December 1st a major exhibition on Robert Rauschenberg opened at the Tate Modern in London, spanning six decades of his work. Rauschenberg (1925-2008) has been called the artist who changed American art forever. True – although arguably not the only one. Do go visit the Tate (until 2 April 2017) if you can, or visit a museum nearby, or check out his work online.
Now, why would you care as a graphic designer? For me, being a designer is like being a sponge. You don’t have your eyes in your pocket and the world around you invades your work in any which way. It can leave obvious aesthetic traces, or hidden conceptual meaning.
Taking Rauschenberg’s art as a starting point, in this post I’ll show various ways in which ‘world’ and ‘work’ are related – most obviously through its appearance. But I also hand methods of working that can be applied in any creative field.
It’s manifest that the world enters Rauschenberg’s work and that the world can be experienced through it. I mean just plainly ‘the world’, and not ‘the world outside’. For me this is not about ‘outside’ translating into a different meaning ‘inside’ the work: the work is part of its surroundings and by that changes the world it’s part of.
What attracts me in the work of Rauschenberg is the ‘now-ness’ of the early work, and the creative mastery of the later work, saturated with colours and images. The aesthetics of some of his early assemblages don’t always appeal to me. The colours sometimes are a bit muddy, the furs and blobs of paint catch dust, but they radiate energy, an eagerness, that I sometimes miss when I’m sweating on the umpteenth version of a clients logo.
Setting the stage, in the 1940’s and 1950’s abstract expressionism became the predominant ‘ism’ in modern art, with New York as its hub. Its significance lay in its experimentation and tolerance for a wide variety of styles, combined with a manifold of techniques and materials applied. This was of great influence on ’seeing’, much as photography had done 100 years earlier. On the opposite end of the spectrum new realism represented a strong counterpoint to all abstract art.
Modernist art was for a large part about… itself, exploring and commenting art. It’s a way to get things moving forward, having a thorough discussion within the field. Finding new meaning by building on works of others: literally by placing your work on top of the one you want to comment on, like Arnulf Rainer did. Or building by tearing down what’s in front of you. Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased De Kooning Drawing did exactly that. To build is to destroy.
On the opposite end of the modernist spectrum new realism represented a strong counterpoint to all abstract art. Looking at the world around you, anything can be a source. “Pop” artists of the 60’s consciously engaged not only the imagery of consumer culture, but also their techniques of production, emphasizing the banal or kitschy elements of any given culture. Keywords: poverty / junk / scavenge / found objects / re-using / appropriation / hybrid imagery. All in all its a conversation with the world around. Commenting and being part of it.
This is what has perhaps resonated most with graphic designers. The line is long: from Wolfgang Weingart, via April Greiman and Dan Friedman, to Ray Gun, Emigre, Plazm, or Appetite Engineers. Weingart came from the Swiss tradition that focused mainly on the formal function of typography. Weingart was interested in how far the graphic qualities of typography can be pushed and still retain its meaning, certain graphic modifications of type can intensify meaning, says Keith Tam.
As the ‘originator’ of this approach in graphic design Wolgang Weingart puts it: “What’s the use of being legible, when nothing inspires you to take notice of it?”
The use of irony was a main style form in Pop Art. As such it’s a conversational technique that can bounce two ways: towards disdain for the banal, or towards compassion that opens to welcoming the world. Budging the distance between the world and art was what Rauschenberg aimed at, towards inclusiveness. The ‘Free Materials’ part mentioned above is more about applying real materials, but for me this aspect is about the conceptual side of it: the materials you can find around you are people, partnerships, opportunities, initiatives, etc.
Things remain things
Rauschenberg in his ‘combines’ used a lot of real objects, mostly found somewhere, at home, on a street corner, on the beach. When used in one of his works they remained… things. Meaning, and comment, and all that, it applies to the works as a whole, but the objects themselves don’t alter their state: they stay humble, or used and scratched. The works are art, but the parts remain their sameness, comfortingly so to me.
Nothing fussy about the materials, but the combination of materials and visual elements is where all concentration flows to. I find the lack of symbolism quite relaxing. Which doen’t mean that I promote a preoccupation with what things look like rather than with what they mean.
It was with his silkscreens that Rauschenberg became a huge success and entered the mainstream. Twice in his career he felt the urge to escape the pressure of expectation, when he switched from silkscreen to dance, and when he moved from New York to Captiva Island in Florida.
It’s a dilemma many creatives face: what to do when succes hits? How to stay true to yourself as an artist? The radical solution may hurt, but gains you a lot. My ideal example would be the Japanese artist Hokusai who several times, at the height of his career, changed his name and started from scratch. A less rigorous method of re-inventing himself applies Stefan Sagmeister, who – once every seven years – closes shop an takes a year off for research.
The promise of technology
Marrying art and cutting edge technology is what Rauschenberg did throughout his career. The technique of silk screen printing or serigraph was still in its developing stages when Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Rauschenberg took to it. Later in his theatrical performances he combined movement, sound, film in a new way, made possible only with the latest in technical terms.
Being immersed in digits till our neck ourselves, technology is rubbish on the wait. What promise has technology for us? Now here’s a question I don’t know the answer to. But wait: Technology is a new medium — not merely a tool. It combines many forms of information and offers new ways of organizing information. Designing for technology — using technology as a medium — can open up business and creative opportunities. Design education should recognize the opportunities, embrace the use of technology as a medium, and adapt curricula accordingly. Hm. It’s a fine analysis to me, albeit somewhat obvious – it leaves all options open. The quote dates from 1990 however, and I merely replaced the word ‘computers’ with ‘technology’… We live in their future and by looking at how they perceived their future we could learn something about our own future. Hm.
You could take this roundup of futuristic designer tools and this interview with Emigre’s Rudy Vanderlans as a starting point. Or see how the evolution of typefaces towards software was perceived in this series of interviews by Jürg Lehni. Tiago Martins takes this to the next level with Evotype:
Offering alternative ways of seeing to tradition-bound people
Rauschenberg believed in the power of art as a catalyst for positive social change. The Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) was an expression of his long-term commitment to human rights and to the freedom of artistic expression. It had the purpose of sparking a dialogue and achieving a mutual understanding through the creative process.
“Offering alternative ways of seeing to tradition-bound people” is an awfully polite way of saying f*ck you. Sometimes it’s deemed necessary to say things a bit loud to penetrate ’tradition-bound’ thick skulls.
Keywords: Activism / Punk / Manifestos. Some designers that engaged in social activism are Seymour Chwast, Neville Brody, Art Chantry, Donald Moffett and Marlene McCarty of Bureau, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville
Let it end still and sweet
In his late work, Rauschenberg continued to approach his art with the spirit of invention and with the quest for new material and new technology that was characteristic of his work throughout his career.
What this means to me is that I don’t aim at fading out in a smiling zen-like state. The ultimate freedom is what I see looming in front of me. Mastering imagination and mastering materials and methods, feeling free to abandon them all at will, invoking never seen imagery. Ah, endless golden afternoons…
The question I started this post with, was how the work of Robert Rauschenberg can be relevant for graphic designers. Looking closer the visual aspects and the methods he applied can be seen in the work of many designers. Of course it’s not the genius of one single artist that brings about all this, but as a catalyst he was of immense importance.