Saturday, 19 August 2017


Time, methinks, for another Spotify playlist. This one with a more consistent mood than usual, which I’d put someway between reflective and simmering.

Points in the constellation include In the Nursery’s sublime invocation of the powers of renewal, Mica Levi’s evocation of love but not as we know it (from the ‘Under The Skin’ soundtrack), Lift to Experience’s sunkissed sojourn with the angels, the Flaming Lips’ cosmic pop and the Raincoat’s corresponding existential black hole, rounded off with Flux’s perpetual war between breakthrough and circularity.

In The Nursery: ‘To The Faithful’
Electrelane: ‘This Deed’
The Flaming Lips:’What Is The Light?’/’The Observer’
Mica Levi: ‘Love’
Current 93: ‘December 1971’
Lift To Experience: ‘With Crippled Wings’
Pentangle: ‘When I Get Home’
The Raincoats: ‘The Void’
Low: ‘Pissing’
The Jesus & Mary Chain: ‘Cracked’
Swans: ‘She Lives!’
Flux Of Pink Indians: ‘Children Who Know’

”Now just want to thank you
For the light that you spread
And magnesium and sulphur
And the fear in your head”

Saturday, 12 August 2017


As regular readers will know, I sometimes post a few photos here with a link to the set. The photos are actually hosted at Flickr, as I’m a paid-up user of what they call FlickrPro.

A couple of weeks ago when logging onto Flickr, out of the blue I was confronted with the message "We can't sign you in on this device. Please try from the device you use the most often."

Now I don’t own a smartphone or a tablet. In fact I pretty much own one “device”, the computer I was using to access Flickr through, as I had always done before. So this advice was not what you would call terribly helpful. (I joined Flickr in Feb 2010, and bought a new computer sometime in 2012. I suppose that’s officially a “new device” but I’m going to suggest it’s not a likely cause of the problem here.)

So I contacted Flickr’s owner, Yahoo, on the assumption they would be able to assist me accessing my account. Oh how innocent I was in those long-done days of a couple of weeks ago! They proudly tell you you can’t call them, you can only raise an on-line ticket. Which I did.

The reply came back telling me to access their on-line “help channels”, and closing my query with the somewhat ironic phrase “I'm glad I could help you today”. As it turns out, I had looked through those help channels, and they had not helped me. And, seeing as my problem was Yahoo locking me out of my account, the chances of my fixing the issue on my own seemed remote.

So I raised a new ticket, asking them to refer back to the first as things were not resolved.

This time they asked for extra information. Much of which was clearly irrelevant to my query. I hadn’t recently changed my web browser or operating system, so they were scarcely likely to be the cause of the problem. They then told me I’d need to raise a new case with this new info, and closed the case I’d raised “as we believe we've fully addressed it.”

In the same breath as asking me for extra info, they closed my case as they’d believed they’d fully addressed it. Fast work, guys!

So I went and raised a new ticket.

This time they told me “it looks like we do not have enough information on this account to securely verify your identity as the account’s owner. Because we can't confirm it's your account, I will not be able to help you with this particular Flickr account.” And they closed the case again.

Why my identity should suddenly become a problem after seven years, what “information” was mysteriously missing and how if they didn’t know who I was they had previously been able to take payment from me, these were not matters they saw fit to elaborate on.

I had paid for a two year subscription in March of this year. So I told them if they weren’t going to do anything about reconnecting me to my account, I expected a refund on the remainder of that subscription. Of course, when I say “told them” I mean via the whole new ticket I was made to raise.

They asked me to enter some information on-line about the payment I’d made, which I did.

They then came back with “unfortunately, we didn't receive enough information or we couldn't match the info you provided with what's currently listed on the account.”

What are the odds? They didn’t have enough information on an account I’ve had for seven years, and then when I ask for a refund it turns out they didn’t have enough information on a payment which I can clearly see on my bank statement. Are the Yahoo offices based in the information equivalent of the Bermuda triangle?

Ever hopeful, I asked them what information might be missing. They replied ”your account security is serious business and we take precautions to protect your personal info.” (emphasis theirs.) I was glad to hear that they took my account security so seriously as to embolden a line. But I was still none the wiser as to what information seemed to be missing, so I contacted them again.

And they replied with the message they’d previously sent, which I’d been asking for them to elaboration on, pretty much word for word. (“I am really sorry but it looks like we don't have enough information on this account to securely verify your identity as the account owner.”) Back to square one.

Messages from Yahoo are phrased in that irritatingly breezy Californian fashion we’ve all had to become accustomed to. They pretty much all open with a line like “thanks for spending the time to reach out to us again”, as if my motivation was just to get in touch with those great guys at Yahoo and not actually get my bloody problem fixed.

And then beneath that veneer they make it as difficult as possible for you to contact them, ask for extraneous information, repeatedly ask for the same information and when asked questions themselves give replies so vacuous as to be useless, or else completely ignore the question altogether.

After their last message, I asked for the issue to be dealt with through their formal complaints procedure. However, from my experience so far I’m not at all sure they’ll even have one. They would seem to operate on the basis that they are entitled to take your money, an entitlement which bears no relation to their obligation to provide a service. If you query this they pretty much hold up a set list of semi-meaningless excuse cards, then tell you they now consider this issue to be resolved. In short, they want you to pay up and then shut up. I am of the opinion that what they have done constitutes theft.

I have no power to tell anyone else what to do, nor would I be interested in doing such a thing. But anyone thinking of taking out or renewing a FlickrPro subscription may want to note that they have done this to me, and presumably would be perfectly willing to do this to you.

Should anyone reading this have any previous experience of dealing with Yahoo, or know of what recourse a consumer would have in cases such as this I’d be grateful.

And if anyone could recommend any other on-line photo-sharing platforms, I’d also be grateful. I’m looking at entirely free ones at this point, as paying the buggers for the service seems to give you no rights whatsoever in their eyes.

Friday, 4 August 2017


(The series of out-of-date art exhibition reviews continues unabated)

”Photography… is bringing something entirely new into this world.”
- Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1932

The Camera Lies Splendidly

After having Noel Gallagher to thank for a Lowry show at Tate Britain, it now seems it’s Elton John’s turn. Whether we’ll soon have a Bauhaus exhibition brought to us by Gary Barlow remains to be seen.

His collection’s chiefly from the era of photography’s coming of age, where cameras first became both portable and affordable. (The Leica hand-held film-roll camera, for example, was released in 1925.) The standard narrative is of course that photography’s arrival liberated visual art. By offering to faithfully delineate anything put before it, and at the press of a button, it offered to take off art’s hands the plodding task of just recording stuff. Picasso gave the orthodox view: “now at least we know what painting isn’t.”

But perhaps what’s most interesting is how many took precisely the opposite tack. The lens was taken up as an artists’ instrument as much as the paint brush or sculptor’s mallet, if not a tool for modern times which rendered its predecessors redundant. Matisse countered Picasso: “We are encumbered by the sensibilities of the artists who have preceded us. Photography can rid us of previous imaginations.”

And you can see that by comparing some of the photos here to the ‘Picasso Portraits’ exhibition showing contemporaneously at the National Portrait gallery across London, with much the same subjects. See for example, Picasso’s ’Portrait of Nusch Eluard’ (1937), and May Ray’s 1929 photo, both above. Yes, freed from fidelity to subjects, Picasso expressively warps and distorts his subjects. (Though whether he waited for the Leica camera to arrive and give him permission, that’s another matter.) But the notion that the photography faithfully depicts while the hand of the artist interprets, that’s played with throughout.

Take for example Man Ray’s well-known ‘Noir et Blanche’ (1926, above). The title underlines the contrast between the face and the mask. Yet in many ways the work’s a comparison, the woman (model Kiki de Montparnasse) with her shut eyes and face made up, as much an artifice as the mask. Similarly Norman Parkinson’s ’Edward James With His Death Mask of Napoleon, Painted by Magritte’ (1938, below) up-lights two faces, one real the other a mask, again both with closed eyes. In both it’s as if the objective was to blur the distinction.

Marcello Nizzoli’s ’Portrait of a Woman’ (1936) goes further – cutting part of a woman’s face out of the photograph, revealing an image of a mask beneath. And this reversal of the standard order may be a key image. Once simple distinctions between mask and face, between appearance and actuality, are at times challenged and at others simply over-ridden.

May Ray’s ‘Glass Tears’ (1932, above) pushes further still into the contrast between nature and appearance. May Ray was a Dadaist, who also produced the anti-art totem ’Object to be Destroyed’ (1923). And here shed tears have turned into valuable diamonds, a visual metaphor for the way an artist needs to harvest his angst if he’s to produce material for the art market. And yet at the same time as it’s an anti-art provocation it’s a lush and glamorous image, a magazine cover in waiting. Notably, they made it the exhibition’s poster image.

The Selfie Gene

And why should all this be? Partly it’s a goldilocks moment. The democratisation of the portrait had been underway before this show starts. You no longer needed to own land to get immortalised in oil. Yet the significance attached to the portrait still lingered. Being photographed still meant a form of reification, whereas today we’re filmed for simply walking down the street. (In what is in many ways a proto-modern exhibition, it’s worth keeping that in mind.)

In series of 1948 photo-portraits by Irving Penn not only are the diverse group (including Duke Ellington, Noel Coward, Joe Lewis, Salvador Dali, Spencer Tracy and Gypsy Rose Lee) united only in being photographed, they’re all placed in the same plain, acute corner. Moholy-Nagy proclaimed proudly “everyone is equal before the machine … there is no tradition in technology, no class-consciousness”.

We might want to note that beyond such-high-mindedness the camera is still being pointed at celebrity, that most of us remain unreified and effectively faceless. But there’s an equivalence established between celebrities, which works as a kind of democracy within them. Painters sit alongside strippers and jazz musicians. What characterises them is not the background, their clothing or accoutrements as it was in classic portraiture. Instead their physical presence emerges out of neutral space. Who you are is based on innate qualities.

So Lewis lolls back, Ellington casually slides one foot forward, while Dali (above) looks coiled, like he can barely sit still long enough to be snapped, as pert as his patented upturned moustache. As Steve Dunneen puts it, you see “his personality exploding from the frame”.

And even when the sitter was not an artist in their own right, the pictures often remain an effective collaboration between them and the photographer. It’s the reversal of the soul-stealing superstition primitive people are supposed to have had. The camera takes nothing from you. In fact it's the mechanism by which you can construct yourself.

