Seeing, Hearing (2)

Tuesday 28 March 2017

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?