Taking Rauschenberg Global: A Q&A With Gagosian New York Director Ealan Wingate on Advancing the Artist's Legacy

Taking Rauschenberg Global: A Q&A With Gagosian New York Director Ealan Wingate on Advancing the Artist's Legacy
The Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at Gagosian Gallery, Paris
(Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, Paris. Photo by Zarko Vijatovic)

The monumental work of Robert Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, was forged in dialogue with Abstract Expressionism, inspired by the everyday, and finally created its own language to bridge the gap between painting and sculpture, abolishing any hierarchy of artistic practices or media. The new show of his work at Paris's Gagosian Gallery that opened on Wednesday and runs through November 12 contains only ten pieces, but they are all powerful. David White, the representative of the Rauschenberg estate, and Ealan Wingate, director of the Gagosian Gallery in New York, worked together to make the show happen.


ARTINFO France sat down with Wingate recently, to talk about the artist's techniques, his influence on Pop Art, and his open, uncynical nature.

What was the starting point of this exhibition and how did your collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation take place?

We started this collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and estate a little over a year ago. In New York, we organized a large-scale exhibition of the artist's late work. Since then, we've put on other, more focused shows, concentrating on the different periods of his long career. More recently, we showed his work at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh. We really loved this experience, since the windows in this museum stay open, sunlight fills the rooms, and there is no equipment to control the humidity. So we chose works whose colors couldn't be changed, works with materials like discarded metal or glass, or other things that don't require special attention in these climatic conditions. Often, these shining surfaces reflected the image of the visitors, and some pieces stuck out through the windows. This led us to think about having this Paris show, because it was surprising to observe such harmony. The combination of metal, lightness, sunlight, the exuberant spirit of this work — we though that this magnificent white space would be ideal for all this.

Rauschenberg is well-known for his collages on canvas and his Combine paintings, but these paintings on metal are new to the French public.

They are also collages, collages of images, not necessarily simple collages of materials. In 2006-2007, there was a wonderful show of Combines at the Pompidou Center. His work on the Combines stopped around 1962, when Rauschenberg stopped using this formal term in order to turn to silkscreening — another form of collage, on canvas. The silkscreens that the Rauschenberg estate offered me began in 1985. Over 20 years after his first silkscreens, he returned to this technique, vigorously and enthusiastically. For the silkscreens of 1962, '63, and '64, Rauschenberg used images from newspapers. On the later silkscreens the images are personal, from his own photographs. But I think that if you look at Rauschenberg's work from the beginning, it never changed. The pieces are classically constructed, there is no gravity, they seem to float. These images weave connections, and you make visual associations.

The gold or copper of the surfaces creates a kind of imagined ancientness, like a reminiscence of something that has disappeared.

It's possible! But look at the works from 1951 or 1952. Bob had already used materials that evoked antiquity. Also, his Combines juxtapose found elements and strange things. In any case, even if these things seem to come from the everyday world, there is this very strong feeling that they were just created. That's the way he painted, it was a way of answering the question: "Is it a sculpture? Is it a painting?" The answer was, "I don't know, it's a combination." That allowed him to work in a philosophical field that went beyond the studio. An important thing in Rauschenberg's work, during his whole career, is the sense of what one perceives and what one identifies with. The concept of identification is very important in his work — there is no cynicism, it's not sardonic, it's not ironic.

Like Rauschenberg himself?

Like Rauschenberg himself. He was the kind of person who would say, "Don't you just love this tin can?"

Rauschenberg has often been considered a precursor of Pop Art, yet his oeuvre seems much more multi-disciplinary and evocative.

Rauschenberg precedes Pop Art, and, thanks to him, Pop artists were able to free themselves from the preceding generations. He allowed them to take something from daily life and put it on the refined walls of a studio, then a gallery, then a museum. He brought changes in technique also. There is a lineage, a sort of genealogy that is quite interesting. Bob was very influenced by the work of de Kooning, who was for him the great master. There was something that de Kooning did a lot. Since he used incredible amount of oil paint, it took a long time to dry. So he put newspaper on the wet paint to help it dry, and when he took the newspaper away, images were left behind. He didn't care about these images — he cared more about brushstrokes and colors and didn't even look at these images. But Bob loved them! He realized that he could transfer images by dissolving them in one way or another. He did this a lot with newspapers in 1952. Andy Warhol was seeking a way to duplicate images, and he turned to Rauschenberg's technique, and extended it by developing his silkscreens. Bob then saw the silkscreens and asked Andy, "Can I use that too?" And Andy said, "Sure, go ahead!" It's like a relay race — the baton doesn't belong to anyone. What's important is what each person does with it.

How does Rauschenberg's work resonate with contemporary art today?

I see many connections. I work with a lot of young artists, also with mid-career artists. When they came to the New York show last October, I was at the door, and it was fun to see them come in thinking that they would take a lot of enthusiasm back to their own studios, but then to see them come out saying, "Oh, is there still anything left for me to do?" Because Rauschenberg did so much. He didn't do it in order to be the first, or to make it difficult for others. Everyone had the right to do the same thing. But the fact is that we don't know this thing, we haven't looked at it properly, we haven't digested it. It's like Picasso's late work. There was so much rejection around it. But that changed everything, and we understand it only today.

This exhibition is part of a long-time project, right?

We have 11 galleries all over the world. We would like to organize exhibitions in many of them, in different cities and different countries. Talks are going on now about a big retrospective, since the last Rauschenberg retrospective was at the Guggenheim in 1997. By 2015, there will be almost an entire generation that hasn't seen a retrospective of his work.