London – Robert Rauschenberg, who died four years ago after a career as big-spirited and optimistic as any great postwar artist, is featured in the first exhibition in the UK of his Jammers series, which will go on show at Gagosian in London from 16 February – 28 March 2013.
In 1975, Robert Rauschenberg worked for a month in an ashram in Ahmedabad in India, a textile production centre. After returning home, he executed a series of works in 1975 and 1976 called “Jammers,” true bursts of colors. The series’ name comes from the windjammer, a sailing vessel, and titles of individual works emphasize the maritime reference. The “Jammers” can refer to sails on ships, windbreaks on the beach, laundry, drying on clotheslines in southern Europe and Asia, medieval Italian banners or flags of a Tibetan monastery. The exotic is connected to everything that is close and approachable, the holy with the worldly.
Fabrics in these works are rectangular, square and triangular and colors are clear and intense, hung loose on the walls or attached to bamboo rods like veils in a state of ethereal equilibrium. Rauschenberg said: “I never allowed myself the luxury of those brilliant, beautiful colors until I went to India and saw people walking around in them or dragging them in the mud. I realized they were not so artificial.” Even though the [Jammers] are still quite romantic, my job was to impose a great amount of restraint upon myself…Nearly everything that I could think to do previously would have violated what these pieces wanted to be. And so with the fabrics, it was another kind of adventure, almost like going out and picking up garbage. —Robert Rauschenberg
Rauschenberg’s protean oeuvre ushered in a new era of postwar American art in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, with a free and experimental approach that drew inspiration from conceptual, materialist, and gestural approaches to art making. His restlessly inventive spirit pushed him to explore a wealth of materials and processes, thus collapsing the distinctions between medium, genre, abstraction and representation, while his invention of the “flatbed picture plane” forever changed the relationship between artist, image, and viewer.
In the early 1970s, Rauschenberg moved his permanent studio from New York City to Captiva Island, off the Gulf coast of Florida (Today, this site is in use as the artists’ residency program of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation). This relocation marked a shift from the gritty urban detritus that had been the basis of much of the earlier work to a rhapsodic embrace of color and geometric abstraction in a wholly new vernacular language. The Jammers series (1975–76), its title a direct reference to the Windjammer sailing vessel, is Rauschenberg’s salute to his new island life. In 1975, he also went to India to investigate textiles and papermaking, and the inspiration of this new and exotic context is evident in the use of vivid colors and nuanced textures of cotton, muslin, and silk.
For the most part, the Jammers comprise stitched fabrics in pure, solid colors, affixed to rattan poles or hung directly and loosely on the wall; whereas in works such as Sprout (1975) and Caliper (1976), the unadorned poles are the principal formal element, propped against the wall. Departing from Rauschenberg’s densely collaged imagery or muscular, layered materials, the Jammers are simple and light, focusing on the transparency and seductiveness of veil-like fabrics, that are lent sculptural structure by the cloth-covered poles or other found objects. In Quarterhorse (1975), segments of blue, green, tan and yellow cloth evoke sandy beaches, palm trees, and bright sunshine. In Index (1976), widths of gleaming azure and white satin drape together, a diptych of clouds and sea. The hot, saturated hues of Pimiento III (1976) and Mirage (1976) attest to more exotic influences; while Coin (1976) incorporates found tin cans, stripped of their labels, gleaming mysteriously inside a gauze bag that sags under their weight.
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was born in Port Arthur, Texas. After briefly attending the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology, and serving in the United States Navy during World War II, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1947. In early 1948, he travelled to Paris to study at the Académie Julien, where he met fellow artist Susan Weil; they later married and had a son, Christopher. In the autumn, the couple returned to the United States to study under Josef Albers at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina until the spring of 1949. Later that year, Rauschenberg moved to New York City and enrolled at the Art Students League. Rauschenberg returned to Black Mountain College in 1951 and again in 1952 when he formed friendships with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and David Tudor, and participated in Cageʼs Theater Piece #1, which is now acknowledged as the first Happening. Since the early 50s, Rauschenbergʼs sustained involvement in theatre and dance has resulted in costume and set designs for Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Viola Farber, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown, as well as for his own productions.