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Just inside the gallery, a young man stood stroking his beard as he pondered a cardboard box hung on the wall. The scene looked like a mid-century cartoon about modern art. The cardboard box was a work by Robert Rauschenberg, part of "Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces" at the Menil Collection. The exhibition explores Rauschenberg's little-known series of cardboard-based works, some of which haven't been shown in decades. The exhibition, curated by Menil director Josef Helfenstein, is the first time they have been the exclusive focus of a large-scale museum exhibition.
Rauschenberg has always made work from the stuff around him; he's most famous for his groundbreaking “Combines” from the early 1950s, assemblages incorporating materials the artist culled from city streets. But in 1968, when Rauschenberg left New York for an island off the Florida coast, there was a lot less urban detritus. He chose to focus on what was at hand the detritus of his studio and the “Cardboards” emerged in the early '70s.
Cardboard boxes are pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of possible art materials. They are cheap, disposable containers for other things. Rauschenberg has said he tries “to act in that gap between” art and life, and there's probably nothing more quotidian than a cardboard box. He uses them “as is,” with their stains, tears, marks and worn labels revealing their history and creating a patina of wear and age. But he's far from precious with the boxes, denting, tearing, flattening, crushing and combining them.
More than 30 years later, a good number of people still see Rauschenberg's “Cardboards” as pretty audacious. According to one of the exhibition guards, the comment most viewers make is, “I could do this at home.” That isn't exactly an unheard-of reaction to art, but it's not just coming from the rank-and-file museumgoer I heard more than one Houston art collector express similar sentiments. At 81, the artist can still rile people up.
Addressing the issue head on, the Menil has hung what is probably the least manipulated and the most in-your-face work as the first thing you see when you walk into the exhibition gallery. Castelli / Small Turtle Bowl (Cardboard) (1971) is the top and bottom of a large, shallow, rectangular box, flattened and hung on the wall side by side with grommets. It probably was used to ship artwork; it's stamped with the address of Leo Castelli Gallery, Rauschenberg's dealer. The bottom half of the box is covered with big metal staples, some of them holding torn bits of cardboard. I squint at them, trying to figure out if Rauschenberg added them or if they are residue from the box's past life.
Suddenly, I realize that I, like the bearded young man before me, am studiously scrutinizing a 36-year-old cardboard box for clues. I start to laugh. I have become that same modern art cartoon.
Art pretty much comes from artists goofing around in their studios. That doesn't mean they don't take their work seriously, or that there isn't a lot of thought or effort behind it, but a lot of ideas come from just playing around with materials. When an artist becomes a legend and his work winds up in a museum, it all suddenly acquires an aura of gravitas. Today the Leo Castelli address on Rauschenberg's box adds art historical cachet it wouldn't necessarily have had at the time the box itself is an artifact of Rauschenberg's art career. But if you think about when the work was made, when minimalism was all the rage in the art world, it can read, rather amusingly, as Rauschenberg's version of a minimalist painting.
A sly wit comes through in other pieces in which Rauschenberg uses the labels and warnings from shipping cartons for his own ends. Serita / Blister Pack (Cardboard) (1971) presents a large, rectangular box that was once the container for some item of furniture. It sticks out from the wall like a giant cabinet. Smaller boxes are grafted onto its side, and a grubby chamois dangles down from them on a wire. The grungy vertical flaps of the box are slightly ajar, luring you into peering inside. One of the flaps reads, “IMPORTANT NOTICE THIS MERCHANDISE WAS PACKED IN PERFECT CONDITION. ALL CLAIMS MUST BE MADE WITH THE DELIVERING CARRIER.” Don't call Rauschenberg if you're disappointed.
Another work, Rosalie / Red Cheek / Temporary Letter / Stock (Cardboard)(1971) is comprised of multiple boxes, several of which implore you to “ROTATE YOUR STOCK.” This loopy experimental quality runs through most of the work in the show. Helfenstein has been careful about what he included. Aero Shield / Melons (Cardboard) (1971) has a color plate in the exhibition catalog, but didn't end up in the exhibition. With a rectilinear box placed within a larger rectilinear box, it's reminiscent of Josef Albers's square-within-square paintings Rauschenberg studied with Albers at Black Mountain College but the work comes across as self-consciously arty, or a one-liner. Whether it was left out because of space considerations or aesthetic ones, the show is stronger without it.
In other series, cardboard boxes become the subject, as Rauschenberg cleverly creates painstaking replicas of them. The “Cardbird” series features what looks like small boxes covered with tape and shipping labels, but they're “fake” they're actually three-dimensional prints made using photo-offset lithography. The “Tampa Clay” series shows what appears to be small, squashed boxes hung on the wall, but in reality, the cardboard has been perfectly mimicked in clay and then screen printed. The crowning touch: A “soil” read dirt patina has been smeared over them.