Craig F. Starr Gallery
Robert Rauschenberg: The Fulton Street Studio, 1953-54
April 4 – May 23, 2014
By MARK BLOCH, AUG. 2014
In a seemingly ancient derelict building on Fulton Street up which one climbed through a dark, narrow, creaky wooden staircase, young Bob Rauschenberg’s collaboration with materials reached a turning point. His space had a wide board plank floor backed by a plain, whitewashed brick wall with dark beams supporting a “steeply sloped cathedral roof.”
That was how the dancer Carolyn Brown described in her book, “Chance and Circumstance,” the heroic studio that Ray Johnson brought her to for a visit near what is now the South Street Seaport. It completely fulfilled her “romantic storybook conception of an artist’s garret.” Johnson yelled Bob’s name from the street several times until “the bolts were thrown on the door at street level” and their ascension began, led by the top floor resident who looked to Brown like a “bookish, diffident male librarian.”
Robert Rauschenberg, in 1953, upon returning from eight months in Europe, moved into the industrial loft at 61 Fulton Street and created a string of key works that pointed the way from remarkable places he had just been toward a future that is now certified post-war American Art legend. Craig F. Starr’s tiny three room gallery on the ground floor of an upper east side apartment building provided an intimate setting for a finely focused overview of the output of the young master at this turning point of his life, thriving in his own intimate setting for which the show was named.
Where had Rauschenberg (1925-2008) been and where was he going? The places he had been included Black Mountain College in North Carolina along with his wife Susan Weil studying under Josef Albers and then a tumultuous trip around Italy and North Africa with Cy Twombly that crescendoed with Rauschenberg tossing his work into the river in Florence prior to returning to the U.S.. The place he was going after the Fulton Street studio was toward the creation of his Combines, those now-historic combos of painting and sculpture that fused his name with the history of art and also with Jasper Johns, with whom he would share his next residence and workspace around the corner on Pearl Street. But the 29-month Fulton Street Studio stint gives a crisp glimpse into the manual and mental output of a man interested in creating but not interested in creating illusion.
The 15 paintings, collages and objects borrowed from private collections for this exhibit, including four from Jasper Johns, show us just enough of that critical moment of Rauschenberg’s life to manifest a first hand experience of what it must have felt like to be bursting at the seams in the right place at the right time when, in his late 20s, he moved rapidly from one breathtaking innovation to another, setting the stage for his reputation to ripple out from this dusty downtown studio as a risk-taking challenger to the status quo. He was riding the waves that were churning in his own restless soul and the rough-hewn creative bounty here has a palpable excitement emanating from within the stillness of the industrial paint, paper scraps and found objects now living between the walls of this gallery, five and a half miles from where the work was originally created.
Rauschenberg later continued honing his interest in collage, time, movement, and process as well as ideas and information. But his production on this particular output, from April 1953 to September of ’55, a prelude to the famous Combines, required that he divert his attention away from himself and his interests and toward the concrete nature of his materials. He concluded the white painting suite that had inspired John Cage to compose the monumental 4’33” as well as a final series of black paintings. He executed his sculptural Elemental Sculptures, perhaps as a “correction” to the objects he had thrown away in Europe, then a group of Gold Paintings and finally on his last stop en route to the Combines, his Red Paintings, arching toward the history-making explosion of creativity that he and the cool-headed conceptualist Johns would share.
In 1957, Leo Castelli came over to Pearl Street to visit and unexpectedly, thanks to Rauschenberg’s generosity, discovered Johns. The latter’s lack of transparency next confounded the critics who were used to seeing an artist’s personality in the work but viewers, free to interpret the work on their own, got it as the world sped toward Pop art with the hetero-, expressive, macho world of AbEx shrinking in the new art capital’s rear view mirror.
Rauschenberg’s tendency, even in the solitude of the pre-Johns Fulton Street studio, was about total engagement, unlike Johns’ more quiet, reflective and critical approach. While Rauschenberg moved breezily and with zest through life and invited it into his work, Johns’ output was stoic and not revealing and as a result of that influence, Rauschenberg’s Combines emerged from his next period less personal, less sentimental. But in the Fulton Street examples seen here, as he reduced his vision to an intense singular investigation of his materials, Rauschenberg faced two and three dimensional space head on and it still emanates from the work, creating powerful resonance six decades later.
In retrospect it appears that when Rauschenberg and Twombly took their Mediterranean trip, it was an indispensible diversion from an important course Rauschenberg was already steadfastly on. He made small collages and little objects out of old paper and detritus found in Italian flea markets and a gallery exhibited them in Rome. But taking a suggestion in a derogatory art review, he threw most of the fetishistic and Cornell-inspired assemblages into the Arno River in Florence. (Craig F. Starr Gallery previously showed some of these “North African Collages” in 2012.)
