One of the most influential American artists of the post-war period, Robert Rauschenberg broke the mould of traditional fine art by making use of what he called “gifts from the street”—everyday objects that, in his judicious hands, were arranged into playful and startling new compositions. Between 1975 and 1983, the iconoclastic artist—who first came to fame when he erased a drawing by his contemporary, de Kooning—began a series of works that would become known as ‘Spreads.’ This new film, an editorial collaboration with London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac—who are currently exhibiting a selection of the artist’s works until 26 January 2019—features Shelley Jones behind the camera and art historian Elisa Schaar in front, guiding us through the layered visual world of one of the 20th century’s most distinguished creators.
Typically, the Spreads are made up of expansive flat surfaces of wood and metal on which Rauschenberg applied paint and solvent transfers, adding the found objects, mirrored plexiglass, and electric lights that typify Rauschenberg’s lifelong obsession with re-appropriating discarded and unexpected detritus. Car tyres, lightbulbs, exotic animals, and bedding appears alongside umbrellas and metal traps. In this way, the stuff of traditional still-life painting gets mixed up with the detritus of post-war America. One man’s trash became Rauschenberg’s treasure.
As abstract as they seem, the Spreads also carry a subtly biographical element: whereas his earlier, grittier works reflected his experience of urban New York, the bright Day-Glo oranges, pinks, and yellows of the Spreads reflect his new-found life in Florida, and comment widely on technology, American culture, nature, and the built environment. It is for this reason that they take their name—spreads, referring to the spreading landscapes of the American West.
Spilling onto floors or hanging against walls, the canvases’ planes of colour and blocks of pure white are plastered with images covering everything from floral bursts to minimalist shapes. In this way, the Rauschenberg of the 1960s had evolved his earlier explosive, gestural works into subtler and more optimistic investigations of the possibilities of modern sculpture. “I don’t care which direction anyone is looking,” observed the artist in 1981, “as long as they are seeing.”