The Man and The Myth
By Andrea Steedman
If you know anything about art, you know the name Robert Rauschenberg. Whether you know his “combines,” his famous footage in the iconic film Painters Painting perched atop a ladder, or the prints he created later in life—you know Rauschenberg. The show happening now at the Palm Springs Art Museum is the type you would rarely see outside of one of the massive metropolitan modern art museums, so we all better take advantage of this local opportunity while we can.
The reason we are so lucky as to see these prints outside of a large museum is thanks to Gemini G.E.L., the artist workshop that helped Robert Rauschenberg create these prints. The Weekly recently caught up with the co-founder and co-director of Gemini G.E.L., Sidney B. Felsen. Felsen explained how Rauschenberg worked with Gemini: “. . .artists know what they want to accomplish in their prints and the printers help them utilize these specialized processes,” he said. “Rauschenberg worked mostly on metal plates and sometimes on limestone; he was exceptionally knowledgeable in many aspects of printmaking.”
Rauschenberg worked with Gemini from 1967 until just before his death. About once a year he would visit Los Angeles, and during these trips he would create quite a few prints. Felsen remembered how Gemini would ask him where he wanted to stay in Los Angeles—“Bob always chose the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard,” now known as a hipster cocktail haven.
Sidney Felsen also described some of the themes present during Rauschenberg’s work in this period. In Felsen’s opinion, the majority of the themes during this time were new, although some elements from Rauschenberg’s earlier work can be read between the lines. The artist was living in New York when he first started creating these prints, then he moved to Florida, so some of the themes also reflected the locations he was experiencing. He also did a project close to the end of his relationship with Gemini, originally called “L.A. Undercover,” but later changed to “L.A. Uncovered.” For this project, Gemini “hired two retired LAPD officers to drive him all over the city, to each and every neighborhood, some safe, some not so safe.”
In these prints, Robert Rauschenberg also displays new themes that clearly came from the international travels he embarked on with his Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange. Sidney Felsen commented that Rauschenberg has been called the “reporter of the world” because “. . .he traveled to France, India, China, Cuba, Russia, East Germany, Malaysia, Tibet plus several other countries capturing the daily experiences of so many different people, and then translating it into his art.”
However, when looking at these prints, some themes that reflect back to Rauschenberg’s earlier career seems pretty clear. Like Rauschenberg’s ultra-famous “Combines,” these pieces unite seemingly disparate elements such as classic cars and ancient statuary. There is also a clear sense of play, using textural materials to print on, and the fabric reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s famous piece Bed from 1955—in which he painted his own bed when he ran out of canvas. Maybe he never intended these connections, maybe he could never escape his abstract expressionist roots, or maybe artists have a soul to their art that is always present, whether intended or not.
So what mark did Robert Rauschenberg leave on the world? Are these prints seen as weak work that filled an aging artist’s later years? Hardly. These prints were just as innovative as his earlier work, if not as well known. Rauschenberg was creating these prints at a time when this was a relatively new art form. He shattered all current ideas about what a print was, how it would be perceived by audiences, even how the work could look. No longer were prints disposable copies to be cheaply printed and thoughtlessly handed out. Rauschenberg made prints into art, to an extent that no one else had before him. As Sidney Felsen stated definitively, “ . . . he influenced young artists as much as any artist I know of.”
Felsen is in a unique position to comment on Rauschenberg. Although Rauschenberg died in 2008, he already has such a sense of legend surrounding him that sometimes it can become hard to separate man and myth. So what was Robert Rauschenberg like to his friends, like Felsen who still calls him Bob? Felsen summed up his relationship with Rauschenberg succinctly: “Rauschenberg was one of the most dynamic people the world has ever known, he was always concerned about making the world a better place.”
“Rauschenberg at Gemini” at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Dr., Palm Springs, (760) 322-4800. www.psmuseum.org. Through June 28. Admission is $12.50, $5 for students.