Washington - In "ROCI," the title of his exhibit at the National Gallery, Robert Rauschenberg gives us a lot and not so much after all. It just depends on how you look at it.
Since 1984, Rauschenberg has been engaged in a vast undertaking known as the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or ROCI (pronounced rocky) for short. He has visited 10 countries, from Germany to Japan, from Malaysia to Mexico, in each case collecting materials (from fabrics to photos videos) for artworks based on the trips (ROCI/USSR, ROCI/Cuba, etc.)
Subsequently, there has been a Rauschenberg show in each of the countries visited, including the works inspired by that country. As the culmination of all this activity the Texas-born artist created a group of works based on the United States (ROCI/USA) and they are included with works from the 10 other countries in a huge "ROCI" exhibit (150 works in all) that meanders around on two levels of the National Gallery's east building (through Sept. 2).
It includes paintings (or really multimedia works incorporating painting, silkscreening and collage), sculpture, photographs, videos and more, up to and including an enormous ROCI/China cart, 19 feet long and 7 feet tall, with four wheels, collage sides, cascades of men's ties on either end, and in front a pitchfork ending in a pile of yak fur.
One cannot see this show, know its history and fail to give Rauschenberg much credit: for his energy, his industry, his eagerness for new experience, his willingness (as a man in his 60s) to experiment, his dedication to international communication, his sincere commitment to the project.
It began, he says in an exhibition catalog interview, with "my middle-aged attitude that I have to give more to the world" and was dedicated to the ideals of "education and peace and familiarity and social concerns." He financed the project out of his own pocket, even when it required selling some of his art collection, including works by Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.
Nor can one wander among the galleries here, moving from country to country, and fail to be cheered by the obvious $H optimism, the pleasure-giving impulse, the unflagging enthusiasm that these works reflect. One drifts from a ROCI/USA painting on crumpled, shiny metal, to a quirky ROCI/Tibet sculpture that looks like an oversized bug about to start its multicolored propellers and mosey into the air, to the wall-eyed carp that sprawls across a ROCI/Japan canvas, everywhere accompanied by the videos upon whose shifting images Rauschenberg drew. And one feels as if in the middle of a 20-ring circus, where it's impossible to look too long at the trapeze artists over here for fear of missing the lion tamer over there or the sequined elephant-rider yonder or the clowns down front.
And at some point one also realizes that it's impossible -- or at least difficult, and what's more, unprofitable -- to stop. As long as the visitor keeps moving, keeps the visual cacophony tumbling along, the whole thing works like some travelogue montage whizzing by.
But as soon as you stop to examine individual works, to question them so to speak, and to try to get a feel for a country by studying the group based on it, they in effect dissolve into meaninglessness. It is not that they include too little but that they include too much. They turn out to be a series of bits and pieces that could mean most anything and so add up to little.
Perhaps one shouldn't expect them to add up to a great deal; surely Rauschenberg couldn't have meant to summarize the countries he visited, especially on what seem to have been often brief acquaintances. The National Gallery's curator of 20th century art, Jack Cowart, refers in the catalog to the "deadline art" created, as "the sequence of exhibition openings pressed one upon the other." There were, for instance, shows presented in five countries in 1985 alone -- Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China and Tibet.
But even the ROCI/USA group, dealing with the artist's own country, leaves the same sort of impression. True, the shiny, reflective materials (steel and aluminum) upon which many of these images are spread may make a statement about the insubstantial nature of American culture (it doesn't contain, it only reflects). But what Rauschenberg chooses to put upon the backgrounds is as much a mishmash as his work based on any other country. Rosetta Brooks' essay introducing the ROCI/USA section reflects the difficulty of trying to pin a Rauschenberg down.
"Images can appear positive or negative, become visible or invisible according to where we choose to place ourselves. In this way, different (and sometimes conflicting) facets of the work reveal themselves as movements across the field of vision." Precisely. What can mean one thing and its opposite can mean anything and so essentially means nothing. The only thing to do is keep these images moving too fast to ask questions, and by piling them upon us in such profusion it appears that's just what Rauschenberg wants.
What we have here amounts to a series of souvenirs, as if one set out to glean a portrait of someone by rummaging among his personal effects and coming up with a toothbrush, a pair of athletic socks and an alarm clock. One might conclude that the subject was punctual, healthy and clean, but would we really know anything important?
If, on the other hand, we put aside iconographic decipherings, divorce these works from reference to particular countries, and look at them as pure works of art -- what do we see? We see a range of effects from the pleasantly decorative to the boringly overblown; we see, on the whole, a great deal of surface and not much depth. Rauschenberg has by and large substituted activity for creativity, productivity for profundity, a desire to please for something more essential.
And he does please; but the pleasure he gives is more akin to the passive pleasure of watching television, where the images float by without requiring much effort or leaving much behind, to the deeper satisfaction of reading a good book, which requires concentration, imagination and commitment, and rewards them with something of lasting substance. It is possible to enjoy "ROCI" if one doesn't ask of it what it is unable to give.