Before and then after the European trip, however, Rauschenberg had embarked on what he called “all-white” and “all-black” canvases at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1951.
He began his black paintings, making at least nine by the end of the summer of ‘52 when they left and then at least seven more on Fulton in the spring and summer of ‘53, revisiting and reworking them. A couple of examples of both the black and white works were present in this show and their elegance still comes on like a Zen freight train to be reckoned with. In his black paintings, Rauschenberg added texture to the picture plane, pasting newspaper in layers, either showing through or covered completely by an outer strata of black. He soaked newspaper in oil and enamel paint and then affixed them sloppily to stretched canvas.
A striking 1952 black painting, apparently loaned by Gagosian Gallery, is darkest from a diagonal shape in solid black across the lower half on down but that area is bordered on its left by a small almost linear trumpet-like shape actually created by the edge of a paper surface leaving the feeling that the rest of the work is systematically sectioned off, forming a grid of four black silhouettes against tannish backgrounds with a few frayed shapes even emerging from the picture plane at the top to drive home the 3D collage effect. But these divisions are like a Rorschach test interpreted by me and, make no mistake about it; the overall effect to any viewer would be precisely the same as what George Carlin used to say in his role as the “Hippie Dippy Weatherman” giving his forecast for that evening: “Dark. With scattered light in the morning.”
In contrast, the “White Lead Paintings,” as they are often called, as revealed by a “score” he created in 1965, were designed to be “smooth (not grainy or rough) canvas stretched tight and painted evenly flat white” which he executed in house paint by roller. “Sides are painted too.” The square and rectangular panels, alone or in multiple groupings, functioned, as John Cage described them, like “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles” continuing the ideas of Jean Metzinger or of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition: White on White (ca. 1918), as well as anticipating Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein or Robert Ryman and others who, like the activity at Fulton Street, strived to reduce painting to its essence in a quest for pure experience.
Rauschenberg’s works in white effected Cage so deeply that they inspired him to write 4’33”, his “silent piece” that had been brewing in his mind for some time but really came to the fore as a result of Rauschenberg’s creation. “The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later,” Cage wrote in an introduction to a text on the younger artist. As if that wasn’t enough of a claim to fame, Rauschenberg also showed four of the White Paintings as part of Cage’s performance, “Theater Piece No. 1” at Black Mountain College, that is now considered the first Happening or instance of performance art in the summer of 1952. Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, MC Richards, Rauschenberg and others also appeared in it.
In fact, while still a student, on October 18, 1951, Rauschenberg wrote a letter on Black Mountain College letterhead to dealer Betty Parsons requesting a show, explaining that he had eliminated all evidence of his hand and proclaiming whiteness as a spiritual value, an indicator of virginal or god-like purity: “The result are a group of paintings I consider almost an emergency... They are not art because they take you to a place that painting art has not been... Presented with the innocence of a virgin… it is completely irrelevant that I am painting them—Today is their creator.”
Also declared by Rauschenberg to be “visual experiences” and “not art” were the “Elemental Sculptures” present in this show illustrating fundamental practices of sculptural objects with very simple arrangements: stones wrapped in fabric or tethered to a wooden box; nails or a single spike suggesting violence in their very functionality; even the seeming embellishment of juxtaposing the delicateness of a feather with its surroundings or creating other-worldliness by applying turquoise paint to a rock. Whether a basic creative statement or an irresistible moment of weakness, Rauschenberg had moved beyond the fetishism of his Europe travels.
It was also in his Fulton Street Studio period that Rauschenberg went from art to not art to anti-art in the form of two other works that challenged traditional understandings of art and authorship, both in the fall of 1953: his legendary “Erased de Kooning Drawing” and the lesser known “Automobile Tire Print,” which Rauschenberg later likened to a “Tibetan prayer wheel.”
“I was living on Fulton Street and I hadn’t gotten into making prints yet,” he later said of that print in a video interview at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which now owns both works, “but Fulton Street is almost empty of any kind of traffic on the weekends. So I got some typewriter paper and glued them all together.”
Rauschenberg proceeded to describe how he created the “about twenty feet” long print (actually 22) with “some black house paint, which is what I was working with” from “the paint store across the street.” He had called John Cage who then “drove down in his Model A” Ford. “So I poured it… and told him to drive just as straight as he could. ‘Be careful keep going straight,’ you know. And John was fascinated by the fact that we were doing this and he did a good job.” Rauschenberg concluded, referring to Cage, “He was the printer and the press.”
But the innovative Rauschenberg was the creator, as he was on a second work with an older collaborator, Willem de Kooning. While neither of these works appeared in this Craig Starr Gallery show, they did both take place during the fruitful years on Fulton Street and complete the picture of a life-art dichotomy.
