Olivier Mosset / Rauschenberg White
September 10 - November 6, 2021
Opening September 10th, 4-8pm
Spencer Brownstone Gallery is pleased to announce Olivier Mosset / Rauschenberg White. The exhibition features a new body of paintings by Swiss artist Olivier Mosset influenced by Robert Rauscehenberg’s famous white monochromes from 1951, executed while still in attendance at the Black Mountain College. The total number of paintings from Mosset’s new series is twenty-two, and each measure 22 by 22 inches, in reference to Rauschenberg’s captivation with the number 22 originating from his date of birth, the 22nd of October, 1925.
Special thanks to Jade Dellinger, director of Bob Rauschenberg Gallery who first showed this body of Olivier Mosset paintings alongside works by Mike Bidlo in the Fall of 2020, and Bob Nickas for his ever insightful writing on “Olivier Mosset & Mike Bidlo” which we re-present for our exhibition here.
Often when we look at an artwork, a painting, or a drawing especially, we discern the hand of the artist, the movement of line made by a pencil or the stroke of a brush. This will not always be the case. A perfect surface monochrome, for example, presents us with an evenly smooth, uninflected expanse of color. The paint may have been applied with a roller, just as one would use to cover the broad surface of a wall in a home or a gallery, or sprayed on industrially, as a car is painted. Such applications are anonymous. House painters only take credit for their work by placing the company’s sign on the front lawn—a green monochrome—a form of advertising rather than a claim to authorship. When we consider the issue in terms of drawing, this sense of anonymity is rare. Drawings by painters are especially prized by collectors and studied by curators because works on paper can reveal a close connection between the hand and the line in relation to the mind: the image as thought made visible. An image transferred from a modest sheet of paper to sizable canvas risks losing its delineation, its definition as it gains scale and volume. When layers of paint obscure the drawn element, we are led to wonder: what lies beneath? Museum conservators who methodically study paintings for restoration rely at times on an x-ray process to reveal the drawing subsumed by the visible image on the surface of a canvas: the forensics of art history. Such examinations also come into play when a work’s authenticity is in doubt. As with a crime and the search for fingerprints that may have been left behind, we look for proof of an act committed in the hand of the artist. Even if motive remains elusive, intention is never far away.
In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg conceived a number of multi-panel white paintings. At the time, this was a radical gesture, more so for the fact of his insistence that others could paint or re-paint them and, when true to the original concept, with or without his direct involvement. The work would always remain his, and the idea supersedes other hands involved to this day. In 1915, Kazimir Malevich had painted the iconic Black Square, of which Rauschenberg must have been aware. Although the Russian artist would create a number of black paintings over subsequent years, there was nothing open-ended to this work as far as replication by others. In this parallel, we take into account the considerable difference between a black monochrome and a white monochrome, given their alternately chromatic assertiveness and indifference, weight and weightlessness, amplified by the associations we bring to them. An all-black painting is object-like, with a physicality that emphasizes the blocking or denial of an image, an impenetrability projecting itself toward the viewer. An all-white painting can be thought to reverse this polarity, allowing viewers to project toward a picture plane that carries no overt pictorial information, a space that may be read as blank canvas. An all-white painting will appear to some as an invitation, while to others as an affront. A black monochrome insists on a response; so too does an all-white painting, though not insistently. An all-white painting engages with temporality, both finished and not yet, only complete when seen—no matter what the response. Does such a painting take the temperature of the viewer and the room and the time in which it exists, including its past, present and future?
When Rauschenberg’s monochromes were first exhibited in New York in 1953, appearing to many critics as unpainted, they were decidedly not well received. The same was true for Malevich in 1915, even as his black square had clearly been painted, and his position was well-established. To ‘50s critics regularly confronted with painterly gesture, expressiveness, signs of struggle, angst and agitation, Rauschenberg’s paintings had dispensed with all emotion. There was no image, no evidence of the all-important hand. If there’s anything hubristic critics resent most of all, it’s that they have had to spend more time and mind in writing about an artwork than may have gone into its making. Artworks that are ahead of their time are rarely appreciated upon arrival. When Rauschenberg’s white paintings were subsequently shown at the Castelli Gallery in 1968, they were hailed as precursors to Minimalism, by then firmly in place. Much had changed in art in the fifteen years elapsed since Rauschenberg created them (some original panels have been attributed to Cy Twombly) as a student at Black Mountain College in 1951. The late ‘60s had ushered in Conceptual art, where an idea brought forth by an artist would take precedence over its physical manifestation, if any. As Lawrence Weiner proposed in the conclusion of his famous statement of 1968: “The work need not be built.” Rauschenberg had presented heady, conceptual pieces in the decade prior. In addition to the white paintings, he famously sent a telegram in lieu of a portrait to a 1961 exhibition at the gallery of Iris Clert in Paris that stated: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” Most provocatively, in 1953, Rauschenberg approached Willem de Kooning, whom he had met at Black Mountain and was friendly with, for a drawing the younger artist intended to erase. “I was trying,” he later remarked, “to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all white.”
