You don't have to look hard to find uncanny parallels between the 1960s and our own decade: the election of a charismatic young president; a frayed social and political climate; and a prolonged war with seemingly no satisfying resolution.
While some artists confront times like these head-on, others focus on personal or purely visual concerns. Some, like Robert Rauschenberg, do all three.
Rauschenberg, who died last year at 82, ranks as one of America's most prolific and respected artists of the 20th century. His work spanned decades and media: He painted, drew, made prints, photographed, performed, choreographed. If it was an outlet for human expression, Rauschenberg was interested.
Rauschenberg grew up in the refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas, just 11 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. There was little in his background to suggest he'd become an artist, much less a highly successful one. His father, Ernest, worked for the local power company as a lineman. Dora, his mother, was a thrifty woman who sewed clothes for the entire family and was renowned for never wasting a scrap of fabric.
He came of age artistically in the postwar era of Abstract Expressionism, when painters like Jackson Pollock and his splattered canvases held sway. While Rauschenberg's work incorporated the lessons of abstraction, it also moved in a more personal and figurative direction.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's new show, Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg's America, is not a sweeping retrospective of the artist's whole career. Rather, it offers a window into his work through a focused look at three print series from the 1960s: Reels (B + C), Stoned Moon Series and Surface Series (from Currents). Also included are the stand-alone print "Signs" and a video of a 1966 performance piece devised by Rauschenberg.
If you're new to Rauschenberg, this is an accessible introduction to a major American artist (much like MMoCA's recent shows focusing on other modern masters like George Segal, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close and Sol LeWitt).
And if you're already familiar with Rauschenberg, seeing these three print cycles in their entirety (Stoned Moon encompasses 34 prints of varying sizes and complexity) helps you appreciate anew how Rauschenberg explored and reworked themes in depth.
MMoCA's exhibition is also a fascinating snapshot of an artist grappling with his turbulent times and a decade that brought social progress and national triumph - the burgeoning civil rights movement, the moon landing - but also war, unrest at home and multiple assassinations.
The single print "Signs," which greets you right as you walk in, is really the key to this show. Done in 1970, it's a large screenprint that mixes iconic images of the decade that had just passed: Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, soldiers on patrol in Vietnam, Janis Joplin belting out a tune, the thoughtful faces of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
While there's a frenetic, dynamic quality to the print, it's also an image of loss: Joplin's overdose was recent, and the fellow Port Arthur native had been Rauschenberg's friend. Both Kennedys were dead, as was Martin Luther King Jr., shown lying in his casket. Nearly 54,000 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives thus far in Vietnam.
While the moon landing symbolizes hopefulness and achievement, it stands in stark contrast to the images of tragedy surrounding it. "Signs" is a visceral but sobering print.
Rauschenberg explored the space program more fully in Stoned Moon Series, which he worked on feverishly right after the lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. The artist had been invited by NASA to watch the launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an experience he clearly found thrilling.
With the help of assistants, Rauschenberg knocked out the print cycle in about a month. As source material, he incorporated official NASA photos and diagrams, plus his own photos.
What's interesting about Rauschenberg's take on the moon landing is his attempt to universalize it, not just claim it as a Cold War victory for the U.S. In prints from the series like "Arena II State II," he pairs Russian cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev and American aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, thereby linking past and present, Russia and America.
The artist also details aspects of the space program beyond the moon landing. "Brake" commemorates three astronauts who perished in a fire during a launch rehearsal in 1967.
It's clear from Stoned Moon Series that Rauschenberg found the space program personally inspiring and the source of some of the most memorable achievements of the 1960s. In a way, Surface Series (from Currents) is its opposite.
Surface Series is a group of 18 screenprints all done in shades of black and gray. Rauschenberg reworked headlines and images from both mainstream and underground newspapers in the early months of 1970.
Although presented in two orderly rows, the prints conjure up a society in disorder, with grim headlines like "New Ritual Slayings: Three Die in Tate-Like Murders" and "Dissent in the Army." Other headlines reference a terrorist attack on a plane and the stabbing of a policeman in Harlem.
As MMoCA has aptly described its show, "The dichotomy between a confident and failing America...is the context for the exhibition."
The third print series on view, Reels (B+C), refers to contemporary events more indirectly. Rather than being ripped from the headlines or the space program, Reels (B+C) uses images from the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, which starred a glam Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
Unlike the straightforward take on recent history in "Signs," Reels offers up a jazzed-up, pop-culture-mediated vision of the '30s bank robbers. In these color lithographs, Rauschenberg spikes the imagery of Dunaway and Beatty with vivid colors like hot pink, lime green, bright yellow and purple. It's a riff on the film's glamorization of violence and, as MMoCA's exhibition suggests, it draws a link between the anti-authoritarianism of the movie and the year in which the prints were made, 1968.
Because Rauschenberg's career was so broad, this exhibition can't touch upon all its facets, such as his groundbreaking "combines," works that fused painting and sculpture. But the show's limited focus has its own kind of appeal, zeroing in on his use of one medium in one decade (printmaking in the '60s), and even more specifically on three print series.
MMoCA is supplementing the show with several lectures and other public events such as a drop-in tour. Andy Rubin, master printmaker at the UW's fine art printmaking studio, Tandem Press, will talk on Sept. 25 about the technical aspects of Rauschenberg's work. Other UW notables are scheduled to appear. Film historian Jeff Smith, historian Jeremi Suri and astronomy professor emeritus Robert Bless, respectively, will discuss the film Bonnie and Clyde (Oct. 2), the late '60s (Oct. 9) and the space program (Oct. 22) as they relate to the artist's work. For a complete schedule of events, visit mmoca.org.
Ultimately, Rauschenberg's is an art that pulls in the world at large and dives headlong into its contemporary moment. While I wish the show had delved a bit more into Rauschenberg the man, Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg's America is a successful encapsulation of the '60s, from hope and optimism to war and tragedy. If you care at all about modern art or recent American history, it's not to be missed.