Man Ray said of his subjects in 1934: “They collect themselves. Carefully, as if tying a cravat, they compose their features. Insolent, serious and conscious of their looks, they turn around to face the world.” It’s reminiscent of the famous Rimbaud quote: “I is another… I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it.” We have no a priori existence. We bring ourselves into being through assembling ourselves. We click the shutter therefore we are.

And this is perhaps clearer still if we look to photographic self-portraits. For Paul Citroen’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (1930) he poses with his camera. While, further down the same path, Alma Lavenson ‘Self-Portrait With Hands’ (1932, above) is titled as though the camera is her, an eye with an added record button, capturing film inside itself as our heads do memories. With all our fleeting, varying appearances it’s the camera which has become the constant.

Plus the camera is not the only lens here. Herbert List’s ‘Lake Lucerne, Switzerland’ (1936, above), defies its own title by placing glasses on a table before the scenic view. There’s no further context or integration between the two, the table just juts out abruptly before the lake. And this leaves us less prone to see the table and objects simply as sign of a human presence before a nature scene. Those glasses become both a synecdoche of their owners, and an emblem of looking.

The show breathlessly tells us how “this re-evaluation of photography coincided with a period of upheaval.” Indeed, photo-journalism had done much to reveal the horrors of the Great War, to the extent that (perhaps for the first time) cameras had been banned from the battlefront. Yet you would never guess from the images above what tumultuous world events were going on. It lies outside their camera frames, as everyone took turns to compose their features and record each others’ existence.

You can see the embryo of today’s selfie culture, with it’s ceaseless Facebook updates, clear as day. From here it’s easy enough to spot how this degenerated into narcissistic self-absorption. Yet perhaps we see that slide all too easily. The chance to construct yourself, rebuild yourself in your own chosen image, was then much more of a new and exciting notion.

The Camera Chops

Along with portraits, there’s frequent close-cropping on parts of the body, with heads de-centred, obscured or even cut out entirely. The indica comments that “fragmented limbs and flesh were depersonalised and could be treated like a landscape or a still life.” Edwards Weston’s ‘Nude’ (1936, above), presents a curled figure reminiscent of Matisse’s ‘Blue Nude II’ (1952). These anonymising images should seem incongruous set against the constructed portraits, so keen to project a self, and yet they don’t.

It’s easy to imagine that in art it’s the paint that leads the mind to compare forms, by transforming everything that it depicts into some variant of pigment. Yet with Frantisek Drtikol’s ’Untitled (Nude With Wave Construction)’ (1925, above) we quite readily compare the woman’s body to the wave-shaped block. This may be partly because it’s in black and white, reducing both to the same tones.

And this segues neatly into the photos of movement. Faster shutter speeds meant the camera could now beat the eye in capturing movement, a development readily taken advantage of. In Ferenc Csik’s ‘Diver’ (1936, above) the act of diving angles the figure away from us, half-obscuring it. The movement itself is the subject, the diver just instrumental to the dive.

The Object as Subject

If a painting wants to suggest a wider frame, it has to go out of it’s way to convey it, starting to depict elements in order to danglingly not finish them. Whereas cropping is inherent to photography. And a photograph which ruthlessly crops the image out of its context will dispel scale and replace it with composition. The show smartly makes use of this by hanging works adjacently that use completely different scales.

And this can make photography essentially abstract. What initially makes the notion seem counter-intuitive is what makes it so compelling. You soon realise that all those art history books lied to you, that abstraction was never a genre in art but a way of looking. The composition is all that counts, and so it doesn’t matter much what it’s composed of.

Yet for all that abstract photography has it’s own spin. Abstract painters often begin with a real scene, but when they turn this into pigment it is soon left behind. In photography it’s ghost remains. In ‘Ice Cube Tray With Marbles and Rice’ (1939, above) by Margaret De Patta she even cheerily gives away it’s components in the title. But it still looks like a cosmic Malevich or Miro. Miro, in particular, had a similar penchant for lattice structures.

While Gordon Coster’s ‘The Spigot and the Shadows’ (1927, above) works differently. This time we can see straight away what this photo is composed of, but the central thing remains the framing and composition. We look at, for example, the shadow of the colander in it’s own right, without thinking of the thing which cast it.

Whereas with Edward Weston’s ‘Church Door, Hornitos’ (1946, above) the camera is aimed quite pointedly at a piece of the world. The image is sharp and, once you stop to consider it, the composition strong – yet all is naturalised. You cannot but wonder what’s outside the composition, what’s behind that firmly closed door. Painting might evoke this feeling too. But with a photo you know instinctively there has to be something.

Weston was a member of the f/64 group, named after the smallest camera aperture, one used for the most close-up work. Unlike de Patta’s abstracts, they were hostile to influences from other media, insisting in their manifesto “pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”

The portrait of the Hollywood star is perhaps most associated with the soft focus. To see the stars themselves would be almost an irrelevance, the point is to see the image of them through the distancing camera lens. Sharp focus was the linear and aesthetic opposite to this, not evocative but flatly descriptive, the difference between stage lighting and bare bulbs.

Rodchenko’s ‘Shukov Tower’ (1927, above) exemplifies his photography based on “points of view impossible to achieve in drawing and painting.” Moholy-Nagy’s ‘View From the Berlin Radio Tower’ (1928), looking down on the ground from a tower, makes a kind of companion piece. That these are physical scenes, yet which could not have been taken in times before, is central to them. 

