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SFMOMA Rauschenberg retrospective reveals wry radical

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Robert Rauschenberg’s “Monogram,” an assemblage showcasing a taxidermied Angora goat, is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)
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One of the most significant artists of the 20th century’s second half, Robert Rauschenberg created exhilarating combinations of painting and sculpture and treated everyday items (from newsprint to socks) as legitimate art-making materials on a par with oil paint.

He proved that humor could have a vital place in serious art.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules,” on view through March 25 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, contains more than 150 Rauschenberg works spanning six decades from SFMOMA’s and other collections.

Organized by the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in association with SFMOMA, the exhibition includes painting, sculpture, photography, collage and performance as it focuses on Rauschenberg’s iconoclastic nature and collaborative spirit.

Rauschenberg (1925-2008) launched his career in the abstract-expressionist era, but he wasn’t in sync with that movement’s practice of dripping and splashing one’s emotions onto a canvas. Nor did his works possess the emotional detachment or mass-produced look of pop art, on which he and fellow artist Jasper Johns are considered primary influences.

He created singular, rule-defying, idea-filled, stirring art.

The exhibition’s title refers partly to Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953), an important early-career work in the chronological show. With de Kooning’s permission and Johns’ participation, Rauschenberg erased one of the abstract-expressionist master’s drawings. This act established him as an experimental and conceptual force.

Another early highlight is “Automobile Tire Print” (1953), made with the assistance of composer John Cage and his Model A Ford.

“Black” paintings feature black paint layered with newspaper clips and fabric, and “Red” paintings contain even more texture.

These works presaged Rauschenberg’s “combines” (1954-1964) — painting-sculpture hybrids containing everything from a pillow to a taxidermic goat. They include “Collection,” “Bed” and “Monogram,” Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking and humorous assemblage featuring that goat, with a tire around its body.

By 1962, Rauschenberg was working with found images and creating transfer drawings and silkscreen paintings. (Andy Warhol turned him on to the silkscreen technique.)

In “Persimmon” (1964), regarded as one of his most beautiful pieces, imagery of classical art coexists with contemporary subjects.

Technology meets art in “Mud Muse” (1968-1971), an imposing sound-activated Yellowstone National Park-inspired container of bubbling mud.

Highlights from Rauschenberg’s later decades include fabric works from the India-inspired “Jammers” series (1974-1976), scrap-metal creations from the “Gluts” (1986-94) series and “Hiccups” (1978), consisting of 97 zipper-connected pieces of handmade paper with transfer images and collaged ribbon and fabric.

Late-career color-transfer paintings (1990s-2000s) contain photographs printed with eco-friendly ink, illustrating Rauschenberg’s continued interest in what’s new.

IF YOU GO
Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays; through March 25
Tickets: $19 to $25; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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