March 26, 2009 · No Comments
The Lotus Bed I by Robert Rauschenberg
The Lotus Bed I by Robert Rauschenberg
The wave of dealer interest in contemporary Chinese art is late
hitting the art centers of the Rocky Mountain West. The Kent & Vicki
Logan collection was featured in 2006-2007 at the Denver Art Museum
and longtime dealer Jim Robischon just ended an exhibition at his
Denver gallery which included Robert Rauschenberg's "Lotus Series"
and "China, A New Year," featuring the work of five Chinese-born
In 2007, one-third of the world's top 100 contemporary artists were
from China. According to artprice.com, between January 2004 and
January 2009, the price index of contemporary art in China rose 583%.
While the Chinese artists in "China, A New Year," are not members of
this booming club, the desire to cash in on an art market trend is
hard to miss. What was initially perplexing was the link Robischon
was pushing between Rauschenberg and contemporary Chinese art.
Robert Rauschenberg, who died last year, rejected the angst of
abstract expressionism and embraced popular culture. His art is a
bridge between commenting on contemporary society and utilizing its
"The Lotus Series" is the final print series from Rauschenberg that
he created just prior to his death in collaboration with master
printer Bill Goldston of Universal Limited Art Editions. "The Lotus
Series" includes 12 pigment printed collages and combines based on
photographs that Rauschenberg took during a trip to China in 1982 to
work in the ancient Xuan Paper Mill.
But his images of China are not what create Rauschenberg's link to
contemporary Chinese art, but the timing of another of his cultural
projects. In 1985, Rauschenberg returned to Beijing as part of the
Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, (ROCI), a six-year
exhibition tour to Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Japan, Cuba, the
former Soviet Union, the former East Germany (East Berlin), and
Malaysia. The goal of the interchange was to create an avenue of
understanding between people of different countries through artistic
and cultural exchange without political intervention. He would gather
regular people and have them help him make art.
The ROCI exhibition at the National Art Museum was one of the first
of what would be a flush of Western-style artistic experimentation to
hit China during the 1980s. A group of artists in China known as the
'85 New Wave was working its way through Western art history, modern
modes and Pop Art. During this time, Chinese artists were critical
of the Chinese Communist Party and its leader Mao, expressing their
criticism through their art.In 1989, an exhibition called "China/
Avant-Garde" went up at the National Art Museum. Four months later,
the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and many citizens fled. They
only returned to China be a part of cultural extravaganza showcased
during the Beijing Summer Olympics last year.
The art world seems to agree that it was this period that stimulated
Chinese contemporary art. (Other influences came from the
RussianBeaux Arts.) The West seems to want to take credit for shift
while in fact many historians and critics have suggested that
Western art influence actually orrupted Chinese contemporary art.
"Students and ordinary people alike paid attention to contemporary
art throughout the 1980s," Gao Minglu, a Chinese art critic said in a
CNN interview in 1999.
According to James Panero of New Criterion: "By turning Chinese art
into the latest trend, we have extended the global transformation of
serious art into a speculative commodity, supported the soft power
strategy of an oppressive state, and reveled in the negative force of
an avant-garde linked to an authoritarian regime not seen since the
Futurism of Fascist Italy. We have shipped our vanguard dreams
abroad, and we have brought back home an imitation art, cheaper, more
compelling than the real thing."
I find it hard to believe that Rauschenberg is being either credited
or blamed for shipping America's creative dreams abroad and bringing
back an imitation art. That said, it is obvious that the degradation
of art into product churned out for the contemporary marketplace, has
become a target for disgust. Even in China.
"The top-selling Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Xiaogang have
created an iconography of laughing men, bald thugs, and
expressionless portraits, which they endlessly reproduce. In China,
common artistic practice includes "blatant imitation of other
artists' works, willingness to pay for art criticism and museum
exposure, refusal to adhere to dealer-artist exclusivity, an elastic
notion of 'limited' editions, and mass replication of the artists'
own most successful motifs," writes Panero.
But singling out Rauschenberg and his ROCI as the moment things
changed in China seems elusive. Tying that back in to the "Lotus
Series" and even further stretch.
Rauschenberg famously expressed that he attempted to operate in the
gap between "art and life." "The Lotus Series" maintains his sense of
wonder, his love of collaboration and his desire to seek out the
unpredictable. The series was created from small photographic prints
because the original negatives from Rauschenberg's trips to China
were destroyed in a hurricane at his home on Captiva Island, Florida.
Goldston was able to scan and enlarge the prints and correct the
color. He then printed out the images in different sizes using an ink
that allowed the image to be transferred to another piece of paper by
use of a solvent. The same technique Rauschenberg used early on in
his career to transfer images from newspapers and magazines to the
canvas. Rauschenberg then arranged the images collage-like for the
"The Lotus Series" does not provide the textural feast found in
earlier Rauschenberg combines. The prints are lush explorations of
observed life, trains, waterways, architecture in China, infused with
iconic images from his earlier oeuvre: tires, bicycles and a ram's
head. Each print bears the image of a lotus blossom. Juxtaposing
these images creates an intriguing narrative that simultaneously
revitalizes pedestrian objects while illuminating the demands of
''The market zooming up made a lot of people blind and deaf,'' Jérôme
Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing
told writer David Barboza in the International Herald Tribune. ''Now,
we can have production of the mind, not just the product. No more of
this making fast money.'
It is claimed that Rauschenberg said of his own financial and market
success: "I was the 'charlatan' of the art world. Then, when I had
enough work amassed, I became a 'satirist'—a tricky word—of the art
world, then 'fine artist,' but who could live with it?
Perhaps, in the end, this what the Robischon exhibit really managed
to capture: the charlatans, the satirists and the fine artists–
whether Western or Chinese.