As I said another time: “Rodchenko’s photos see the world as a ceaseless succession of new angles and viewpoints, never flat or neutral, never something self-evidently ‘real’ which merely required recording.” As part of the New Vision movement, he intended to create literal new perspectives to match new social perspectives.

Conversely, Ilse Bing’s ’Greta Garbo Poster, Paris’ (1932) sharply explodes the distinction between real space and constructed image. The image of Garbo the glamorous icon is placed up in the weatherbeaten world, then photographed again. It runs counter to every received image we have of both Garbo and Paris.

Facing The Strange

Yet isn’t there something odd here? Check out the date of the works above, almost all are inter-war. A time when the dominant Modernist movement was Surrealism. And photography, surely that was singularly useless in depicting Surrealist dreamscapes? In fact it’s quite the opposite.

For Surrealism had never been a movement for daydreamers, seeking an escape into fantasy from the daily grind. Its name meant ‘above realism’, not ‘away from’. And so photography felt very much a Surrealist medium, it’s flashbulb exposing the inherent strangeness of supposedly familiar things. Like ectoplasm captured on gelatin, photography proved their point. As Dali insisted “nothing has proved the rightness of Surrealism more than photography.”

André Kertész’s ‘Underwater Swimmer’ (1917, above) is an untreated shot by an artist only tangentially connected with Surrealism taken before the movement emerged. The distortions come from the lapping water, something we are all familiar with from daily life. Yet that doesn’t prevent his focus upon them having a Surrealist dimension.

And distortions were to recur in his work. In ‘Clock Distortion’ (1938, above), this time he does manipulate the shot. While we see this is the case the result is still more arresting than when Dali paints the same image, because we more closely associate the photograph with an actual clock bent out of shape.

Herbert Bayer’s ’Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait)’ (1932, above) echoes the ‘body parts’ images of earlier. But rather than obscuring and emphasising parts through the composition, Bayer chops a section from his own arm. The artist himself looks astonished, like he can’t take in himself the implications of this new medium that upends our physical integrity and turns us into sections.

More widely, Surrealism lurks in the majority of these images. It’s there in the glamour. Man Ray’s’Glass Tears’ looks odd as a Dada work because it’s already part-way to the seductiveness of Surrealism. Surrealism’s sexuality was paradoxical, often charging inanimate objects with libidinous allure, yet also treating the body as a combination of discreet objects and the sex act as purely mechanical. With photography it can collide both.

The show quotes Mohoy-Nagy: “the enemy of photography is convention… the salvation of photography comes from the experiment”. But alas, photography’s most experimental frontier, photomontage, does seem to be the biggest blind spot in John’s collection. John seems more interested in photographers than photography, and those who turned existing works into collages show up less often on his walls. So while Surrealism may be present it’s at Dada’s expense. Man Ray is here but Heartfield and Hoch, the great practitioners of photomontage, are absent. This is something of a shame, but let’s focus on the few which do make it in.

Frederick Sommer’s ‘Max Ernst’ (1946, above) places a mud-flaked image of the artist (who himself bridged Dada and Surrealism) before a rough-textured wall. Only his eyes, enhanced by being placed within a ridge on the wall, are enhanced. It looks like one of Ernst’s own frottage and grattage works, which similarly suggested at half-seen images, an artist turned into one of his own works.

To return to Bayer, his ‘Lonely Metropolitan’ (1932, above) is based on a conceptual comparison between hands and windows – both can be either open or closed. But the irises in the palms, when placed before those depeopled windows, suggest surreptitious spying eyes. And the centrality of the eyes suggest an image which peers back at you. The effect is sinister in extreme.

As with any show based on a single collection, John’s personal tastes inevitably determine everything. And he does seem to have a penchant for celebrity portrait photography of one kind or another. But, beyond that and the somewhat glitzy framing, whatever interest you have in his music his taste in photography is good enough to make this a show to see. It’s focused enough on an era not to be scattershot, while not so narrow as to be too exclusive.

Saturday, 29 July 2017


The Evening Star, Brighton, Tues 25th July

Apart from having the most definitive name for a free impro outfit, Anglo-Polish ensemble Shepherds of Cats are most notable for having a drummer. As it happens, he’s quite an unostenatious figure. He plays a maximum of one drum at a time, mostly doing no more than softly tapping the skin with his fingers, and isn’t placed particularly uppermost in the mix. As I listened I’m not sure I made an particular effort to tune in to him.

But then rudders aren’t very visible aboard ships, yet they fill an important role regarding the steering. He added a rhythmic element often absent in frenetic, plinky-plonky eclecticism of free impro. To which the cello player also sometimes contributed, striking the strings with his bow.

The music felt free yet rooted, never striking about for a direction. Even melodic elements passed through the set, as if they weren’t searching for such things but neither keen to dispel them. It was at points pyschedelic and in one long section even bluesy, as the cello player temproarily abandoned his bow for some gravelly scat drawl. They could fall back to a murmur, drums merely pulsing, challenging to the ears in a pub environment but worth the effort. The second set, less drum-anchored, perhaps didn’t quiet reach the heights of the first.

