Robert Rauschenberg and Photography @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against blue and white walls in the two room divided space. 8 of the works are single image black and white digital ink jet prints, made from images taken between 1950 and 1980. Physical dimensions range from 10×10 to 16×24, in modern editions of 50. The show also includes 2 portfolios (consisting of 6 and 7 gelatin silver prints mounted to rag board), both made in 1952. The images are roughly 6×4 each, and the portfolios are available in editions of 15. The other 5 works on view are larger multi-image photo collages and photographic combines. There is a single work made of acrylic on stainless and galvanized steel (73×49, from 1988), 2 works made of acrylic and tarnishes on mirrored aluminum (61×49 or reverse, from 1991), and 2 works made of 3 or 4 gelatin silver prints mounted to aluminum (54×23 and 54×46, in editions of 5, from 1991). (Installation shots below, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery.)

Comments/Context: While photocollage and montage have been a part of photography almost from its inception, it is only in the past few decades that we have become completely comfortable with the idea that the definition of “photographer” can readily include not only those who physically snap shutters but those who use photographs in their artistic practice in some manner. This exhibit gives us a look at an artist who was both an image maker and an image reuser, and tries to draw out the connections between the two sides of Robert Rauschenberg’s career-long investigation of the medium.

If we look at the single image photographs and portfolios Rauschenberg made between 1950 and 1980, and we are honest about what we find, I think we can generally conclude that when he was behind the camera himself, he was an accomplished but not superior photographer. All of the works on view in this small show have a sense of visual experimentation, from the over grainy texture of a floating tire swing and the blur of sidewalk pedestrians, to the high contrast graphic quality of a towel on a clothesline and the compositional imbalance of a self portrait on a mattress. And while there are flashes of brilliance among his city scenes, portraits of friends, and travel photos, the camera seems to have mostly offered Rauschenberg a structured way of looking and a method for generating visual raw material that had the right characteristics for rework.

Rauschenberg’s more lasting contribution to the history of art is his masterful, rebus-like combination of photographic imagery, and a handful of larger works on display here give a sense for the diversity of his compositional innovation. The Night Shade series brings an active gestural quality to the juxtaposed pictures, almost as though they were originally executed in invisible ink and then made visible by broad strokes of darker washes. A fan, a mirror, and that same hanging towel emerge from the arm length waves, like a wall sized scratch off lottery ticket revealing its hidden treasures. The Photem series is in some ways more traditionally photographic, in that it organizes individual photographs into edge to edge totem poles of imagery. In one work, visual stripes connect the reoriented pictures, bringing the ridges of a boat hull, some corrugated tin, and the lines of a neon sign into roughly parallel order. In another, we get a clever combination of vernacular signage, from the Mut Hut to a witty reference to Bob’s Hand.

Whether his subject was a bare light bulb, a messy pile of leftover letter stencils, or a multiple exposure self portrait, Rauschenberg made photographs that hinted at larger and more complex visual ideas. But it was when he put images together that the magic really happened; Rauschenberg turned fragments into ingenious puzzles and deft mixtures, blending allusions and associations into layered medleys. This show helps connect the dots between his two relationships with photography, and offers an instructive example to those contemporary photographers who are similarly straddling both approaches.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The single image photographs are each $9000 (unless they are marked NFS), while the portfolios are $45000 and $50000, based on the number of prints included. The 2 works made of collaged gelatin silver prints are $75000 each, while the works on mirrored aluminum are NFS and the work on galvanized steel is $485000. Rauschenberg’s photographic works have intermittently come into the secondary markets in the past decade. Single image prices have ranged from roughly $1000 to $13000, while portfolios have found buyers between $12000 and $16000. Larger multi image constructions, photocollages, and combined works have ranged between $45000 and $1000000.

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