Though at first reluctant to part with a drawing that would disappear, de Kooning agreed. This is equally a testament to Rauschenberg’s powers of persuasion as to a formidable, wily response on de Kooning’s part. The most famous painter in New York at that time, his works commanding the highest prices, wasn’t worried about being upstaged by an upstart. And what did de Kooning counter in the moment? He challenged the young artist right back. Rauschenberg, in a filmed interview, recalls him saying, “I want to give you something difficult to erase.” The drawing de Kooning chose was materially diverse and dense, having been rendered with pencil, charcoal, crayon and grease paint, and it would take the younger artist many weeks to erase, a laborious process. In the interview Rauschenberg says it took him a month; elsewhere the time is claimed to have been two months. Ultimately Rauschenberg went through numerous erasers to accomplish the task. No matter how many weeks were required, what is key to consider is that in his erasing the drawing, a basic question at the heart of all artistic creation is raised: at what point do artists decide their work is finished? As the weeks went by, Rauschenberg arrived at a moment when the (un)drawing was, to his satisfaction, done. He could not have continued until nothing was left to be seen. The de Kooning had to remain present in its absence. Today, faint traces of his original marks haunt our field of vision. Rauschenberg saw them, too. When he put down the last eraser, a decision was taken: go no further. The hand of de Kooning had to be discernible at the very edge of visibility, while we are aware that another hand had hovered above the surface, unseen yet evident in its abrasion, and not only.
With the Erased de Kooning, there is a clear parallel to Rauschenberg’s series of white paintings: an absent image, though taken further: there and not. To look upon the drawing today, hung on a museum wall, we see only the ghostly traces of de Kooning’s hand. This is more than a Duchampian assisted readymade … unmade, since considerable effort went into its creation. The very term creation looms questionably over this work as it came into being through a process of removal rather than addition. Here we can imagine a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble until almost no stone remains, the stone itself a product of nature. The Erased de Kooning was initially a drawing by de Kooning, already a celebrated artist. Barely known at the time, Rauschenberg had earlier erased drawings of his own, but they lacked any charge of palpable absence for him. He came to realize that this work “had to begin as art.” What was gone had to register as a loss: something once valued, vanished. In 1953, invited to take part in a drawing show, Rauschenberg decided to send the Erased de Kooning to the gallery, its first public appearance. With assistance from his friend Jasper Johns, he would foreground his authorship and the work’s double identity by way of its presentation. Along with a plain gold frame, an all-important label was added to the matte, simply inscribed:
ERASED de KOONING DRAWING
What visitors to the exhibition had no way of knowing, as many today are still unaware, is that on the reverse side of the paper was another drawing by de Kooning. Without Rauschenberg’s label/title, the claim might well be a bluff, along the lines of: “This is an erased de Kooning if I say so.” Rauschenberg asserts the actual proof of his In 2005, Mike Bidlo created a suite of 16 works on paper, each titled Not Robert Rauschenberg: Erased de Kooning Drawing, asserted with a label similar to the original described. To make them, Bidlo had to re-draw de Kooning “women” drawings and then erase them. In this he did something no other appropriation artist proposed before, or he himself for that matter. He refers to the work of not one but two other artists within the same pictorial space, creating a triangulation between himself and his forebears. The images were recreated specifically to be undone. Bidlo’s series offers an entirely different endeavor, whether realized mechanically or manually, from a photograph of a photograph, or a drawing derived from a reproduction in a book. Keeping in mind that the choice of what to appropriate is key to the content of an artwork echoing another, Bidlo’s selecting of the Erased de Kooning identifies it as an icon, its iconicity needing next to nothing (or only seemingly so), a reaffirming of Rauschenberg’s aim to “figure out a way to bring drawing into the all white.” Bidlo’s series demonstrates that drawings and erasures are equally reproducible, or deducible. Rauschenberg’s most iconic work of all, his since his death. Monogram, an object-collage, has no such flexibility. Monogram is by no means a monochrome. Neither is it primarily conceptual in nature, as the white paintings are, or as the exemplary Erased de Kooning, all of which elude a fixed image. Monogram, as taxidermy, preserves something once alive, takes the goat by the horns and painting by its hooves, to be anchored permanently in mind. Once seen, it is difficult to shake from memory. The Erased de Kooning and Mike Bidlo’s Not Rauschenberg drawing/erasures may be experienced anew in every subsequent encounter.
Olivier Mosset is an artist who has a long history with the monochrome, dating to the latter half of the 1970s. His new small format white monochromes on view in relation to this series of Mike Bidlo’s are set firmly on the idea-foundation of Rauschenberg’s white paintings, though without referring to them directly. In any case it is not his intention. What artist ever appropriates a white monochrome? It is simply done, joining those that came before. And yet these Mosset paintings were painted by Rauschenberg’s last studio assistant, and didn’t stretch or prime the canvases, and he didn’t apply the paint. He has relied on others to produce his paintings on other occasions, as when immense stripe paintings were created in China by workers who commercially paint cars. (He asked, through a translator, if there was any difference to paint a painting or a car; they laughed and said “No!”) In conception, these new white paintings are Mosset’s, just as the Rauschenberg made and re-made by others are his and always will be. The Mosset paintings only refer to Rauschenberg’s works materially. The image of a white monochrome belongs to no one. Or it belongs to the viewers when they stand before the painting, and only if they are responsive to the situation. And of course an all-white painting, like one all-black, is the ultimate monochrome, the ultimate denial of a fixed image, though without malice. If there are no overt feelings (those registered as absent in the reception of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in 1953, and in a perceived absence of color), there are no hard feelings either. A monochrome remains a curious, if accepted, proposition, confronting us evasively. technique (no why) / No idea / No intention / No art / No feeling. This is classically Cagean, and cagey, while not entirely correct. A white painting is in itself its own subject, its own object, will be beautiful to some, conveying a message in its refusal as well as its potential, requiring technique in its perfect surface, art because it was made by an artist who had to have an idea in the first place, and, in existing where previously it had not … was intended. Feelings are facts, as it’s been said. Talent remains wildly overrated. And all the above holds true for acts of erasure, particularly after-the-fact. The pairing of these works by Mike Bidlo and Olivier Mosset, fully engaging in the set of circumstances we call art—now you see it, now you don’t—offers an exhibition that Robert Rauschenberg would have been curiously intrigued by, and that he would have understood not as a convergence of two artists, but of four. Bob Nickas, 2020