Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Art I'm Looking At: Robert Rauschenberg and Walker Evans at SF MOMA

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (1954/1955)
San Francisco Museum of Art
I recently saw the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective now on view at SF MOMA (November 18, 2017 through March 25, 2018). I think the most striking thing about the show is the impression it gives that Rauschenberg was, essentially, a collage artist. Often his work actually was collage (or assemblage, the three-dimensional version of collage), but even when he was not making collages or assemblages, his sensibility remained that of a collagist to a remarkable degree; it was his instinct to juxtapose fragments of things.

Robert Rauschenberg, From
34 Illustrations for Dante's Inferno (1958-1960)
He came into his own at the height of abstract expressionism and matured as pop art emerged, but, looking at his work, he seems to be of neither movement. He worked large, but I don't feel he was concerned about the idea of the heroic painter. Although he incorporated commercial images and everyday objects into his work, I doubt his intent was to comment on consumerism and consumption or on how the media represent the world. He was an aesthete. What seems revolutionary was that he succeeded in created so much visually engaging work without using pretty materials. Up close, many of the pieces are messy (sometimes made out of actual trash), but ultimately they always seem to be about composition. Radical approaches and materials never trump composition.

Walker Evans
Garage in Southern City Outskirts, Atlanta Georgia (1936, printed 1972)
I also saw the large Walker Evans retrospective (closed February 4)—one of those shows that puts the best known work of an artist into perspective, teaching that the most familiar work is not necessarily the most representative. I had seen mostly Walker's familiar depression-era photographs before, but not a lot else, I realize now.

Walker Evans
Tin Snips by J. Wiss and Sons Co. (1955)
The exhibition looked at Walker's career from the perspective of his interest in the everyday, his implicit rejection of the formal, highly aestheticized conception of photography in the work of photographers like Stieglitz. Walker was interested in the things around him and in revealing them as they were. I think it was Ansel Adams who once said you don't "take" a photograph, you "make" a photograph, emphasizing the control of the photographer over the viewed world that resides in the finished image; the photographer is seen as a manipulator of the seen world, but Walker would have rejected that idea. His interest was in recording the present, taking what was there for what it was. A comparison with Atget is an obvious one, but I wasn't aware that Walker was conscious of and inspired by Atget. Apparently he was. Walker had seen and studied Atget's photographs (several of which appear in the show near similar views by Evans). I especially enjoyed a series of photographs of everyday objects shot almost as if intended for a sales catalog, such as the tin snips shown here. An enlightening show that was well worth seeing.  

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