His masterpieces remind us what we have still yet to surpass

The Rauschenberg show at the Tate Modern can look, to the untrained eye, dated, with the faded-sepia colouring of its stuffed-goat Monogram; clown-bucket sploshes of paint; the aged, shanty-town feel to his inventory of found objects, arte-povera cardboards and road signage. Rauschenberg moved on as soon as he got a chance – he won the Venice Biennale painting prize (1964) for his radiant silkscreen collages, and immediately ordered his remaining works in that genre to be destroyed, moving promptly towards hi-tech art “happenings”.

He is perhaps most known for his White Paintings, which he began work on towards the end of art school, where he was under the tutelage of Josef Albers (whose work is currently on at the David Zwirner gallery in London). These are blocks of plain white colour. They hang in the first room of the show, and for Rauschenberg, purported to be subtractions of all of colour, taste, object – and of the inteconnectedness of these things.

At Black Mountain College, Albers (a fresh emigré from Nazi Germany and the Bauhaus) taught him that colours only had inherent worth in relation to other colours. On their own they were precisely equivalent. This eliminated inherent worth from his palette, and thus taste. Consequentially, perhaps, he had no more taste for his silkscreens than, for instance, his Elemental Sculptures, his cardboard art, or his Glut work (which displayed the effect of the collapse of the oil economy in his native Texas) or his “art ambassador” role in authoritarian regimes, with his movement ROCI.

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His gadfly idea was reflected in his interest in, as he said, “what was going on outside his window”. This “democracy of ideas” is at its most obvious in his silkscreens, when we have collages of: a teeming street; New York road signs pointing every which way; JFK; a moon landing; a Rubens woman in a mirror; the US bald eagle; skyscrapers in blazing technicolour. A veritable Frank O’Hara poem of New York on a silkscreen – no wonder that poet was one of his most stout-hearted defenders.

Another beautiful addition to the exhibition is Charlene, a picture which features an ecosystem of reds. It is both a Red Painting and a ‘combine’ (as it combines painting and sculpture) and features a kind of 3D pie chart in the top left corner. Frank O’Hara fits in here, also – when Rauschenberg was describing his Reds, he said that he always felt that individual colours, when within a crowd, were somehow subsumed into the incoherent colour of the moving crowd itself. One can imagine O’Hara understanding this, in his poems of hard summer light on his Broadway lunch hours.

The cardboard art, scrap-metal art, alongside its combine masterpiece Bed, are perhaps depressing only because they remind us of what has come already, and what we have still yet to surpass. This show’s Elemental Sculptures and combines are echoed, ineloquently, in countless contemporary galleries still.

Robert Rauschenberg is on at the Tate Modern until April 2