WASHINGTON — The black outline of a leaf in the corner of a 1962 lithograph is a touchstone for the career of Robert Rauschenberg, the contemporary master who, at 82, continues to make art despite partial paralysis from a series of strokes in 2002 and 2003.
That’s according to curator Charles Ritchie of the National Gallery of Art, whose “Let the World In: Prints by Robert Rauschenberg From the National Gallery of Art and Related Collections” has recently opened. He describes the central motivation behind the work in the show with the mantra, “Let’s see what happens if ...”
The loosey-goosey philosophy — hey, let’s ink up a leaf and toss it on the litho stone — pretty much sums up the anything-goes attitude of an artist best known for his self-dubbed “Combines,” paintings that incorporate collage and sculpture. How? By featuring, for example, an entire stuffed goat, as in his iconic “Monogram” from 1955-59.
The prints in “Let the World In” aren’t quite so 3-D (notwithstanding an actual working door made of printed cardboard), but the artist’s sense of experimentation, and oddball combination, is intact. Take his 1974 “Preview,” in which a statue of an Egyptian nude has been silkscreened onto a fabric panel hanging between two screenprinted photos of vintage automobiles. What that arrangement means, exactly, is anyone’s guess, except perhaps to suggest the sculptural quality of old cars, or the feat of engineering that is man.
In 1967, Rauschenberg made a similar point in his 6-foot self-portrait “Booster,” a lithograph and screenprint that includes life-size X-rays of the artist’s skeleton. Along with, less obviously, a photo of a chair.
Somewhat easier to decipher are the three prints from Rauschenberg’s post-detente-era series “Soviet/American Array,” which contrasts snapshots taken by the artist in Russia with ones he shot stateside.
Other works are more deliberately jumbled, evoking the jazzy visual rhythms of the modern American city, as in “Street Sounds” (1992) and “L.A. Uncovered #12” (1998).
Like jazz, of course, what Rauschenberg is trying to say springs less from the well-articulated arguments of traditional printmaking than from the introspective and at times obtuse mumblings of abstract painting — not to mention early performance art.
Rauschenberg famously pulled a parachute while roller skating at a defunct Washington rink in the 1963 performance “Pelican” (documented in the 1969 lithograph “Autobiography”).
If he’s communicating anything here, it’s that communication is open-ended. Using newspaper clippings, snippets of great art, found and family photos, along with the smeared brush strokes of the expressionist, Rauschenberg’s prints shout, sing and whisper. But what they say is left largely to the listener.