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Robert Rauschenberg poses outside of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Photo: EFE/Luis Tejido

VENICE.- A year after the death of Robert Rauschenberg, May 12, 2008, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, celebrates the memory of this great artist with the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts. Comprised of approximately forty works, this exhibition, on view May 30 through September 20, 2009, presents a little known body of Rauschenberg’s work in metal drawn from the holdings of the Rauschenberg Estate, with additional loans from institutions and private collections in the United States and abroad. Always one to recycle, Rauschenberg found new uses for what others tossed aside, reinvigorating detritus with a revealing second life. Faced with disparate objects littering his studio, he applied a direct approach to the Gluts (1986–89 and 1991–95), his final series of sculpture. For nearly a decade, Rauschenberg frequented the Gulf Iron and Metal Junkyard outside Fort Myers, Florida, near his home, gathering metal parts from traffic signs, exhaust pipes, radiator grills, metal awnings, and so on, which he incorporated into these poetic, humorous assemblages, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the city of Venice figure importantly in Rauschenberg’s career; one could speak of a special relationship with each. As early as 1961, works by Rauschenberg were included in two exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 1963, Lawrence Alloway, then curator of the Guggenheim Museum, organized the exhibition Six Painters and the Object, which included six works by Rauschenberg. In 1992 the Guggenheim Museum SoHo presented Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, curated by Walter Hopps for the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. In 1997–99 the Guggenheim Museum, led by Thomas Krens, organized what is surely the most important retrospective of Rauschenberg’s career, Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, in three venues in New York. The retrospective was curated by Hopps and by Susan Davidson (co-curator of this exhibition), and travelled to Houston, Cologne, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. The catalogue for Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective has assumed the status of a canonical text. On that occasion, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao jointly acquired Rauschenberg’s monumental early work Barge (1962–63), the largest of his silkscreened paintings.

In 1964 Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prix for Painting at the 32nd Venice Biennale—an event that established his reputation internationally. It also brought into sharp focus the rivalry between New York and Paris for leadership in the visual arts. By winning the Grand Prix at the age of 38, Rauschenberg interrupted the post-war sequence of prizes awarded to elderly European masters of the pre war. Alan Solomon, the US Pavilion commissioner, brought to Venice iconic Combines, such as Factum I and II (both 1957), Bed (1958), Canyon (1959), Winter Pool (1959), and Third Time Painting (1961). In 1975 Rauschenberg returned to Venice for a month-long show in Cà Pesaro, the city’s modern art museum, including the Cardboards (1971), Early Egyptians (1973–74), Hoarfrosts (1974–75), and Jammers (1975–76). In 1996 he was invited to exhibit three bodies of work on the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, including a collaboration with Darryl Pottorf (Quattro Mani, 1996). Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts, thirteen years on, is therefore the artist’s fourth show in this city, and the first posthumous homage.

Of the Gluts series, Susan Davidson, Senior Curator for Collections & Exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum New York, relates that Rauschenberg’s artistic attention in the 1980s turned toward an exploration of the visual properties of metal. Whether assembling found metal objects or experimenting with his own photographic images screen-printed onto aluminum, stainless steel, bronze, brass, or copper, Rauschenberg sought to capture the reflective, textural, sculptural, and thematic possibilities of the material. Rauschenberg’s first body of work in this new material was the Gluts. The series was inspired by a visit to Houston on the occasion of Robert Rauschenberg, Work from Four Series: A Sesquicentennial Exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum. In the mid 1980s, the Texas economy was in the throes of a recession due to a glut (or surplus of supply) in the oil market. Rauschenberg took note of the economic devastation of the region as he collected gas-station signs and deteriorated automotive and industrial parts littering the landscape. Upon his return to his Captiva, Florida, studio, he transformed the scrap-metal detritus into wall reliefs and freestanding sculptures that recalled his earlier Combines. Asked to comment on the meaning of the Gluts, Rauschenberg offered: “It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins […] I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia. What they are really meant to do is give people an experience of looking at everything in terms of what its many possibilities might be.” Rauschenberg chose these objects not only for their everydayness but also for their formal properties. Individually and collectively, materials such as these are the very foundation of his artistic vocabulary. His empathy for such detritus was visceral. “Well, I have sympathy for abandoned objects, so I always try to rescue them as much as I can.”

The exhibition is curated by Susan Davidson and by David White, curator for Robert Rauschenberg.