If there are no original ideas left in art, it’s probably because Robert Rauschenberg had them all. Over the course of his 60-year career (he died in 2008 aged 82), he reinvented, reused, recycled and revolutionised himself so many times that walking around this retrospective feels like stumbling through a textbook on twentieth-century art history. There’s pop, abstract expressionism, conceptualism, performance art, installations: it’s all right here, and Rauschenberg played a part in all of it.
The show is roughly chronological. It starts with a tyre print spanning almost a whole wall of paper (from a car that was being driven by John Cage), there’s a painting of pure black, another of white, there’s a work by Willem de Kooning that’s been completely erased. Young Rauschenberg was a cheeky bastard.
Then he decided that painting needed re-engineering. He abandoned the conceptual abstraction and suddenly his canvases have buckets or fans attached to them, or they’re lying on the floor with a taxidermy goat plonked on top. In these ‘combines’, paintings become sculptures and collages: they move beyond the canvas.
The reinvention never stops. Rauschenberg discovered screen-printing in the early ’60s. Now the works are covered in photos from the news: war, politics, sport. Right here in front of you is the birth of pop art. These images are iconic, they’re little slices of history.
And he just kept going. By the ’70s he’d turned his attentions to performance. Then collaboration and technology take hold. There’s a whistling, dribbling scrap metal sculpture and an amazing immense vat of bubbling mud. He eventually lost the aggressive urge to innovate and turned his eye to more decorative work, but it’s still striking.
In Rauschenberg’s world, everything has potential. A cardboard box, a tyre, a goat – all these things, maybe all things, stand on the precipice of being a work of art, it just takes Bobby to come along and push them over the edge.
Every room feels exciting. It’s like seeing the exact moment someone is struck by an idea over and over again. Even if you don’t like much of what he made – the combines haven’t aged particularly well, and the art dance performances are stultifying in their silliness – it’s still striking.
But the show is staggering, exhausting and wide-ranging – just like Rauschenberg. The work is shot through with collaboration, reinvention, anger, love and beauty. Rauschenberg isn’t just important, he’s essential, and in many ways, he really was modern art.