I can have something of a love/hate relationship with the free impro scene. I reckon it is theoretically possible to tire of trustafarians expressing themselves by banging a biscuit tin, then expecting acclaim for their efforts. Then at other times it takes me so into the moment I remember why I took to the thing in the first place.

Trying valiantly to express all this afterwards to anyone who would listen, someone replied “well, it’s not awkward like English impro”. And I suppose it wasn’t.

A cool film made to their music by VJ Pietruschka, who accompanied them on the night...

Saturday, 22 July 2017


St. John’s Church, Bethnal Green, London, Sat 15th July

“That had ‘em rocking in the pews”, Jon Langford jokes after one number. The rare acoustic gig turns out not to be enforced by the Church venue, or even due to their having recently made an acoustic album (‘Jura’) but by the drummer having to attend his Mother’s birthday. While the support act were the children of one of the band. Reaching forty year anniversaries while almost entirely bypassing the mainstream, they can go like that.

The Mekons may best be defined by their label, Bloodshot, boasting of “the finest folks out there playing the waters between roots and punk and rock ‘n’ roll”. Or by their own imprint, Sin, a play on the classic Sun records. Which might seem something of a left turn, given their beginnings as a post-punk band based in Leeds. (They describe themselves as “folk-punk lifers.”)

For post-punk was based around the twin imperatives of not making music which had ever been made before, and of learning as little as possible about the instrument you were ostensibly playing. It was not normally a recipe for longevity.

Whereas a move to America and an embracing of country mainstayed the Mekons. Though their appearances these days arrive Brigadoon-like amid a welter of other projects, including Lu Edwards doubling as the guitarist in the current line-up of Public Image.

The nearest comparison from recent sightings would be Blyth Power, even if they took their chess move from anarcho-punk. Yet while they’re crafted, literary and allusive, the Mekons (particularly live) are rawer, more rambunctous and perpetually edging on ramshackle. I’m not sure one number had a single singer, with many performed chorally. At one point they reassemble around the grand piano in the corner of the Church, and sing the words off a sheet.

The songs are political (they jest cheerily about jumping on the post-Corbyn socialist bandwagon) without being pedagogical. They often feel simultaneously spirited and reflective, like that vital but unsustainable jolt of punk energy was transformed into something more durable.

One of my favourite images is the narrator’s irrefutable tattoos from ’Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian’. Within the song, they represent life experience manifested as a set of illustrated scars. But I like to imagine it also stands for their songs; the way individual lines tend to be direct and straightforward, as distinct and iconic as tattoo images, while suggesting bigger connections they never quite spell out.

This clip’s neither acoustic nor in a church. Good, though…

Friday, 14 July 2017


Another in a long and noble series of art exhibitions reviewed after they close

”A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.”
- Rauschenberg

The Start Was Anti-Art

Robert Rauschenberg is an artist who can be hard to place. Arriving in New York in the Fifties - after, and in vivid contrast to, Abstract Expressionism - he’s often associated with it’s successor Pop Art. And he can seem to match Pop’s philosophy, as expressed in my recent review of the Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show: “You didn’t make art by contemplating the depths of your soul, but by taking surface features of the world around you and recombining them.”

And this is emphasised by his bold use of colour. Eschewing any intricate tonal qualities he usually picks the bright primary and secondary colours a child would choose – bright reds, full blacks and whites, bold greens, solid oranges.

Yet Pop, particularly American Pop, is cool, neat, smooth – and ultimately detached. Warhol’s silkscreens are like the mass produced products lined up neatly in a shop window, whereas Rauschenberg’s paint-spattered assemblages resemble the broken-down stuff slung out the back. A look normally achieved by his making art from objects thrown out in the trash. (Notably, though the Tate’s mailing called him “a Pop Art pioneer”, the show itself stays away from the term.)

Certainly, this singularity is part of his appeal. He was not just a contemporary to Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly but had romantic relationships with both. Yet neither of those artists appeals much to me. But he’s not quite the one-off he appears. And in fact the start of this show does much to reveal his secret origin. His roots lay in what, at least in my mind, was the most important Modernist movement of them all. In a word, it’s Dada.

In 1947 he enrolled in Black Mountain College, described in the indicia with rather English understatement as “an unconventional institution”. With John Cage and Merce Cunningham as tutors, it was effectively Hogwarts for anti-artists. (It even has that numinous Lynchian name, making it seem still more the stuff of fable.) And, like a story which began in legend even then, Cage and Cunningham, were themselves disciples of Marcel Duchamp. (Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg all featured in the Barbican’s ‘Bride and the Bachelors’ exhibition of 2013, on Duchamp and his successors).

Much of this early work is conceptual in nature, even if the term doesn’t come up. It doesn’t matter much what for example ’Black Painting’ (1951, above) looks like. It’s more the fact that he painted it. It’s the size of a vast Ab Ex work. But unlike, say, Barnett Newman’s smooth surfaces it’s rough and uneven, made of scrumpled newspaper soaked in black enamel.

Two things to note: though Rauschenberg was officially a student of Cage and Cunningham’s, it seems they soon embarked on collaborations. And the fairly self explanatory ’White Painting’ (1951) is believed to have been an influence on Cage’s ‘silent composition’ ’4’33’’’ (1952). Plus the provocative refutation of Ab Ex sometimes seems openly intentional. ’Automobile Tyre Print’ (1953) was made from tyre tracks as Cage drove over lined-up pieces of paper. It seems a wilful parody of the Ab Ex notion that artworks were about capturing the gesture made by the artist.