“Well, I loved to draw. And as ridiculous as this may seem, I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the ‘all-whites’,” he said. “I kept making drawings myself and erasing them and that just looked like an erased… uh… Rauschenberg… nothing.” He knew he had to start with something that was “100 per cent art.”
“No, it’s got to be a de Kooning,” he continued, “if… it’s going to be an important piece. You see how ridiculously you have to think in order to make this work? And so… I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and went up and knocked on his door and prayed the whole time that he wouldn’t be home. And then that would be the work. But he was home… and I was hoping he would refuse and that would be the work.”
But instead the senior artist cooperated—despite some reticence as he rummaged through his studio—willing to comply. “He couldn’t have made me more uncomfortable,” Rauschenberg admitted, quoting de Kooning, “’OK, I want it to be something I’ll miss. I’m going to give you something really difficult to erase.’”
Finally, de Kooning found one—with “charcoal, oil paint, pencil, crayon— and I spent a month erasing that little drawing,” he said motioning, “that’s this big and on the other side is something that isn’t erased. The documentation is built in, ” he reported gleefully decades later, still obviously pleased with his achievement. “They think it was… a protest against Abstract Expressionism or just a pure act of destruction… vandalism.” But then, pausing, the former Fulton Street artist corrected the record: “It was poetry.”
When he was asked about the gold leaf paintings that we see here, Rauschenberg replied, “That was one of the by-passes--from the all-black, all-white, the gold… and the silver, and then the red.” When he speaks of by-passes he refers to further experimentation with materials in which Rauschenberg used gold but also gold and silver together as well as making similar pieces at similar sizes out of dirt and toilet paper. He was testing the limits of material as well as what we value. “I wanted to see which ones people would buy first. I was going all the way,” he told the MoMA interviewer in 2006. With the gold leaf peeling at the edges, textured by the sloppy application of glue and naturally tarnished, they radiate purity as well as wear and tear. Like the experiments he did with creating “living” paintings made of dirt, the wispy edges of the barely adhered gold and silver leaf responded to the wind, bending and flapping in response to air currents all these years later.
Unlike the black and white works that began at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg's Red Paintings from 1953 and ‘54 had both their genesis and their conclusion on Fulton. He told art historian Barbara Rose many years later: “I was trying to move away from black and white… so I picked the most difficult color for me to work in. If you’re not careful red turns to black when you’re dealing with it.”
But also unlike the black and white and gold, they do say “red” but not as directly. They do so through wrinkled fabric polka dots, partially obscured comic strips, cracking white pigment that looks like impasto cake frosting, reproductions of angels surrounded by blues, grays, oranges and yes, reds, lots of reds but also black and other pigment, pigment dripping, splattered, in washes, strokes, globs and smears squeezed directly out of the tube, all merging to create an overall rust color in your mind. Upholstery fabric, sepia illustrations, girls in two piece bathing suits on swings, a punched travel ticket, a snow globe with dried out with flowers on top—all interrupt the surface or emerge from underneath, like the vowels peeking through here or the headline that cryptically screams messages there—messages without meaning—100,000, 7B and DC7R or messages twisted with meaning. “Elaine’s Party” from 1954 boasts as a headline, “De Koning draws light” with an obscured subhead saying something about 8 months with the area north and south of the yellowed headline obscured by brushstrokes of thick white paint. Elsewhere a story about Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, is half-hidden, flanked by pinks, grey-greens, blacks and whites and framed by a border made of stained packing tape.
What Rauschenberg’s red paintings have in common, ranging from the very red ones to the somewhat red examples seen here, is that they are presumably constructed over strong grounds and then built up with layers of truncated domestic fragments and feminine bric-a-brac with their once precious secret identities forever beclouded and in stark opposition to the bloody red surface applied brutishly and confidently, seemingly without a thought for any embellishment underneath. They have been likened to “the horror of the body exploded” versus the black paintings as “the autoerotic pleasures of shit.” Both suggestions stand in contrast to the “god-like” purity of the white paintings.
Meaning is optional here. The way Rauschenberg gave commonplace objects the same preeminence as standard art materials and melded painting in two-dimensions with the length, breadth and depth of sculpture was further advanced in his Combines, which he tackled next, forever erasing the lines between painting and sculpture (as well as between painting and photography, and between painting and printmaking, for that matter) in the same way he famously erased de Kooning’s drawing.
I am grateful to the Craig Starr Gallery for this opportunity to reflect on Rauschenberg’s years erasing the boundaries between art and life in the Fulton Street Studio, a period of American art that it is hard to imagine we, or certainly the artist, could have lived without.
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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