ART: DRAWINGS BY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, 1958-68
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: October 31, 1986
THE 61 drawings by Robert Rauschenberg in the large and important exhibition at Acquavella Contemporary Art, 18 East 79th Street, cover 1958 to 1968, the years when the artist, who had already changed the look of painting and sculpture, made his indelible mark on drawing.
He did this by inventing the solvent transfer technique, a process that yielded new yet timelessly beautiful results. By sprinkling solvent on any bit of paper printed with image or text, and covering it all over with pencil marks, both print and marks were tranferred to an underlying sheet of drawing paper.
This procedure, not unlike the making of a rubbing, allowed newsprint or magazine clippings, art book reproductions, Social Security cards and travelers' checks to be ''collaged'' into a seamless surface amid a flurry of drawing strokes. Thus Rauschenberg was able to bring the mass-produced imagery of his collage painting into drawing without reducing the medium's handmade intimacy by one iota.
In the exhibition's opening gallery, the artist is seen warming to his new process. ''Trans-Plant'' is like many of his collage paintings from the mid-1950's, gridded off into different images and areas of watercolor and gouache, all keeping to themselves. But a looser, more freewheeling method rapidly takes over. In all the remaining drawing in this room, the mark-made images and other media are splayed this way and that, overlapping, competing for our attention, and the paper's white ground becomes an active ingredient.
In these drawings Rauschenberg fine tunes his particular brand of urban, mid-century Americana, building veil-like layers of imagery, juxtaposing visual and verbal puns, references to sports and history and so forth. In ''I Swear,'' for example, the rapid-fire drawing strokes yield two dominant images - a large eye, echoing the title's first word, and a picture of Abraham Lincoln, also known as Honest Abe. Also embedded in the surface are the images of two bewigged British judges and a generic Social Security card that reads ''your name,'' immediately implicating the viewer in thoughts of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Pledge of Allegiance and other oaths.
Almost every other drawing here is equally luscious in surface and legible in import, but the exhibition's centerpiece is without doubt Rauschenberg's ''34 Drawings for Dante's Inferno.'' On loan from the Museum of Modern Art and exhibited ensemble for the first time in several years, these drawings may actually be the artist's best work. They distill Rauschenberg to his essence and yet show him at his most profound.
Double hung in two tightly spaced rows, they have, collectively, a majestic sweep, and individually, the rich, seemingly endless detail of manuscript illuminations. They delineate the horrors of the underworld in graphic terms that draw from many sources. The all-over arrangements of forms and events in certain drawings can seem very modern, very ''post-Pollock,'' yet they can also call forth the continuous tumult of Michelangelo's ''Last Judgment'' or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
Started in 1959 and finished 18 months later, the drawings for the ''Inferno'' are striking for their condensed surfaces and their air of extreme concentration. Making one drawing per canto, Rauschenberg seems to have imprinted each verse on his imagination and then meticulously constructed its visual equivalent, all the while managing to remain true to both his own art and his own time.
Rauschenberg's hell is populated by gas-masked National Guardsmen, weight lifters, astronauts and men in dark, possibly gray-flannel suits. It includes an entrance gate that has a welcome sign, racing cars that speed out of control, countless toothy animal heads and almost as many athletes who, in this context, seem to be running for their lives.
Dante appears in nearly half the drawings as the man standing against a tile wall wearing white swimming trunks. He stands at attention as if he is awaiting an army physical or is about to take a dive. This he does quite dramatically in ''Canto II: The Descent,'' providing the first indication of Rauschenberg's precise attention to Dante's text.
Given a working knowledge of the ''Inferno'' (or a friend with same), these surfaces can sustain a careful and detailed reading. But even to the uninitiated, the tension between titles and images, the careful telling details (such as tiny spots of blood red) suggest that everything we see is there for a reason.
Sometimes Rauschenberg is astoundingly accurate. The punishment of the Simoniacs (''Canto XIX''), who sell holy offices, is to be stuck upside down in the ground with the soles of their feet exposed and on fire - and Rauschenberg gives us exactly that.
But he also makes adjustments. For ''Canto XIV: Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature and Art,'' whose fate it is to wander eternally on burning sand rained down upon by fire, Rauschenberg depicts a yellow ground dotted all over with tiny, agitated figures. Above he outlines what are probably his own toes in red crayon, spelling out the Simoniacs' agony in relatively huge scale via a ''hot foot'' that overlooks the scene like a billboard at the beach.
The solvent transfer technique turned out to be the perfect vehicle by which to retell Dante's often horrific journey through hell, at the same time turning it into a modern parable. In some cases the blurring of the drawing strokes gives these surfaces a dank, smoky atmosphere. In others, the images seem nearly buried in a blizzard of marks that increase as Dante, with the viewer in tow, approaches the Ninth Circle, the place where hell freezes over.
