Finding Rauschenberg In Los Angeles and In an Art Class

Something happens within the psyche when it views art that uses recognizable images and symbols from close to home and the heart. It's as if the art becomes an expression of the viewer or as if the art itself created the viewer.

Taking the tour of Robert Rauschenberg's prints at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art explained how he planned his work with the viewers, their interests and their interaction with his art in mind. He wants persons to walk up close, contemplate his art or stand back from afar, possibly wanting them to make an intrinsic connection with his art.

Among his posters and prints were many of his admirers, the man printed literally into his posters, and later Professor Daniel Freeman, a teacher in the Santa Monica College art department and friend of Rauschenberg.

As a professor at SMC who teaches Art 62, Serigraphy (Silkscreen), Freeman long ago worked at Gemini, a Westside printing and graphic facility where such famous pop artists as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Rauschenberg printed when in California.

"When I first started working with Rauschenberg in the '60s we were called hypocrites because we were the finite guys from Los Angeles that took the artwork and turned it into money. [Critics] were calling us 'copyist' because we took people's [original] artwork, the artwork of Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and stuff, and we made prints of them, made artwork that was the same essential looking artwork as what they did in their paintings. The first show that we did in New York, the reviews of the work the next day called us 'California chic.'"

An alumnus of Long Beach State in printmaking, Freeman said four or five of the original Gemini printers attended the school, which still has one of the best printmaking programs.

Freeman remembers Rauschenberg for his energy and his ability in creating art. He mentioned how Rauschenberg devoted a lot of wealth to Earthday, created the first Earthday poster and often created performance art - once even done on roller skates.

"We all thought that we could be Rauschenberg, we could be Jasper Johns, we could draw as good," said Freeman. "The thing that we realized that we couldn't do is we didn't have this sort of the chutzpah, we didn't have the energy to put out artwork on a level as somebody as Rauschenberg."

At LACMA they displayed posters he made for his own organization named the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI started in the hope of bringing "art to far flung lands") and U.S. election posters promoting peace.

These altruistic ideas of bringing art overseas for other nations and using it politically for positive social change is a reminder of the energy that Freeman said Rauschenberg possessed.

"As he breathed he was non-stop art and a lot of people questioned his work for what's it worth because he has done so much of it," said Freeman. "But what was fun was that he was one of the first people that I had worked with and I learned very quickly how much he loved color. His ability to put color down and take them from like a color scale or something, take color from different things, mixing media. It opened my expanses of what I thought art was as this flat thing or sculpture and it opened it up into this huge arena of work."

The artist started his career creating posters for theater events by transposing images with gasoline, not caring for monetary value or the traditional sensibilities of art schools such as the Académie Julian in Paris where he studied for a year.

He disavowed ever using his own brush strokes in an attempt at leaving traditionalism, impressionism and post-impressionism behind, instead finding modernity as his mentor Johns did in pop culture and only really ever painting his name with a brush.

"It was my first time seeing collage-lithograph posters in a gallery. They were such great photocopies that I thought the materials were real, but they were really such great posters," said Candice Davis, a SMC student. "I like how he wrote his name on them and how he superimposed images on top of each other."

What is poster art today? Many people view everyday the political or surreal works of artists such as Shepard Fairey (aka - Obey) or Tofer (a graffiti artist) as they travel to work, spend a day at the beach or visit a new gallery displaying their art. In the tradition of Rauschenberg himself they have created artistic meaning through printing.

"I think that poster-ing is another expression of graffiti art. Shepard Fairey's and Robbie Conal's work is very political and very well known. The concepts and the political messages are the same as Rauschenberg's, but the difference would be technique-wise," said SMC student Chad Uyeno, who visited the exhibit.

Success found Rauschenberg, even if he never did it for the money. As an example look at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics poster, his Talking Heads concert poster and the poster for his own show at the Tate Gallery in London.

Entering into the LACMA exhibit and turning into the first viewing gallery there stood a large and impressive print that Rauschenberg created with simple letters painted across the bottom that simply said "Venice."

For the viewers of Los Angeles, where he lived, seeing LACMA posters created by him advertising his exhibit at the museum, or posters displayed that Freeman printed like "Sky Garden," done in 1969, the 80-year-old artist creates inspiration and interest for a population that often gets lost in the creativity-squelching land of "celluloid."

The Rauschenberg exhibit is at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave.) and runs through June 12. For information, please call (323) 857-6000.