Robert Rauschenberg: ROCI | Thaddeus Ropac

Robert Rauschenberg’s large retrospective at Tate Modern a few years back was one of the most front-loaded in memory. The first few rooms were killer: early experiments with then-boyfriend Cy Twombly, his seminal Bed work from 1955, and a range of iconic sixties silkscreens that captured the zeitgeist as effectively as anything Warhol was doing at the same time. Rauschenberg was original and startling, picking up trash and detritus from his surroundings in New York City and making it into art.

Unfortunately, upon achieving justified artistic fame, Rauschenberg moved to a compound in Florida in the early seventies and spent the remaining four decades of his life retreading the greatest hits, with compounding mediocrity. I recall the curator’s notes in the back half of the Tate show - rooms full of retreads, on a grander scale - as being almost apologetic. It’s one of these later periods that the Thaddeus Ropac gallery has chosen to exhibit this summer, to embarrassing effect.

Robert Rauschenberg ‘Caryatid Cavalcade I / ROCI CHILE’ (1985) Caryatid Cavalcade I / ROCI CHILE, 1985

The project was called ROCI: Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange. The artist announced his declaration of intent while travelling to Tobago (the letter is in a vitrine at the Ropac show), then made the official announcement at the UN. The project’s purpose was to go to different countries around the world, take lots of photos, go back to Florida, silkscreen these photos on a grand scale, then exhibit them in the host country. He visited and exhibited in 10 of these countries between 1984 and 1991.

You can take an uncynical view and say, wow, what a great opportunity for cultural exchange and the flow of ideas. Or you can be mean like me and say, wow, what better way of leveraging artistic fame then to travel to cool places, take some holiday snaps, use them to make mediocre self-cannibalising work, make bank and move on?

Caryatid Cavalcade, pictured above, proves my point. Six and a half metres wide, it’s based around a snap of the knock-off classical sculptures in Santiago, Chile’s main art museum. A mash-up of other photos from the visit are arranged in columns, like a Greek temple. It’s a huge, incoherent, lazy mess.

In the original photo, the artist poses between the museum’s caryatid sculptures. He’s smiling broadly, as well he might. What a con!

Robert Rauschenberg: ROCI is at Thaddeus Ropac (London). 24 April - 03 August 2024