More notorious was ’Erased De Kooning Drawing’ (1953) in which he… well, the title gives the punch line away. This could be seen as an antagonistic gesture, literally rubbing out the opposition, as a Dada prizing of negativity over creativity, plus a Modernist desire to be forever in the moment and starting from scratch. (Though the history of the piece is strangely complex. De Kooning had given him the drawing, precisely for that purpose, but later objected to the exercise being publicised.)

But possibly more important for his subsequent development are the Personal Boxes and Elemental Sculptures. (See for example, ’Untitled’, 1952, above). These were made from found materials, a practice Rauschenberg cheerily admitted was due to his straightened financial circumstances at the time. (On moving to New York in 1949, he subsided in a condemned building with no hot water.) But what’s significant is his uninterest in disguising their origins or even their weatherbeaten appearances. 

Unlike the hermetic spaces of Joseph Cornell, packed with secret chambers, Rauschenberg’s assert their materiality. Cornell magically transforms, takes twigs and suggests mighty forests. With Rauschenberg twigs remain twigs, thorns stay thorns and dirt is just dirt. There’s anti-art here, but also a back-to-basics assertiveness. And it may be Rauschenberg was also channelling another Black Mountain current. For his tutors also included ex-Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, who emphasised the “natural properties of everyday materials”.

Duchamp is not stuff which washes out, and and his provocative conceptualism recurs through Rauschenberg’s career. ’Shades’ (1964), for example comprised six prints on plexiglass arranged before a bulb, re-slottable into any order. When having agreed a commission for a portrait of Iris Clert then promptly forgetting about it, he sent the show a telegram with the message ’This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So’ (1961).

But from this point on he stops making art purely to illustrate points and instead hits on aesthetics. There’s still a heady dose of anti-art, as if he’s defying us to take his output as finalised works. But they are, if you follow, anti-art art. Cage’s commitment to conceptualism, his fixation with the process and indifference to how the finished work turns out, all that is left behind.

And perhaps that’s what you need to do with Cage – make him your tutor, but remain aware at some point you need to graduate. The composer John Adams has remarked how he initially found Cage’s all-embracing theories of music liberating, but after a while those strictures came to be confining and he had to break from them. Cage is like the Grand Master in those kung-fu films, who the hero goes back to after some setback to reorient himself. You take on as much Cage as you can, but from there you need to clear your own path.

The Splatters That Matter (Going Red)

Once in New York, Rauschenberg embarked upon the Red paintings. ’Yoicks’ (1954, above) is built around a contrast between regular patterning (the stripes and green dots) and the random (the roughly applied, dripping paint.) It could be read as art (form) and anti-art (formlessness) set against one another in some ceaseless, Manichean struggle. Each trying to overcome the other, while being reliant upon it’s existence.

And much of the idea here comes from the understanding that art is not merely the realisation of your intention. Even as you paint the brush will always take its own direction, and that should be acknowledged and made part of the work. This juxtaposition recurs frequently, for example in ’Bed’ (1955) when he daubed and trickled paint over the patterned squares of his own quilt and pillow.

’Charlene’ (also 1954, above) incorporates photos (including of other artworks), newspaper clippings and found objects – including reflectors and an umbrella. Some of these are visible, others semi-buried under great occlusions of paint. Yet at the same time the division of the work into panels, and the incorporation of a flickering light in a frame, is almost a reference to Renaissance art.

It was this incorporation of objects into paintings which would soon develop into his best-known works, the combines. He would walk the streets of downtown New York, finding and utilising discarded objects. He rarely needed to go further than a couple of blocks. Findings included a door, a handle, a metal bucket, brackets and what look like pram wheels, all of which summarily show up in ’Gift For Apollo’ (1959, above).

But it’s ’Monogram’ (1955/9) which is one of his best-known works, and a crowd-puller for the show. The tyre, a perfect man-made object, is placed around the goat with horns and painted face. This combination would seem to make up the monogram of the title. The combines often add physical objects to a flat painted surface, but unusually with ’Monogram’ this is placed on the floor. A shoe heel planted in the board (to the goat’s left in the illo), emphasises this.

What to make of it all? While Rauschenberg was gay, Robert Hughes’ theory that it’s all a metaphor for anal sex is now pretty much rejected. It seems a trivial biographical detail shoehorned onto a work, and besides in the piece’s long gestation the tyre was added late. The wildly painted goat’s head recalls to me both the phrase “painted savage” and the donkey’s head atop a piano from Dali and Bunel’s surrealist film ’Un Chien Andalou’ (1929, illo above). Above the dead painting rises the savage spirit of art, untrammelled and ready to inhabit pastures new. And those pastures are things society has thrown out, like the return of the repressed.

Or something like that. But really, I’ve no idea. Like much anti-art, the work is volatile and inchoate. It seems to simply shrug off analysis. You’re never even sure of its tone, whether to find it compelling or mischievous. And that’s probably the point. As Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian, “Rauschenberg kept definitions at bay throughout his career, allowing himself less the task of understanding than that of making. Sometimes it must have seemed as if his art almost made itself. He never tried to sew things up.” Art is often about trying to bring order to the world, through the manipulation of symbols. Rauschenberg reminds us we can’t even bring order to art.