But above all, the drawing strokes are the graphic equivalent of a strobe light; they make the images flicker in and out of view, keeping everything in constant motion and creating the effect of seeing an old movie-house newsreel condensed onto a progression of exquisite single surfaces. This is also the effect of watching our collective life pass before our eyes. (Through Dec. 6.) Also of interest this week:
Wallace and Donohue (Postmasters, 66 Avenue A, at Fourth Street): The work of the artist team of Wallace and Donohue is symptomatic of the widespread attempt to rejuvenate minimalist form with a large dose of conceptual irreverence. Their monochrome canvases do not just sit there, they do things and they allow you to do things to them. One canvas, pale pink, is topped off with the kind of aluminum ladder usually encountered in a swimming pool's deep end. A favorite device is a small pivoting canvas placed in the cut-out center of a larger canvas. This the viewer can adjust, changing the composition and sometimes the color of the artwork.
Sometimes the function is more mechanical. ''Ignore the Man in the Booth'' consists of two large canvases, one blue, one yellow, which flank a corner and which are connected from their centers by excessive amounts of air-conditioning ductwork (it travels up the wall to the ceiling, around the corner and down again).
The duct motif occurs in other works here and is especially effective in ''Traveling in Pain.'' There, it is made of clear Plexiglas and connects - by the shortest, most direct route possible this time - the centers of two blue canvases placed side by side on the same wall. Through the Plexiglas are visible more of the pivoting center canvases, but we cannot get to them. They're out of reach, rather like comfort is when you are traveling in pain.
This exhibition brings to mind the title of a recent group show at White Columns: ''New Uses For Your Old Minimalist Strategies.'' Wallace and Donohue's uses are newer than some that can be seen around town these days, and this show has a handsome, if stringent, ensemble effect. But, still it does leave one hankering for some of that old minimalist sensuality. (Through Nov. 9.) Louise Fishman (Baskerville and Watson, 578 Broadway, at Prince Street): Louise Fishman can be faulted for her indebtedness to Abstract Expressionists, but she has her own point of view and her own way of connecting with the canvas. Her goal seems to be to rearrange some of the earlier style's aspects, condensing them into an extremely intimate yet powerful surface. Thus she roughens up Hans Hofmann's push-pull of form with a surface more familiar from Franz Kline, locking together boxy shapes and beam-like strokes that seem to have been bent with much resistance into the canvas's perimeter. She invariably strives for a sense of real light shining through the arched or knotted configurations that dominate her imagery.
This exhibition seems to mark an important turning point in Fishman's work, in terms of surface, composition and color. In the past, she has worked rather exclusively with a palette knife, giving her surfaces an impacted energy but one that could often turn monotonous. In several of the paintings here, Fishman alternates knife with brush with the result that a whole new scale of expression is being explored.
In addition, Fishman is unlocking the forms of her art, allowing them to peacefully coexist. In ''Ida's Choice,'' blocks of built-up blues and pinkish browns gently edge out all suggestion of pictorial space. In two smaller paintings, ''The Gift'' and ''Smuggler's Notch,'' blocks of brighter, more naturalistic color are scattered across fields of thick blue. In all, the light so long locked at the center of Fishman's art seems to be spreading. (Through Nov. 15.) Christy Rupp (PPOW, 337 East Eighth Street): Christy Rupp's painted steel sculptures deal with natural and manmade conflicts, frequently allowing their dramas to infiltrate one another, and for the most part she manages to deliver her ominous news in rather lively visual form. In ''Options for the Non-Aligned,'' two larger-than-life cranes devour frogs. ''Workerless Recovery'' shows us a sinister little robot, toy-sized but made of heavy welded steel, kicking a hapless worker off the job (and into the air with the help of a coiled stem of steel). In ''Construction Atrophy,'' two truly frightening fish, similarly suspended on long steel stems, circle a tiny house and car, creating a gut reaction familiar to anyone with a mortgage.
More elaborate scenarios are enacted in works such as ''Rust Belt Unsolid States,'' where caterpillar-like factories threaten one another from atop a belt of rusted metal that curves precariously up and down as if it were a roller coaster. Beneath them are cutouts of Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and Ohio, clearly candidates for this new-named region.
Rupp is perfecting what is best described as the three-dimensional political cartoon. As sculpture, her work is informed but hardly innovative; she makes astute use of devices borrowed from sculptors as diverse as David Smith, Red Grooms and Nancy Graves. More important, however, her priorities are clear, her aim is good and her touch, in several senses, is light. (Through Sunday.)