The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

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NOV 2012 Issue

We the People

On View
Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space
October 3 – November 9, 2012
New York

The Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space is a large, rectangular room, with stairs in the northeast corner leading to a mezzanine in the rear. We the People, curated against the backdrop of the current election by Alison Gingeras, Jonathan Horowitz, and Anna McCarthy, looks to provide an “artistic view” of the “diverse demographics” of the United States. The exhibition brings together the work of some 55 American artists whose output theoretically references some facet of “who the American people are.” The press release explains that each artwork chosen suggests an electoral demographic, and that the grouping of these works somehow resonates with Rauschenberg’s own legacy, by “pulling together a community of artists as activists to confront issues.” This, however, seems inherently flawed as some of the artists who have been “pulled together,” including John Currin, Richard Phillips, Marilyn Minter, and Andy Warhol, are not exactly activists, and certainly, historically, have been disinterested in communing politically.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

In one of many dazzling non-sequiturs, the press release also reveals that the arrangement of the works takes inspiration from the crowded, riotous album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That decidedly non-American album cover, however, is much more successful in its all-over cohesion than We the People. The Tetris-like arrangement of the artwork has none of Pepper’s sense of conspiratorial collage; it feels more like the jumble of an auction house, or Noah’s Ark fully loaded and lost at sea.

More troubling than the uninspired noisiness of the works, however, are the pieces that are inadvertently highlighted by the arrangement. In what can only be described as an uncouth decision, “Vote Mitt Romney.” (2012), Richard Phillips’s giant oil painting of the presidential hopeful, occupies prime position, hanging high on the west wall, greeting entrants into the space. Its centrality in the space of such an empathetic and progressive activist (who one might assume would have been more of an Obama guy, if he even believed in the bi-party system), is perhaps designed to be provocative, but reads more as an unnervingly clumsy insult to Rauschenberg’s legacy. The canvas takes up well over 25 percent of the wall space, drowning out the other, quieter paintings, including David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (One Day this Kid…)” (1990), a banner depicting the image of a pre-pubescent boy, surrounded by a vitriolic text outlining the homophobic cruelties doomed to descend upon the boy when he “discovers his desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” Whilst this pairing may be an intentional “juxtaposition” of sorts, the sight of Romney staring at the viewer, name emblazoned behind him, back turned to Wojnarowicz’s little boy, is admittedly thought-provoking, but also unhelpfully offensive to Rauschenberg’s moral politics—offensive like a rape joke in the lobby of Planned Parenthood, or a pro-Prop 8 float in a gay pride parade.

Homosexuality—referring to Rauschenberg’s sexuality, and politics therein—is a recurring theme of the exhibition, handled poorly throughout. Directly beneath Phillips’s Romney is John Currin’s “Dogwood” (1997), which depicts two unrealistically buxom women sitting next to each other in an idyllic countryside, their bare legs atop one another. Flanking “Dogwood”on all sides are paintings depicting men, some homoerotic, others not so, which unsubtly throw the grotesque caricature into relief. One such work is a graphite composition by Tom of Finland, “Untitled(1964). The drawing depicts two men dressed as cowboys ogling each other on a wooden fence, shirts and pants bulging, crotches angled towards one another. The difference between the two pieces, of course, is the fact that Currin’s breast-bloated stereotypes are designed to caricature the external, hetero-male gaze, whereas Tom of Finland’s figures are in a closed circuit of arousal. The message of this juxtaposition seems only to allude to the fact that homosexuality is not gender specific. Given the current debate over gay rights in this country, one might have hoped for a more nuanced and complex representation of an issue that would certainly have been an important to one Rauschenberg. 

Missing from We the People in general, in fact, is a sense of subtle complexity, a trait of all of the endeavors of the foundation’s namesake. One might think of the “Combines” for confirmation of Rauschenberg’s brilliance at collage, at uniting disparate—often discarded—elements into a whole. One might further recall “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering,” a series of evenings of artistic and technological experimental pieces and performance, organized expertly by Rauschenberg in the ’60s.  Facilitating collaborations between artists and engineers at a cultural moment pre-dating “new media” to achieve adult tasks was a feat of genius—and liveliness—absolutely central to Rauschenberg’s character, so nourishing to subsequent generations, and so completely absent from We the People.

The most troubling failure of this show, then, is that it casts out Rauschenberg’s spirit from his own temple. Arranged in this manner, the Foundation Project Space becomes a mausoleum; corpses, poorly hung, gesture at nothing, spirit absent. Even some great pieces lose their tremendousness: Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s powerful “Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20” (1990 – 2), for example, is relegated to a bit of wall along the stairwell; it feels disregarded, shining alone, divorced from the other pieces. Nowhere can the spirit of a man whose artistic collaborations spanned the globe, from Venezuela to Tibet, who froze in a cold water flat on Water Street with Jasper Johns, who rescued trash from the street and made it art, whose commitment to younger artists, and experiments in new media, inspired him in 1963 to convert a Catholic orphanage into a combination performance space, multimedia studio, political refuge, and personal home, be found. That lived passion for innovation, for newness, for “nowness,” and that unique, progressive worldview, encompassing of so much, including homosexuality in all its complexity, appears completely lost on the curators of this show, and that’s a shame. 

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues