‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

 Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

 Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

 Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116