In the Critics this week

Claire Lowdon objects to one novel on the Man Booker longlist, Ryan Gilbey talks female role models in Pixar's Brave and Jonathan Coe applauds Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel.

This week’s The Critics is a Summer Fiction Special that, if one is to judge by its opening image of three nude readers, aims to reveal all in contemporary literature, save, of course, for the small modesty provided by a carefully positioned book.

Sarah Churchwell finds no such constraint in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, whose protagonist is a novelist primarly concerned with fucking his mother in law and “the fate of the priapic novel.” She concludes that “certainly people who like this kind of thing will find throughout Zoo Time an exemplary instance of the kind of thing they like”, but appears a little scathing of the fact that “the phallus is a semi-universal symbol for several reasons, one of which is that some male writers can’t seem to resist trying to stick it everywhere”.

Ryan Gilbey in his review of the film, Brave, is more interested in the focus, or lack there of, on the fairer sex when he remarks that “most animated features make no secret of favouring the Y chromosome”. As Brave is notably, and shamefully, the first Pixar to feature a female progatonist. Yet Gilbey believes that “it’s no footling matter for Brave to buck the trend by focusing on a mother/daughter relationship, even if gender idiosyncrasies are absorbed into a stock narrative about learning to be a team player.”

Though on the page Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, can occasionally be as fierce as Brave’s Merida, Sophie Elmhirst finds her to be a more reflective character. “You wonder if that mind of hers, as it goes about its gleaning, requires the rest of her to wait in repose until it is ready to spill.” Robinson's writing, bears “the care of someone who feels the place of every word in line. There are no assumptions either, particularly in her non-fiction: only the stubborn desire to hold up patterns of thought to the light and expose their holes.”

Claire Lowdon is less kindly to Nicola Barker's novel The Yips. Unimpressed at its place on the Man Booker Prize-longlist, she finds it inferior to the author's previous work. “Darkmans is a much tighter novel, with a strong narrative voice and a mischievous plot that manipulates the characters almost as masterfully as Nabokov’s Laughter in the dark.”

Jonathan Coe, however, admires Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel. “After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before, but a handful of writers have sinced applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things… and Marías’s lithe, unreliable sentences are among his contributions to this enterprise.” This art, combined with Marías’s ability to tell a good story, leads Coe to conclude that A Heart So White is “a novel to treasure.”

In other reviews Leo Robson uses Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; The Jump Artist to question the lofty ambitions of debut novelists, Talitha Stevenson examines John Banville’s Ancient Light and Jane Shilling reflects upon the dark arts of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate.

Matt Trueman, meanwhile, gives an early update on theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, where “audiences are won over by artistry, more than they are by art. After all if you’ve got something urgent to say, the middle of the world’s most crowded art’s festival is hardly the most effective platform. This year, however… the Fringe seems to be full of fighting talk.” He is particularly compelled by Caroline Horton’s Mess, which he describes as “kids’ show. For adults. About anorexia. The candyfloss and fairy lights aesthetic rubs against the subject matter brilliantly, as it manages to show the world as Josephine sees it. It feels light-headed and giddy. You can’t see the  protruding bones that cause her boyfriend to flinch but you know they’re there.”

Drawing our attention back to the main celebration this summer is Rachel Cooke's survey of Olympic broadcasting, which inspires in her “sudden love” and yet “something dark”, which occasionally “tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.” Her aversion is directed towards the likes of Gaby Logan and “John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, so strangely unyielding and too squat for the space he is inhabiting”, but she adores Clare Balding. “Some people want to be on television for its own sake… Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it… Medal winners, you may have noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round.”

This week's Critics also features orginal poetry and fiction. A Kindness, a short story by Adam Foulds, explores a moment of charity, charming in it's unextraordinary nature, but echoing almost existentially in its setting of a bleak corner shop. A similar everyday vacuity reverberates in Emily Berry’s poem Nothing sets my heart aflame. “My crisis is relatively universal,” she writes, “every time I think a new thought I can smell an old one burning.”

To top everything off is Will Self’s accustomed penetrating wit as he tries to escape the tyranny of muzak, this “sonic sewage” of “soft rock music” “mind-control”, against which resistance is futile. “I thought I was about to be dragged away to some inhuman reconditioning unit, where, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I would be subjected to muzak until I learned to love it. But this didn’t happen, because I was in just such a unit already.”

 

                                    

A man laps up some summer fiction (Image: Getty)
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage