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.