A Decade in Prints

Whether you lived through the era or not, don’t you find the 1960s a fascinating decade? So much was happening, so much was changing in the world.

Renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg was also intrigued by the tumultuous decade, and chronicled his observations of the events of the day in three series of prints. These prints are on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the exhibition Signs of the Times: Robert Rauschenberg’s America, which opens Sunday and runs through January 3.

“Rauschenberg was a chronicler of the American experience,” says MMoCA curator of collections Rick Axsom. “He was to the twentieth century what Walt Whitman was to the nineteenth.”

The show is phenomenal. One could spend hours examining the diverse, intricately layered and symbolically rich works and still feel like there’s more to explore. And the exhibition is set up smartly, in a way that makes sense and makes the most of the art. That’s thanks to Axsom, who worked on the exhibition with Rauschenberg before the artist’s death in 2008.

Axsom says Rauschenberg was “a hell of a guy,” charming, interesting and nice—not necessarily what you’d expect from such an influential figure in the twentieth-century art world. And while Rauschenberg was most famous for his “combines,” assemblages incorporating paint and everyday objects, he was a prolific printmaker, creating roughly twelve-hundred editions starting in the 1940s. He was among the artists who turned to printmaking as a way to democratize art and considered it in no way inferior to other media.

“Rauschenberg, like Picasso, like Jasper Johns, prized his prints as much as any other work,” Axsom says.

The image that greets visitors and introduces the show is the screenprint Signs, an assemblage of images including John F. Kennedy, Janis Joplin, Martin Luther King, Jr., an astronaut and Vietnam War soldiers. On the walls to the left and right is a timeline pointing out key political—and a few cultural—events of the 1960s. These milestones provide a helpful context to the artwork that follows.

The first collection on display is Reels (B+C), a series of six prints based on the controversial movie Bonnie and Clyde, which was released the year before in 1967. Featuring bright shades of yellow, pink, green and blue—”a fair way to describe them is psychedelic,” Axsom says—the prints portray the sex, violence and tone that made the film so notorious.

The following series is the largest in the exhibition, Rauschenberg’s Stoned Moon Series inspired by the Apollo 11 launch, which he was invited to the Kennedy Space Center to witness. The artist was mesmerized by the experience, Axsom says, and soon was working around the clock to produce thirty-four prints in a single month.

The prints are varied in style, with symbols and shapes used repeatedly to unify the series. Imagery is often obscured or overlapped and comes from materials Rauschenberg gathered from NASA archives as well as his own photographs. The works celebrate the shuttle launch but also the universal human quest for flight. And they track the history of the space program, often employing simple diagrams to help convey the story.

“He wanted to tell America about it … in everyday language,” Axsom says. “It had to be frank, which is an American quality.”

In addition to the aggressive timeframe, several of the Stoned Moon Series prints were technical feats for printmaking of the time. Sky Garden, for instance, is over seven feet tall and to make it, printmakers had to combine two limestones using, ironically, a material recently developed by NASA. The print is a centerpiece of the exhibition, full of color and packed with imagery—from a diagram of a Saturn rocket and photo of a lift-off to natural scenes from Cape Canaveral, photos of scientists from the space program and the striped pattern of the parachutes used for splash-downs.

Throughout the exhibition, Axsom and his staff have prepared and posted extended descriptions along several key prints. They describe much of the imagery found in the complex works. This information not only answers “what is that over there?” questions but also serves as a jumping-off point for deciphering other imagery and trying to make sense of the meanings and ideas offered in the prints.

“Every print has so much in it and knowing it makes it so much richer,” Axsom says.

Nearby, the exhibition’s final series, Surface Series (from Currents), is Rauschenberg’s response to his previous body of work. Eighteen uniform black-and-white screenprints document the 1960s through clippings from twelve newspapers ranging from the New York Times to a Berkeley student publication. Layer upon layer of headlines and stories detailing political upheaval and social unrest creates a sobering atmosphere—and a stark departure from the celebratory feel of the Stoned Moon Series. The juxtaposition is intentional; it signals a shift in Rauschenberg’s regard for the decade.

“The subject here isn’t triumphant America,” Axsom says. “This is an America that’s failing, and America gone amuck.”

And Axsom has one more experience to offer visitors before they leave the exhibition. The last work on display is a lithograph with collage from 1970 titled Earth Day. At the center is a bald eagle—but it’s stuffed. Surrounding the emblem of America are imaged depicting environmental concerns: trash, a contaminated water sign, an endangered gorilla, industrial chimneys.

“It’s a cautionary tale, it’s an alert,” Axsom says.

And it’s a fitting way to end the exhibition as it implies that humans have the ability to remedy the situation, that the headlines of Surface Series don’t have to be the last word on the state of America. After all, as Axsom points out, if we can put man on the moon …

Signs of the Times runs September 13 to January 3. And several related events take place at MMoCA. Check mmoca.org for a schedule. And don’t miss the exhibition opening on Saturday, when Axsom and MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman discuss Rauschenberg and the exhibition at 7 p.m.

Photos courtesy of MMoCA.