colour works as a kind of bridge between clarity and confusion. Another high point is Sky Rite (1969), part of a series memorializing the Apollo 11 launch. It’s a print of black-and-white photo overlays: an angled look down at the mission control room blends with the image of a suited, badged, and bespectacled man, arm outstretched and index finger pointing at something well beyond the frame.
Rich in detail and rewarding for the returning viewer, the two pieces strike a balance between concept and beauty, the idea and the eye. That’s not true of everything on display. I’m thinking unhappily of the bland fabric-based works: here, the artist seems to have thought his choice of material could do most of the legwork. In a career so dedicated to variety, though, blemishes are hard to fault too strongly. The 20th century was a time of breathtaking innovation in the arts, and Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, was one of the true revolutionaries. This exhibition covers only a quarter of his working life, and still it resists anything close to easy definition.
Read more about the Arts.