I had heard of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens before I ever came to Los Angeles — not because of its undeniably impressive holdings or phantasmagoric landscaping, but because I knew it as the site of Robert Rauschenberg’s epiphanic encounter with Blue Boy and Pinky while on shore leave in 1943, a localized art-historical awakening whose impact has begun to be re-recognized only since the artist’s death on May 12.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Rauschenberg lately. But I’ve always thought a lot about Rauschenberg. For my money (I wish!), he was and remains the unsurpassed master of visual language in the modern era; his seemingly effortless improvisational command of semiotics was exceeded only by the richness, intricacy and originality of his formalist skills. Treating information as material, he translated Dadaist collage into the idiom of painting; painting into sculpture; then flattened the whole menagerie into a dense and simultaneous info-pancake of silk-screened magazine clippings that stripped pictorialism and narrative linearity down to their bare wires.
If that weren’t enough, he was a dyslexic homosexual drunkard —all top-shelf people in my chest of drawers. Rauschenberg was Ernie to Jasper Johns’ Bert — expansive, self-indulgent, mischievous and visionary. And while Johns’ academy-friendly visual vocabulary is more finely tuned, Rauschenberg was in a state of continuous eruption, spewing forth a torrent of picto-glossolalia that offered a new way to look at the world. Looking at the world was, in fact, Rauschenberg’s specialty. The first artworks he sold to a public collection were a pair of photographs Edward Steichen bought for MOMA in 1952 — years before Rauschenberg’s paintings were taken seriously. He always took brilliant photographs, and his own self-appropriated snapshots came to dominate his image morgue.
Rauschenberg’s photography was central to his practice though not particularly lauded within the field. Nevertheless, lately, it’s seemed to me that his pop-alchemical formalist legacy is more evident in the work of contemporary documentary photographers than among painters (or performance artists, for that matter — printmakers and designers more so). Maybe it’s just my personal fixation on Rauschenberg’s epiphany, but he seems to me to be the absent hub at the center of the Huntington’s This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs — a surprising outburst of world-class curatorial practice from an institution whose arcane tweediness has always been one of its main attractions.
The Huntington, which recently unveiled its extensively restored art gallery and reshuffled collection, has an enormous archive of photographs, which reflects the local boosterism of its founder and original resident, heroic railroad capitalist Henry Huntington. The 500,000-plus collection includes a number of extensive industrial-documentary projects detailing the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, the construction of the Edison electrical infrastructure and the transformation of Los Angeles from pastoral frontier to sprawling web of suburbs. It also includes more conventionally artistic groups, such as Edward Weston’s handpicked career-roundup bequeathal.
Using the collection’s local slant as a springboard, curators Jennifer Watts and Claudia Bohn-Spector have filled two of the Huntington’s project exhibition spaces, drawing material from the holdings of the Getty, LACMA, MOCA, UCLA, JANM and private collectors to compile an expansive, thematically structured portrait of L.A. Oscillating between the traditional pictorialist shibboleths of figure and landscape, the exhibit is further divvied among seven orbits — Garden, Dwell, Move, Work, Play, Clash and Dreams — to create a shifting mosaic of intersecting formal and conceptual nuances.