In the spring of 1983, I was an eighteen-year-old suburban kid who had acquired a taste for twentieth century avant-garde art. As such, I was excited to learn that the forthcoming Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues, would have a Robert Rauschenberg-designed cover that would be available in an edition of 50,000 copies. I quite liked their previous record, Remain in Light, and was already looking forward to the new album, but this news made the release special for me. The record is on clear vinyl and the cover itself is clear plastic. Inside are three clear LP-size discs on which collages are printed in cyan, magenta, and yellow (the three colors which, along with black, are used in four-color printing). The whole package references Rauschenberg’s 1967 Revolver pieces, which feature motor-driven Plexiglas discs, the movements of which can be controlled by the viewer. He didn’t simply design an album jacket, he rethought what it could be.
The first time I saw actual work of Rauschenberg’s was a few years earlier – I was of high school age – during a family vacation. I don’t recall when exactly this was, or even what city we were in, but I do vividly remember wandering into an art gallery and being confronted by his Chow Bags suite of silkscreen/collage prints. I was already a casual fan of his work, which I’d seen only in books – as was the case with most contemporary art with which I was familiar at the time. Seeing the surfaces of these pieces, with the collage elements and plastic twine, was a significant experience and the impetus for me to learn more about his art. By the time Speaking in Tongues was released, I had read extensively about him and had a good knowledge of his career – my admiration was no longer in any way casual. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of his work in exhibitions both large and small, and my esteem for both the artist and the man has only grown.
At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the winter of 2018, I twice saw Erasing the Rules, a comprehensive, career-spanning Rauschenberg retrospective. The exhibition contained work from the early 1950s to 2007, the year before he passed away. His silkscreen paintings, which were executed from 1962-64, were well-represented; they are among my favorite works from an oeuvre which I regard as as important and notable as anyone’s. In these pieces he expanded on ideas he explored in his earlier transfer drawings, but in a medium which could more vividly reproduce the photographs he was using. His juxtaposition of multiple, disparate images, which may have varying personal associations for individuals as well as wider cultural references, creates a poetic evocativeness which I find very engaging. In addition to the screened imagery, Rauschenberg also employed hand-painted gestural marks which hold the flat surface, opposing the three-dimensional illusion of the photographs. Although he is often credited with bringing imagery back into American painting, Rauschenberg was also intent on following the modernist tenet of keeping the picture plane flat. The resulting push/pull dynamic of this juxtaposition was conceptually very important to me while I was developing an aesthetic for my own work.
Rauschenberg continually expanded his artistic horizons, always utilizing new processes and collaborating with different people. This exploratory nature was an abiding aspect of his career, and Erasing the Rules showed his work to be perhaps the most varied and inventive of the twentieth century.