By Randy Kennedy | The New York Times
The artist Robert Rauschenberg hated repeating himself, art-wise, and said that his works, as an honest reflection of his life, were "really just evidence that I'm still paying attention."
But for many years after his groundbreaking pieces of the 1950s and '60s, the art world paid a lot less attention to him, and several bodies of his work from the 1970s and '80s have remained relatively unknown to American museumgoers. That now appears likely to change as a result of a decision by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to find homes in important public collections — among them the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum — for nine important late-career pieces, the bulk of which passed into the foundation's possession after Rauschenberg's death in 2008.
The pieces, from series with oddly evocative names like "gluts" (metal-junk assemblage); "jammers" (ethereal fabric constructions); "Venetians" (works inspired by the Italian city); and "cardboards" (minimalist reliefs made from unadorned consumer boxes), are being dispersed in what is known as a "partial gift, partial sale," or below-market price, to the museums, which also include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the New Orleans Museum of Art. In response to the dispersal, the foundation said, Marie-Josée Kravis, the president of the Museum of Modern Art, and her husband, Henry Kravis, have decided to promise another Rauschenberg work, "Polar Glut" from 1987, to the Modern as well.
"Bob started saving some of his best works for himself during this period, the '70s and '80s," said Christy MacLear, the executive director of the foundation, who added that it wanted both to spread the works around the country and to augment existing collections of older Rauschenberg work. David White, the foundation's chief curator, said that "you could count on the fingers of one hand the institutions that have this kind of later work," which took the artist's practice of recycling the so-called detritus of modern life in new directions.
Sheena Wagstaff, the Metropolitan Museum's chairwoman of modern and contemporary art, said the two works that it is acquiring, a 1971 cardboard relief and a 1976 fabric piece, would provide "an extraordinarily strong foundation upon which to build" a more comprehensive collection.
Even the Museum of Modern Art, which owns some of the artist's most important pieces from the 1950s and '60s, still has a ways to go toward a full accounting of Rauschenberg's work, said Ann Temkin, the museum's chief curator of painting and sculpture. "And he is one of those artists for whom we think it's absolutely essential to tell the whole story of his career," she said.
Mr. White said the post-1960s work stands as a powerful demonstration of the artist's determination to use what the world presented him, wherever he was. After he left New York in the early '70s almost entirely to work on Captiva Island in Florida, "he spoke of not having the city streets as a palette for the work anymore," Mr. White said, adding, "But the one thing that was universal everywhere was cardboard boxes."