"Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces"

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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.


"Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces"

the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

Through May 13.

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.

The artist's “Venetian” and “Early Egyptian” series use cardboard boxes as components in sculptures along with a variety of materials. An untitled 1973 work from the “Venetian” series has a humorous, anthropomorphic quality. A large square of canvas is stuffed to create a kind of sagging belly, and a long black strip of rubber from a tire trails out from a hole in the center like an umbilical cord. A box sticks out to the side like an arm and ends in a mangled, paw-like piece of cardboard.

The “Early Egyptian” series, supposedly inspired by a book on Egypt given to Rauschenberg, has a kind of sad, silly grandeur. For an untitled 1974 work, Rauschenberg coated boxes in glue and rolled them in sand. He stacked them up to look like ancient monuments — mastaba, stelea or plinths for statues of pharaohs. Red markings of “FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE” can be seen beneath the coating of sand, referring not to the contents but, now, to the boxes themselves. The boxes seem to sag inward under their own weight, and a faint, luminous green glow can be seen on the wall behind them. Rauschenberg painted the backs of the works with Day-Glo paint, and it reflects onto the white gallery wall, imparting an otherworldly quality to the prosaic components.

It's a beautifully installed show, but, if anything, it's too beautifully installed. The subtly lit installation creates this reverent environment that's really at odds with the irreverent and experimental nature of the work. I don't know how they should do it differently, but all I do know is that the Menil could hang a tube sock on the wall and make it profound. It's one of the institution's — and the Renzo Piano-designed building's — great strengths, a legacy of founder Dominique de Menil's interest in spirituality and art. But displaying things with the beauty and reverence accorded a religious icon doesn't work for everything. Some art doesn't want you to genuflect.

One of the Menil guards told me, in an incredulous tone, that the works in the show were worth $2 million apiece. I have no idea if that is true — most of them are owned by Rauschenberg himself — but the figure may not be far off for some of them. (In 1999, the artist's Combine painting Factum II (1957) sold for around $12 million.) But the knowledge that 30-year-old cardboard boxes are extremely valuable gets under some people's skin.

The “Cardboards” are a provocative and largely successful series of works, but they have provoked a high degree of eye-rolling among visitors. In the past 30 years, artists have done far edgier things than put a cardboard box on the wall, but how often does the result garner millions? It's not what Rauschenberg has done with cardboard, but what the art world has done in terms of the monetary value placed upon it and the degree of solemn reverence accorded it, that gets people muttering. Everybody has tossed out old boxes; to see someone make art of them is one thing, to see them presented like altarpieces and valued in the millions is another.

It's got to be a little weird for Rauschenberg as well. Much of the work is in the collection of the artist, and a couple pieces were only shown in a 1971 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, where they apparently didn't sell. The untitled 1974 “Early Egyptians” sculpture apparently has never been shown before; doubtless it has been in storage somewhere. But if you look at the work in the show and you mentally strip away all the external stuff —Rauschenberg's place in art history, his place in the art market — what you get is Rauschenberg the artist, this audacious and experimental guy from Port Arthur, Texas. The kind of guy who could make a whole body of work from the cardboard boxes piled in the corner of his studio.

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