And that’s inimical to his lineage. Anti-artists are often accused by smart-arse know-nothings of failing to recognise a basic contradiction. But what dim bulbs perceive as a weakness is the very point, the contradiction is precisely the thing you want to raise – artworks which clearly exist, but your brain doesn’t know what to do with them. His combines contain objects, recognisable things, bits of the world. And yet for all that they’re ultimately inexplicable.

Radical and innovative artists are often said to have divided the critics. Rauschenberg united his, and they were united against him. With the heady, metaphysical world of Abstract Expressionism all the rage this out-of-towner, hauling bits of trash into galleries, ran counter to ever fashion. (His comments at the time seemed to even invite this polarity: “I want my painting to look like what’s going on outside my window, rather than what’s inside my studio”.) But perhaps his indefinability had something to do with this too. Unlike Rothko’s colour fields, there were no metaphysics to float off into. His metal buckets and painted goats left critics without a role, something unlikely to go down well.

Images Rub Off On You

I earlier compared Rauschenberg’s combines to Warhol’s silkscreens. Yet of course he not only turned to screen-prints himself but at roughly the same time as Warhol – in 1962. Though there’s debate over who influenced who, this show contains transfer drawings of his going back to ‘58. (Transferring magazine images by oil rubbing, the way the ink from a wet newspaper will come off.)

Ostensibly easier to read than the combines, it was these screen-prints which cemented Rauschenberg’s popularity. And they do look very Sixties in their immediacy, their ‘fastness’, compared with the multi-layered works of earlier. But is that look misleading? Does it confuse our propensity to scan images with our ability to read them? Are they not less challenging but more beguiling?

And in fact Rauschenberg handily proves what they’re not by providing one standard photo-collage - ’Signs’ (1970, above). We’ve all seen such works, images from magazine covers distilled into one frame. And indeed it was originally intended as a magazine cover, for ’Time’. (Though rejected due to the incorporation of a bloodied civil rights protestor.) We don’t question why Kennedy and Joplin are adjacent any more than we question who they are. The medium naturalises their association, because it’s expected to act as a précis of its times.

The screen-print ’Retroactive II’ (1964, above) even incorporates some of the same elements, such as Kennedy and an astronaut. But with this medium we cannot help but be more aware we are looking at a reproduced image of Kennedy. The image being less perfected makes everything looks so much more in flux. (These images, remember, stem from the still more ghostly transfer drawings.) 

And what about those points where Rauschenberg has directly applied paint? The show comments how he’d “unite disparate printed imagery with gestural brushwork”. While David Anfam, in his book on Abstract Expressionism, describes the two styles as “colliding sign systems”. In a way they’re the reiteration of the stripes and splodges of earlier. One we associate with mass production, with disseminated information, and the other with personal expression. It’s like reading a letter which shifts between an official-looking font and spidery handwriting. 

The prints are placed in an adjacent room to ’Oracle’ (1962/5) a multi-part sculpture of scrap metal parts and wireless mikes. This includes a detuned analogue radio, switching continually between static and snatches of stations, providing a companion in sound for what the prints are doing.

Rauschenberg would also reuse images from print to print (trucks, military helicopters) in different contexts and combinations, as if turning the images of the mass media into personalised motifs. Sometimes he would employ his own photos among the media images, such as ’Scanning’ (1963) which incorporates an snapshot of the Cunningham Dance Company.

Ultimately the screen-prints seem less to do with Duchamp or even Cage, and more an analogue of William Burroughs’ cut-ups. The everyday reality we experience is not just used as source material for the artist, as it is with Schwitters' bus tickets. There’s also the sense that it’s an obscuring fiction which, when cut up and reassembled, will start to tell the truth.

The prints were so popular that Rauschenberg won the Grand Prix at the 1964 Venice Biennale. In a story now well-know, he called his assistant the very next day with instructions to destroy all his remaining silkscreens, resolving it was time for something new.

Creating A Performance

The Surrealists liked to see mistakes as “sacred”, providence in action. And, appealingly, it was a mistake which led Rauschenberg into his next endeavour. A 1963 programme had accidentally credited him as a choreographer, which suggested to him he take up performance.

Except that chess move, however appealing a story, isn’t quite true. As ever, finding out about an artist undermines their myth. And the reality cannot help but feel a little disappointing by comparison. Rauschenberg had always built on what had gone before. He had made giddying leaps, yes, but had always leapt from where he was. And even burning the screen-prints, though the biggest leap yet, didn’t take him back to square one. 

He had often provided sets and backdrops for Cage and Cunningham, often of such a speedy and extemporised nature that they were essentially part of the performance. Plus he’d at times worked performance into his art. ’First Time Painting’ (1961) had been painted on stage with microphones to pick up his brush strokes. When an alarm embedded in the canvas rang, the work was declared finished. While this description might sound gimmicky, a performance disguised as painting, the resulting work is one of his best.

Performances included ’Elgin Tie’ (1964, still above) where he descended from a skylight on a rope, finding and responding to objects tied along it as he went. Finally he climbed into a barrel of water and was led off by a cow. Except the cow flunked it on the night, and just shat on the floor. Or ’Spring Training’ (1965) which included turtles being unleashed with torches on their backs while Rauschenberg wheeled a shopping trolley through the audience filled with ticking alarm clocks. The group set up to perform these, the Judson Dance Theatre included Tricia Brown, providing a direct link to the Seventies Downtown scene.

