ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, Earth Haunts/ROCI VENEZUELA, 1985, acrylic and sand on canvas mounted on plywood, 125.1 cm x 139.1 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

Robert Rauschenberg

Pace Hong Kong
USA Hong Kong

When Robert Rauschenberg was out of cash on a trip to Morocco in the 1950s, the young artist gathered scraps of found items from flea markets and assembled them to display in galleries in Florence and Rome, throwing away what didn’t sell into the Arno River. In 1955 he made Bed, one of his first “Combines”—a hybrid mix of sculpture, painting and found objects—in which he used his own pillow case and blankets, because, again, he couldn’t afford a canvas. Humorous anecdotes and fortuitous circumstances such as these often mark the late artist’s work and, while they illustrate Rauschenberg’s impulsive, experimental methods, they also affirm an undeniable quality of his near 60-year career—that the line between art and life was always blurred.

In the first solo presentation of his works to take place in Hong Kong, Pace presents five pieces dating from the late 1970s to the early ’90s, which saw Rauschenberg return to experimenting with paint and picture transfer after working in performance art for some time. Here we are given a glimpse into how Rauschenberg’s experimentation with material continued unabated throughout his career and how he combined his philanthropic work with his intuitive, self-expressive art.

From early on in his career Rauschenberg recognized art as a catalyst for social change. In 1970 he produced Earth Day, a poster conceived to bring global public awareness to environmental pollution. In the same year he also produced Signs, a collage of images taken from mass media that point to pivotal moments in 1960s America, such as the Vietnam War and the urban race riots. His success allowed him to jump from being an artist-activist to a philanthropist. In 1984 he founded the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), a platform for art in countries where free artistic expression was stifled. Earth Haunts/ROCI Venezuela (1985), featured in the exhibition at Pace, was produced as part of the project’s trip to Venezuela. The messier style of Rauschenberg’s earlier “Combine” works is visible here: rusted sand slapped on the canvas threatens to crumble off, while images of oil barrels overlaid with the silhouette of trees have a scrapbook-collage-like effect. Oil exploitation was a major component of the Venezuelan economy during the 1970s, during which the country became more reliant on its revenues. Having grown up near an oil refinery himself, Rauschenberg’s sensitivity toward oil is evident in Earth Haunts/ROCI Venezuela and other works where the substance is featured both as a material and an abject figure. In this particular work, the layering of imagery points to tensions between a fragile environment and a booming industry.

Rauschenberg’s environmental concerns are also visible in Hutan Belantara (Virgin Forest)/ ROCI Malaysia (1990)During the 1980s, rampant logging in the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak saw the daily lives of the indigenous tribess become affected by deforestation. Printed on steel, a digital photograph that Rauschenberg took on his visit to a local community has been brushed over with a single orange stroke that both highlights and shields the image of an indigenous male hunter.

Forged Gift 
(1979), from Rauschenberg’s “Slide” series (1979), is the earliest work on display and was produced after he began experimenting with fabrics in a more deliberate way during the late 1970s. Faded images of a race horse reeling its head back, vinyl records and chains printed via photographic solvent on long strips of torn fabric appear to fade into the nostalgic floral patterns. During the printing process, the fabrics were slightly shifted, leaving a degree of chance to the outcome, with the skewed effect further drawing attention to the cloth’s flimsy quality. While the fabric appears as a visual anomaly among the metallic sheen and bright colors of the other works, its inclusion emphasizes Rauschenberg’s continual experimentation of picture transfer and the shift he made to working with metals such as aluminum and steel in the following decade.

Though the serendipitous outcomes of Rauschenberg’s earlier works were later achieved with the use of computer technology and assistants, smatterings of manual gestural expression were still featured later on in his career. Rauschenberg’s intuitive eye for vibrant color and composition is evident in the glossy focal point of the exhibition, the six-meter-long Around the Clock (Urban Bourbon) (1993). Highlighting varying colors and techniques, the abstract imagery on the enameled and anodized aluminum canvas is divided into five sections, where smeared blue and brown acrylic paint is set against brash orange, electric blue and X-ray-like forms.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, Hutan Belantara (Virgin Forest)/ROCI Malaysia, 1990, acrylic on tin-plated steel, 124.5 cm x 74.9 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, Around the Clock (Urban Bourbon), 1993, acrylic on enameled and anodized aluminum, 185.4 cm x 612.1 cm. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

In a 1999 statement, Rauschenberg wrote, “I trust impulse, creative intuition and unmotivated spontaneity but above all responsive action with as many filters that one can avoid.” Pure personal expression and responsive outward action were not mutually exclusive for Rauschenberg but essential, and his ROCI works were a testament to this notion. Rauschenberg’s posthumous exhibition in Hong Kong offers a glimpse at the larger scope of the artist’s philanthropy and how he merged life and art on an ever-evolving canvas.

Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition at Pace Hong Kong is on view until May 12, 2016.