Robert Rauschenberg: Bigger and More Ambitious

Grand Rapids Art Museum is hosting three Robert Rauschenberg exhibitions, one of which has only been seen in Paris and New York

In a monumental three-part exhibition that marks the artist's first-ever solo show in Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Art Museum hosts Robert Rauschenberg In Context, At Gemini and Synapsis Shuffle through May 20.

After consecutive print shows featuring Audubon's Birds of America and Warrington Colescott's Cabaret, Comedy & Satire, GRAM Director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen sought out something on a much larger scale.

"I thought people might be hungry for something bigger and more ambitious," he said. "I knew about an exhibition at the Whitney, so I wondered if we could borrow it and add it to make it even bigger."

The iconic works featured in the exhibitions span decades and represent what the artist called "the gap between art and life." They highlight not only Rauschenberg's sheer innovation, but also his dedication to the world in which he lived and worked before his death in 2008.

Labeled as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century, he is credited as not only a painter, sculptor, draftsman, photographer and printmaker, but also a performance artist, choreographer and theater designer.

Organized by the GRAM, Rauschenberg In Context was assembled from the museum collection and those of local university art museums.

"This is a great opportunity for people to get a sense of this radical and artistic innovation," Friis-Hansen said. "He had an interesting eye for color, shape and juxtapositions. It's really of the moment. He energized art and connected with people's everyday experience as opposed to some past moment."

Shown in conjunction with In Context, Rauschenberg At Gemini emphasizes work produced at the world-famous Los Angeles prints and multiples workshop, Gemini G.E.L., and is organized by the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, Calif.

The works in Rauschenberg At Gemini range from the familiar — lithographs and screenprints — to interestingly innovative multiples like the Cardbird series, made entirely of cardboard.

Unusual objects like these were no foreign material and by 1955, Rauschenberg began using the method of collage, or adhering objects to the surface of canvas. He started by combining things like photographs and fragments of magazine pages, objects that are relatively flat. But by the late 1950s he became bolder, combining chairs and clocks. It was then that he coined the term "combines."

Rauschenberg's penchant for chance is what makes the third installment of the GRAM exhibition remarkable. Synapsis Shuffle, beginning March 3, consists of 52 large-scale panels printed with collaged images from Rauschenberg's travels. Resembling a deck of cards, Synapsis Shuffle is meant to be "shuffled" each time it is shown, creating a new, unpredictable exhibition.

"Rauschenberg was a trickster and liked to set things up where it would be different each time," Friis-Hansen said. "He required that someone other than the artist make the final arrangement of these panels. They cannot be any smaller than [displays of] three panels or larger than seven panels."

On loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, Synapsis Shuffle has been shown only twice, in New York and Paris. In its Grand Rapids debut, it will be initially shuffled by a group of undisclosed individuals and will feature photographic images including an ice machine, fire hydrant, school bus, images from China and India, and piles of trash.

Despite his wealth and success, ironically, Rauschenberg did not intend to be an artist at all. Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, he briefly attended the University of Texas to study pharmacology then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Robert Rauschenberg In Context, At Gemini, Synapsis Shuffle
The Grand Rapids Art Museum
Through May 20, 2012
$5-$8, free for members, (616) 831-1000

"We go back to the late ‘40s and early ‘50s," GRAM Senior Curator Rick Axsom said. "He always had a curiosity to make things and explore the world around him. As a young man, even though he was in the military service, he was always someone who tinkered with things ... As a child, it can be a sign of a creative imagination."

As the first artist/environmentalist in the history of modern art, Rauschenberg expressed many of his environmental concerns in his work. As a frequent globetrotter and early advocate of multiculturalism, he also designed the limited edition lithograph and poster for the first Earth Day, April 1970.

Decades later, Rauschenberg's work continues to inspire even those with a front-row seat to the art world.

"I think viewers will have very little discomfort in this show, unless they think you shouldn't be able to walk through a print," Axsom said. "You may not always be able to identify things but there's always a smack of the familiar. There is always something you can grab on to as a viewer ... For me, the experience is one of discovery and surprise and engagement and delight. That resonance, I can't imagine that stopping."

GRAM also hosts the Saturday Series: Lectures, Films, Talks & Tours every Saturday at 2 p.m. as an outlet to enhance your experience of the Rauschenberg exhibitions. Along with docent-led tours of the exhibition, the program's highlights also include a March 3 gallery talk with Dana Friis-Hansen.

Synapsis Shuffle officially opens to the public on Saturday, March 3. Catch a sneak peek Friday, March 2 at 5 p.m. during Friday Nights at GRAM. This exhibition has only visited New York and Paris before its arrival in Grand Rapids. Visit the GRAM website for more details.

Pictured: Booster, 1967 (Robert Rauschenberg, American, 1925–2008). 5-color lithograph and screenprint. 182.9 x 90.2 cm (72 x 35.5 in.). Curtis Rag. Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg and Gemini G.E.L./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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