The Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA) exhibition of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century, draws on his art as well as on his life—and students were involved in the exhibition process every step of the way.
“The Rauschenberg Foundation recently opened the artist’s archives to the public, and offered us and our students unprecedented access,” says Lisa Dorin, deputy director of curatorial affairs at WCMA. Dorin and Professor of Art C. Ondine Chavoya built a course around that invitation. They co-taught the course Rauschenberg: Art & Archives in the fall, with plans for a spring exhibition.
Students in the course were steeped in the artist’s life and work “as well as in the theory, practice, methods, histories of archives and archival research,” says Chavoya, whose own scholarly focus has long involved artists’ archives.
After some workshops at the Williams College Archives and the Clark Art Institute, the five undergraduates joined Dorin and Chavoya on a two-day trip to New York City to conduct primary archival research. “Each student arrived with a specific topic and question in mind,” says Chavoya. “But they quickly learned that archival research is anything but linear.”
Alexander Jen ’19 hoped to learn more about what he considers to be Rauschenberg’s tendency to cover up information in his art. “He has a series of paintings in which he paints strips of newspaper in black paint,” says Jen, who plans to major in art history. But when he couldn’t find archival documentation about those paintings, he decided to look into a series of minimal sculptures made of cardboard, glue and sand, which Jen hadn’t known about before seeing them in a gallery in the archives.
For Rebecca Smith ’18, a biology major with a background in studio art and photography, archival research led to a great discovery. She hoped to figure out who took a photograph of the artist used in Autobiography, one of his best-known pieces, and the centerpiece of the WCMA exhibition. The photograph has long been unattributed.
After looking through hundreds of photographs documenting the artist’s performance work, Smith found an image that matched the background of the one used in Autobiography, which led to the likely identification of the photographer. “It felt like detective work,” Smith says.
The archival material the students collected helped Dorin and Chavoya frame Rauschenberg’s work in the exhibition. “The artwork is all contextualized by the archival materials the students found, and the research and label-writing assignments they completed for class informed our exhibition didactics,” Dorin says.
“These students rose to the challenge of creating work that would resonate with a museum-going audience,” Chavoya says, adding that this particular audience will likely include Rauschenberg experts, given MASS MoCA’s recent opening of Building 6, which will also feature Rauschenberg’s work.
Reflecting on the class and the opportunity to help mount the exhibition, Jen says, “The course was unusual because it was positioned between art history, curatorial work and archival research. I felt lucky to be a part of it.”
Read more about the Rauschenberg exhibition, which is open until Aug. 20, 2017.