Venice: Guggenheim and Rauschenberg

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The trip to Venice was – how shall I say this? Let’s go with “chaotic.” Beautiful, impressive and chaotic.

I’ll get into the chaos another time; first, let’s talk about the Guggenheim. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on the top of my list of things to see in Venice, right after “as much Palladio as possible”, but we didn’t get there until the afternoon before we left. In fact, I was so afraid we wouldn’t get there (because others – who shall remain nameless – were dragging their feet) that I felt the need to add a small motivational tantrum to the mix. I don’t know if it helped, but it seemed in keeping with Ms. Guggenheim’s eccentricity.

The collection is in Guggenheim’s gorgeous house which fronts on the Grand Canal but looks nothing like most of the surrounding Venetian palazzos: it’s white, it’s angular and it’s modern, modern, modern. (Not that I’d be averse to living in one of those other palazzos, mind you. If you’re offering, I’m in.)

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At the ticket counter, I saw the directions to the special exhibition space and – hooray! – they’ve got Robert Rauschenberg’s series Gluts for the summer. Have I mentioned how much I love Robert Rauschenberg? No? Well, allow me: I love that man. I also love that when I saw him speak at the Guggenheim in New York, he was wearing a flaming pink dress shirt. Not an, “I’m comfortable with my masculinity,” pink, but an, “I could pass for a yard flamingo,” pink.

I fell for Rauschenberg at the Guggenheim’s retrospective in New York in 1997. I joined the museum that year, even though I was a pauper, so that I could get the exhibition catalog and go back to meet Rauschenberg at the reception (and by “meet” I mean, “look at from the first floor while he spoke in the lobby.”)

I loved the Combines the most, constructions of found materials (including, infamously, a stuffed goat), original paintings, recycled print, and photography. A close second was the amazing Hiccups, a set of 97 segments of handmade paper printed with images and zippered together. The constructions struck me as imaginative and somehow dynamic (literally, in the case of Hiccups, which can be rezippered in any configuration). Rauschenberg seemed…happy, I guess. Curious. Conflicted, but funny, not tortured. His work noted what was going on around him not by representing it or reducing it, but by collecting it. It felt like he saw what other people missed – junk, goats, discarded newsprint, tires – and accepted it all into his work without shying away from its grime or rust, elevating it to notice by recycling it.

(Slideshow overview of some of his work, including that goat, here.)

A few years later, the Whitney bought Synapsis Shuffle, another moveable work. Rauschenberg created fifty two 9.5′ panels (each 5′ or less wide), each its own piece of art. When it came time to show it, he’d collect a set of people – mostly famous, all from different walks of life – and stage a lottery. Each person drew a set of two numbers: the first indicating how many panels they’d get and the other a rank denoting in what order they’d be able to select their panels. Then they’d construct what they liked from their panels or barter with the other participants to get different panels.

I love the flexibility of that idea. Every time it shows, it’s different but it’s still absolutely that same work underneath. It’s done – for now and until the next time it’s done.

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(The New York Times write-up here and a good piece on it in W here.)

Gluts is a series of sculptures (for lack of a better word) produced from the mid-eighties until Rauschenberg’s death last year. The Guggenheim Collection is exhibiting a fraction of the huge series. Over twenty-odd years, Rauschenberg pillaged junkyards for materials – twisted bumpers, discarded signs, bits of wrought iron metalwork – took them back to his studio and constructed these pieces – some enormous, some small – a testament to glut, to overproduction and the abandonment of the resulting goods. The pieces are a criticism and a resurrection all in one, a whimsical and substantial response to the issue.

(An excellent virtual tour through the exhibition here. A good, albeit very flatly lit, set of images from Gluts here.)

The standing collection at the Guggenheim house is wonderful as well. I love museums of personal collections – the Frick in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are two of my other favorites. For me, there is something intimate and human in visiting a personally curated collection that is very different from visiting a professionally curated exhibition in a museum. There are always lovely surprises among the selections and combinations.

The Rauschenberg is up through September 20th.

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Incidentally, how good looking and cheerful was Rauschenberg? Lord, almighty. Check out this great picture of him (far right) with John Cage and Merce Cunningham from the Times‘ Cunningham retrospective. Also, this Avedon photo – currently up at SFMOMA through the end of November – of him with Alex Hay.

Apparently, he’s also a great father.

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Categories: Venice, Watch This

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