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A new focus exhibition combines artistic innovation, pop culture, wry humor, and sharp critique
August 10, 2016

Beau Rutland Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art

Gloria 1956. Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed paper, and printed reproductions on canvas; 170.5 x 163.4 cm. Gift of the Cleveland Society for 
Contemporary Art 1966.333. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY 


When I happened upon Gloria, a 1956 Combine by Robert Rauschenberg, shortly after arriving at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I was stunned to see it in person. Gloria doesn’t look or act its age. Despite its 60 years, it remains surprisingly striking because of the many ways it resonates with artwork being made today. Full of Rauschenberg’s wry humor and sharp intellect, Gloria needed to be reintroduced to contemporary audiences. Its cultural references—including large images of millionairess Gloria Vanderbilt on her wedding day—range from the piquant to the open-ended and exist alongside completely self-aware brushstrokes; stuttering, repeated imagery; and a central void that reveals the wall on which Gloria hangs. Given the work’s unusual presence, it seemed only appropriate for its reemergence to be aided by a guide with an acute sensitivity to the 21st century. Rachel Harrison, an acclaimed contemporary artist whose practice also blurs the boundaries of painting and sculpture, was the ideal navigator. 

While a curious assortment of artists, ranging from Isa Genzken to David Hammons, come to mind when considering how Rauschenberg’s line of thought has been extended into the 21st century, his characteristic mélange of specificity and ambiguity is rarely approximated. Indeed, few today are as close to approaching the wit, criticality, and innovation of Rauschenberg’s 1950s work as Harrison. Throughout her career, she has employed her medium-defiant artwork to explore life itself in every aspect, from pop and consumer culture to societal norms, religion, art history, and the amorphous nature of art. The museum’s current focus exhibition attempts to view Rauschenberg’s 1950s output through Harrison’s eyes—or at least those of her abstract objects. The two have been brought together here for the first time.

The exhibition features Gloria as well as two other outstanding examples from the middle period of the Combines series, which Rauschenberg began around 1953 and ended in 1964. These are Rhyme (1956; Fractional and promised gift of Agnes Gund in honor of Richard E. Oldenberg to the Museum of Modern Art), which in an early state was paired with the famed taxidermy goat of Monogram (1955–59; Moderna Museet, Stockholm), and Painting with Red Letter S (1957; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), whose square format, isolated painterly daubs, and matter-of-fact title mirror those of Gloria. The artist Jasper Johns once explained Rauschenberg’s Combines not as a combination of painting and sculpture, but specifically as “painting playing the game of sculpture.” The inverse would aptly describe many of Harrison’s works. Four of her sculptures are included in this exhibition, each of them exemplifying an aspect of her wide-ranging practice. In addition, a small pairing of Rauschenberg’s early photographs with drawings by Harrison reveals these artists’ facility across media.

After I approached Harrison about her interest in working on a project using Gloria as a starting point, she mentioned that that Patti Smith song kept popping up in her mind. Though perhaps coincidental, such cultural references are also weightier than they originally appear in both Harrison and Rauschenberg’s work. The mid-’70s punk-rock anthem is notable not only for launching Smith’s music career, but also—and more significantly—for rattling the heteronormative foundations of the song itself, which it triumphantly appropriates. The original recording of “Gloria” by Them, featuring a young Van Morrison, is a 1960s Brit-rock classic. In it, the singer-narrator offers a rather gritless rehashing of a sexual dalliance with a woman named Gloria, and as he climaxes—not quite in sync with the tempo—he calls her name with an orgasmic bellow. Gloria herself appears to be speechless, perhaps because she isn’t given any voice. In Smith’s retelling, she casts herself as the lead, a swoonworthy lothario. Despite the ironic machismo in Smith’s reworking of the song, which she infiltrated with her poem “Oath,” her narrator gives Gloria agency and identity when she whispers her name, the song’s iconic refrain. Her name is G-L-O-R-I-A.

Smith’s lyrics (And I gotta tell the world that I make her mine make her mine make her mine make her mine) sprawled across the planning and research stages of this exhibition. The attendant publication, Rachel Harrison: G-L-O-R-I-A, offers a unique opportunity: it presents itself as a traditional museum monograph, yet square in the middle is Heir Fresheners, an artist’s project created for this occasion. With Harrison’s mining of so much content relating to Rauschenberg’s practice and her own, we could ask, who is she trying to make hers? Rauschenberg? Gloria Vanderbilt? Gloria? Patti Smith? And what about that goat that keeps popping up? Throughout Heir Fresheners, Harrison does not seek to change or compete with Rauschenberg’s art but rather uses his work to broaden our understanding of both her practice and his. Like Smith before her, Harrison is giving voice to “Gloria” the punk-rock anthem, but she is also speaking for Gloria the painting and Gloria the socialite—and along the way, a serial-killer nurse, a handful of politicians, an assortment of pop stars, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman.

In Heir Fresheners, Harrison offers a meditation on the history, folklore, and meanings surrounding Rauschenberg and his oeuvre that bravely enmeshes the two artists’ lives and work, registering the gap between his art and hers. Within these pages, one can also find individual illustrations of the artworks included in the exhibition. Here, Harrisons and Rauschenbergs fade into and out of each other. On the opening page, Harrison has heightened a detail of a particularly drippy Combine with Photoshop drips and a faintly visible image of Amy Winehouse rendered in colored pencil. Elsewhere, canned air fresheners give lift to the painterly bald eagle in the iconic Canyon (1959; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Non-Rauschenbergian sources appear as well—instances of everyday life, if you will. Among these are a buildup of leftover frosting on a particularly artful dessert plate that recalls the surface of Harrison’s sculptures. In 1953 Rauschenberg famously requested a Woman drawing from Willem de Kooning in order to make an artwork through its erasure. In the spirit of this generative act, Harrison attempts to re-create de Kooning’s original gestures as revealed in a digitally enhanced infrared scan of Erased de Kooning Drawing published in 2010 by its current owner, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In other instances, she has erased images of Rauschenbergs to reveal slivers of her art lurking below. After sorting through the catalogue, it’s easy to see that Harrison’s dutiful recycling of gestures actively keeps the past present.  


Cleveland Art, July/August 2015