To a shipboard acquaintance who thought the White Cliffs of Dover scarcely real, Eliot once replied, “Oh, they’re real enough,” a statement to which four meanings may be attached according as each of the four words in turn is stressed.
— Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era
There was a white painting in the Rauschenberg show at the Tate. I’d forgotten they were modular, made of multiple canvases. Stupid of me: the connections to Cage’s 4’33” became more obvious, both as music and as the second version of Cage’s score for the piece. Seeing, for the first time, those canvases placed side by side it struck me how much they had a presence as objects, not just surfaces. They looked pristine, untouched by time. Were they new? The card on the wall said just “Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. On short term loan.”
Among the most radical aspects of the series is that these works were conceived as remakeable: Rauschenberg viewed them primarily as a concept and allowed for the physical artworks to be repainted and even refabricated from scratch without his direct involvement. Many of Rauschenberg’s friends and studio assistants… either repainted or fully refabricated various White Paintings at different points in the series’ history. Although such efforts were often undertaken to maintain the pristine surfaces considered essential to these works, refabrication was sometimes necessary because Rauschenberg had reused the original canvases as supports for new paintings and Combines.
Like a Duchamp readymade, we can look at a replica and not care about authenticity. Is it possible to remake a piece of music? (Two rooms over in the Tate, Factum I and Factum II hung side by side.) What makes music a form of art, if it is art at all? What does it share with other art-forms, that move them beyond considerations of craft?
Lovely weather on the weekend so I went down to the Thames and finally went to see the Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern. In that first room, the early Fifties, John Cage is pervasive. The next rooms, the combines, the silkscreens, I wonder what I’m looking at. You look at them and you get the overall image but it’s the objects that dominate your vision and your memory, whether in three or two dimensions. The goat, the tyre, JFK, an astronaut, a suitcase on a rope. And around it is painting, the painted gestures. Do we see the painting, or are they holding the objects in place?
Like in representational painting, there’s a hierarchy of perception, but here it’s not clear what is figure and what is ground. Are the objects acting on the viewer in the way that T. S. Eliot wanted the meaning of his poems to act on the reader, keeping the mind diverted and quiet while the art does its real work? Or is it just me, like when I’m waiting for that bit in the middle of Stockhausen’s Kontakte or the Beckett quotes in Berio’s Sinfonia? There are times when I’ve composed music and the material, all the harmony and voice-leading and inner structure and whatever, all become a vast supporting framework for a particular surface effect in the instrumental timbre or registration upon which the whole piece lives or dies.
I’m thinking again about Feldman’s use of what he called “patterns” in his late work, motifs he used and re-used as transparent vehicles for the instruments to project their sound without undue interference. The objects and their containing images merge. Then I’m back in that first Rauschenberg room at the Tate, where object and image are indivisible: the black painting, the white painting, the erased De Kooning, the tyre print. That integrity appeals to me the most, but I suspect grappling with messier realities is more necessary.
Sadly, Silver Road is no more. Last Thursday’s gig was one of the last. At least it went out with a bang. I got a few photos inside the performance space while setting up for the show.