Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

James Chance and The Contortions, Seaport Music Festival, New York

This past weekend marked the 15th annual Seaport Music Festival at the South Street Seaport in New York, and we at CatSynth were there on Sunday afternoon to see James Chance and The Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions

For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is actually the second time we have seen him and his band, including collaborators Mac Gollehon on trumpet and valve trombone, Eric Klaastad, and Richard Dworkin on drums, in 2017, the previous being at the Knockout in Francisco in March.

For the Seaport show, they were joined by Chris Cochrane on guitar and Robert Aaron filling out the horn section on tenor saxophone.  The San Francisco performance was great, but this performance was even better.  There were the tight funky rhythms with blaring saxophone and trumpet lines along with Chance’s fancy footwork and intense stage presence that channeled James Brown, but the band as a whole was more of an imaginative musical whole.  Cochrane seemed more in tune with the rest of the band and shined on slower tune “Jaded” with a cool Robert-Fripp-like countermelody using an e-bow.  The combined horns of Gollehon and Aaron brought out the jazz and funk elements that separated James Chance from others in the No Wave scene.  And Klaastad was full and powerful on eight-string bass.

The energy of the performance fit well with the setting.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, with the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront bathed in golden-hour sunlight, matched by Chance’s yellow blazer and trademark pompadour.

James Chance

It was also special to see him performing in New York, given his long history in the local music scene.  Later on walking in the West Village, we espied this old poster advertising one of his shows from the early 1980s on the wall of the former Bleecker Street Records (sadly, now a Starbucks).

James White and the Blacks

We would be remiss if we did not also mention the other bands we saw at the Seaport Music Festival.  The Contortions were preceded by Wolfmanhattan Project, a supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins (Dirtbombs/Gories), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth).  They played to a quite enthusiastic audience.  The Nude Party combined sounds of hard rock scene of 1970s New York with a Southern edge from their hometown in North Carolina.  And Martin Rev (formerly of Suicide) played an energetic solo set on keyboards with backing rhythms from a variety of sources, including classic soul such as the Ohio Players.  A fine day of music on the waterfront.

[Jason Berry contributed to this article.]

CatSynth Pic: Miep and Roland D-70

Miep and Roland D-70

Our feline friend Miep is back, this time with a Roland D-70 synthesizer.  FromDennis Matana via http://www.facebook.com/catsynth .

The Roland D-70 is not as common as the iconic D-50.  You can read more about it on Vintage Synth Museum .  Interestingly, it appears to have at least as much in common with the U series as the D series, and never achieved a similar popularity to the D-50.

9/11 Tribute in Light

9/11 Tribute in Light

Last night in downtown Brooklyn, we observed the 9/11 Tribute in Light turning on across the river.  One beam was on first, and then later – following the pattern of the towers attack and collapse.

It is a somber reminder.  And it is the second time I have been in New York on 9/11 to witness it.

You can read more about the 9/11 Tribute in Light here.

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

CatSynth Pic: John Cage with Losa Rinpoche

Merce Cunningham John Cage tribute

A tribute to John Cage on his birthday (September 5), by the Merce Cunningham Trust.  The photo is courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

John Cage’s beloved black cat was named Losa Rinpoche.  From the John Cage Trust (on his 101st birthday in 2013):

John Cage had a very close relationship with his second black cat, Losa.  (His first black cat, Skookum, was tragically set loose on the streets of New York by a well-meaning worker on the roof. John was so bereft, Andy Culver told him we were going to have to send him back to Zen School.) One of their favorite games together was for John to put Losa under a cardboard box.  Losa would then move around the loft, the box on his back, weirdly animated.  I was horrified the first time I saw him do this. “He must be scared!” I cried. John just laughed. He said Losa liked it, and, furthermore, his new name was now Losa Rinpoche Taxi Cab.  Of course, Losa would, after a time, simply shrug the box off, look disdainfully at us both, and calmly walk away.

#Houston Updates

As the heat recedes in San Francisco and we return to something closer to normal, our attention returns to our human and feline friends in Houston and elsewhere affected by the storm.

In addition to rescuing stranded pets, one of the challenges facing animals and those who care from has been the damage done to local shelters in southeast Texas by the storm. Organizations from around the country have stepped up.  From the San Francisco SPCA’s recent Facebook post:

Rescue Cats from Texas coming to SF SPCA.

Rescue Cats from Texas coming to SF SPCA.

Our little ‘Stormtroopers’ (15 pups and 15 kitties) are resting peacefully after arriving last night from a galaxy far, far away (also known as Texas). We will be providing frequent updates over the next few days and they should all be available for adoption by the end of the week. Stay tuned here and on our adoption pages for news and pictures. Thanks again to our partners–Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, The Milo Foundation, MAD Dog Rescue, Charlie’s Acres, PetSmart Charities and Austin Pets Alive!–for helping bring the ‘Troopers back to the Bay Area so we can help find them new homes. The people and pets of Texas still need your help so please consider making a donation to Austin Pets Alive or any of the other organizations that are on the ground in the Houston area helping to make a difference.

Speaking of Austin Pets Alive, they continue to be on the ground helping their friends to the east, including the hard-hit city of Beaumont.   From APA’s latest update:

– We are not only taking owner-surrendered dogs. Best Friends Animal Society opened their temporary shelter at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds on Thursday, and the City of Austin and City of Houston have both opened facilities in the past 48 hours to help take in strays and lost animals. So, we have transitioned back to working with animals who are not waiting for an owner and need to work towards adoptions – which is what APA! does every day back in Austin.

– Thankfully, the city of Beaumont has set up the Ford Center to accept stray animals – so they have a safe, albeit warm, place to be. It is important to us that the pets coming to our facilities also come with the most information possible, as we need to know whether to help animals find forever homes or reunite with their families.

Best Friends Animal Society continues to also be on the ground helping rescue and reconnect animals with their humans.

We are happy to say that our human and feline friends at Mad Macedonian and Opinionated Pussycat are safe in Houston, although perhaps a bit soggy.  This Instagram post was from the storm itself last week.  The waters have receded since then.

Others are not so fortunate. Arun Chaudhary has been documenting the devastation in and around the Houston area in exquisitely detailed but distressing sometimes terrifying photos. This first one is along I-10.

One of the big issues now with the flood waters is the pollution and toxicity unleashed by the area’s massive energy-production industry. It is impossible to get a sense from the images of just what is coming.

Laura Moser, founder of Daily Action and Congressional candidate, continues to work in the communities on the north and west of the city, including Katy. The scenes from there are pretty devasting.

You can see the entire series of photos in this Tweet thread, which features photos by Arun Chaudhary. She also made this call for specific supplies needed:

Several of us have been going back and forth to 8503 Mesa Drive with supplies. There are now 3 drop-off locations for people who want to drop off contributions: my house (in WU off Kirby), my dad’s office (in Village), and a friend’s house in RO. Please PM me for addresses. We have a few new needs, too, for people still going to the store:
Antibiotic ointment, Benadryl, Benadryl for kids, Band-Aids, first-aid kits. A lot of people are still living in these ruined houses with their kids, who already have asthma. We also have an ongoing need for formula and also BOTTLES.

For those far away (like us), the best way to help humans and animals continues to be money that organizations can use for whatever needs arise, but if you are in a position to provide specifically-needed materials, this list is a good place to start.