Some of Robert Rauschenberg’s early works made him seem a rather dark and brooding artist. His series of black paintings stand out in memory — and his white paintings and red paintings — puzzling panels of solid color inviting deep dissertations on light and the lack thereof. Some heavy intellectualizing greeted each canvas.
Rauschenberg later achieved fame for his modern prints, silkscreen paintings and combinations of found objects and graphic elements. The constant change in his work kept us guessing.
How delightful, then, to find rooms full of color and puns, silly celebrations of signage, portraits of family and friends and, even when his health was failing toward the end of his life in 2008, a series of peaceful, meditative works based on the lotus he encountered in Asia.
This is less about intellectualizing, more about pop culture.
“Rauschenberg: Reflections and Ruminations,” at the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood from Feb. 24-June 13, is an impressive exhibition of more than 50 works, smartly arranged by theme and accompanied by a handsome catalog.
This show was five years in the making and represents a coup for the museum, for curator Dan Jacobs and for director Cynthia Madden Leitner. Both the CU Art Museum and the Madden Collection at the University of Denver are listed as lending institutions, along with an anonymous private collector who contributed the largest number of works. The MOA heralds it as the first major solo exhibition of the artist’s work in Colorado since 1981.
The “reflections” celebrated here are often literal: some of the grandest pieces are on highly polished, shiny reflective surfaces, mirrors or metal, inviting the observer to reflect on themselves physically as well as cerebrally. It seems Rauschenberg was doing “interactive” works before it was hip.
Relics of Rauschenberg’s personal life creep into many of the works — views of himself, his parents, his pets, his favored objects and symbols. A few of his favorite things: bicycles, clocks and windmills. All show him to be both nostalgic and (painfully?) aware of the passage of time.
He manages to be both playful and serious, always changing direction and throwing a curve, daring to use a pun like “Pegasits” (1990), in which the winged horse Pegasus appears along with the tacky menu board from Rauschenberg’s favorite restaurant on the Florida coast, plus a metal chair from that restaurant floating overhead — he keeps us guessing. His reflexive joining of high and low culture is a recurring theme.
A favorite in this show has to be “Autobiography” (1968), offset lithograph in three panels, at the entrance to the exhibit. The first panel, at the top, shows the artist in full-body X-ray, transformed into a multi-stage rocket (“self-portrait of inner man”), the middle panel features autobiographical text shaped in a sort of thumbprint, spiraling around a photo of the artist as a child with his family, the third or bottom shows Rauschenberg as a young man, in his first choreographic effort, “Pelican” in 1963, roller-skating with a parachute on his back.
Mostly, the MOA’s exhibit underscores how prolific Rauschenberg was and how in tune with popular culture he remained throughout his years — from collaborations with painter Jasper Johns, dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage to the design of the translucent vinyl Talking Heads album, “Speaking in Tongues.”
For some visitors, descriptions of the artist’s tools and techniques may be as intriguing as the finished works. And this exhibition is careful to share the methods behind the works. Explanations of the “flatbed” process, a technique for painting with photographic developer directly on a photosensitive sheet of plastic, are helpful but may be more than most observers need to know to admire the art.
Overall, the tone is more joyful than brooding, the ruminations more contented, even celebratory than you might expect. What emerges from this exhibit is a portrait of the artist as a fulfilled man.