Generally the performances are situational, about setting something up then seeing what happens, so are less parametered, more free-form and anarchic than the chance scores of Cage and Cunningham. Yet they’re also too clear-cut a ‘performance’, with defined roles before a set audience, to be Fluxus happenings. They’re mid-range crazy.

Playing With the Box (Flat-Pack Art)

To reinvent himself Rauschenberg clearly needed to burn things down. Yet every time he does it a little of him gets lost. The show peaks early, with the combines, and from there declines. At first very slowly, and the enticement of the new prevents you noticing. But from this point on the seams are starting to show.

In 1971 he relocated to Captura, an island off Florida. Though the show slides over it, this was a virtually enforced move - to overcome his escalating alcoholism. Yet what was good for his health was not so invigorating for his art. You get the idea that to Rauschenberg the trash of New York was simultaneously poison and fuel. His art was a response to how he found the city, both literally and metaphorically. 

In fact his new practice became to display the used cardboard from the mailing packages he received. It’s like he was in exile on Captura, and all he could do from there was fetishise his connection to the outside world. These displays get us to focus on something we would normally see as incidental, and often employ the distressed nature of the boxes. But overall the main thing in their favour is comparison to the bypassable textiles from the same period. Ideally the show would not devote so large a room to these when the highly productive early years are run through so quickly. But you can’t win ‘em all.

Art of Our Ruins

Happily, exile was temporary and Rauschenberg’s fetishisation of the outside world became interaction. He founded ROCI, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (1984/9), where he’d visit a country, stage a responsive exhibition, donate the work to a native museum and move on to his next stop. There is at times something slightly worthy about all this, betraying its roots in the Live Aid era. But it’s a Rocky comeback compared to the cardboard boxes.

Notably the best work from this era came from a place he had more of a personal connection to. In 1985 Rauschenberg returned to his home state of Texas, to find it impoverished by the end of the oil boom. This inspired his Gluts series. “Greed is rampant”, he commented, “I want to present people with their ruins”. Though this included latter-day combines, incorporating rusting highway and gas station signs, the best of the work is photographic.

And the strongest of these is ’Glacial Decoy’ (1979, above), a series originally intended as a backdrop for a Trisha Brown dance piece. Most are anonymised, de-contextualised close-ups - a broken window in a dilapidated frame, a stone on the ground. Some have moments of movement to them, such as water spurting or a solitarily American flag fluttering. But they’re eerily de-habituated, as though only traces of humanity now remain. We see the odd figure, one with their back to us as they paint a sign, but birds and animals are more common.

But most effective is the format. Four images are adjacent on a slideshow. But they are less juxtaposed than accumulated, running right to left across the screen. And this gives them a quiet inevitability. A panorama of desolation, however vast and huge, must by necessity have an edge. And then the ever-hopeful human brain soon goes to that edge, and tries to imagine things are better beyond it. Wastelands are barren, but have parameters. Whereas there's no edge to this slide show. Pick a card, any card. It doesn't matter which, there's no winning hand to be found here. Just endless reshufflings of the same bum hand in a card game you can't win.

Rauschenberg’s earlier screen-prints had been largely reliant on the mass images of the media. Many of his later works look back to them, but advances in photographic and print technology meant he could make more use of his own photos.

’Duet [Anagram (A Pun)]’ (1988, above), particularly with its title, seems to invite comparison between it’s elements. And unlike the photos or the screen-prints they’re signs and symbols, designed expressly to be read. Yet while meaning tantalisingly looks like it should be within reach, it never quite yields up. The musical bell could be said to be like the telephone and the telephone like the musical notation, itself comparable to the measuring rod. But the notation seems to also morph into contour maps and diagrams, while a chicken also cheerily appears. Rauschenberg remained cheerily inexplicable until the end.

Despite what some who practice it fondly want to believe, art does not emerge from the furrowed brow of the artist. It may be instanced through individual creators, but it’s always a social product. So it follows that the high point of Twentieth century art was when the conditions for creating art were the most promising. Effectively, this loads everything onto that century’s first half. Check how many blog posts I’ve written about the era before 1945, and how many after.

But neither is the story schematic, and Rauschenberg was not only one of the finest American artists - he came up with his best work in the supposedly staid Fifties. He kept the Dada tradition going, picking up the baton from Duchamp, Cage and Cunningham, then passing it on to Trisha Brown and the Downtown scene of the Seventies. What’s more he passed a magic shapeshifting baton, which transferred the anarchic spirit to it’s holder without ever degenerating into an orthodoxy.

It’s true, he peaked early with the red painting and combines. Though that peak was so high that his next wave of works, the screen-prints and performances, still stood tall. Admittedly with subsequent offerings the trajectory was noticeably downward. To the point you could claim his burning of his remaining screen-prints was more brave than smart. But a decline in quality is the career curve of the majority of artists. While Rauschenberg was back on the incline in later years. In word and deed, he was exemplary. If we were to think of the greatest post-war American artist, there is only Pollock to rival him.

Coming soon! Well I still seem to be seeing art exhibitions faster than I can write about them, so I guess what’s coming soon is more art and more belatedness...