Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Untitled (Spread)’ (1983) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
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“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” Robert Rauschenberg once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” Ordinary things made Rauschenberg happy — objects such as the rubber tyre with which he ringed a stuffed goat, bought for $15 from a used furniture store and placed on a painted canvas stuck with magazine clippings. He explained that the goat and tyre, interleaved like letters in a monogram, “lived happily ever after” together: art and life awkwardly, optimistically, enchantingly combined.

“Monogram” visits the UK for the first time in 50 years — can it even be that old? — to star in Tate Modern’s irresistible new retrospective of the American artist, who died in 2008. Alongside the shaggy, insouciant angora goat hangs the wooden frame enclosing a quilt, sheet and pillow slathered in oil, toothpaste and nail polish, “Bed” — which hints at blood and violence but was named by Rauschenberg as “one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted. My fear has always been that someone would want to crawl into it” — and the painted trolley with metal chain, bucket, washer and door knobs called “Gift for Apollo”.

All date from the 1950s, celebrate beauty in the everyday, and sweep you up in a generous democratic vision that pulls art out of the studio and on to street level. Even if you have not the slightest sympathy with the conceptual art that reverberated down the decades from Rauschenberg’s innovations — and Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” and Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde zoo so clearly pick up threads from the celebrated pieces here — these rarely loaned “Combines” are a joy: fresh, bright, emotionally engaging, intellectually curious, instantly accessible because “a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world”.

“Oracle” (1962-65), a multi-part scrap-metal installation containing wireless microphone systems, turns sculpture into a sound piece. The industrial allusions recall David Smith but where Smith was an elegant abstractionist, this is a messy, screeching, garrulous sprawl evoking the factory floor. Brushwork is noisy, too: “First Time Painting”, which includes a plastic exhaust cap and curling metal springs, was created as a performance on stage in Paris in 1961 with a microphone attached to the easel to amplify each brushstroke. Rauschenberg stopped painting when an alarm clock in the canvas went off.

Tate superbly chronicles how, with lightness of touch, an exuberant insistence on the arbitrary and youthful irreverence, Rauschenberg collapsed painting, printmaking, sculpture, performance, into hybrid collaborative forms. Working in a studio with windows thrown open and the television always on, Rauschenberg through the 1950s and 1960s, it seems, could do no wrong. At monumental scale, painted silkscreens such as “Retroactive II” collaged images from TV stills including the recently assassinated President Kennedy and space travel. Uniting disparate printed material with paint, Rauschenberg distilled the beginning of the all-over visual noise of late-20th-century life. The silkscreens won him the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Biennale — the first American to be so honoured, and signalled pictorial invention was shifting from Europe to the US.

‘Bed’ (1955) © New York Image: The Museum of Modern Art

This is a marvellous moment for American art in London. Although Rauschenberg’s use of found objects goes back to Duchamp, and his collages to Kurt Schwitters, his experiments develop immediately out of a response to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose gestural painting he adopts and adapts while radically rejecting personal expression. Tate shows the iconic “Erased de Kooning Drawing” in which Rauschenberg painstakingly rubbed out the marks of the father figure. The ghosts of Abstract Expressionism everywhere here send one back to the Royal Academy’s excellent exhibition (to January 2), and the contrast is fascinating. Although the RA’s show ends with works from the 1970s, the movement’s deep-felt imperatives of the individual and spiritual feel remote from today, compared with Rauschenberg’s laconic tone and debt to mass-production.

On the other hand, the RA show illuminates Rauschenberg’s early work at Tate: the all-black and all-gold paintings with bubbled surfaces made from scraps of newspaper embedded in paint, homages as well as pastiches of Abstract Expressionism, and the six-metre “Automobile Tire Print”, made by driving a car over 20 sheets of paper, which parodies Newman’s zip paintings and anticipates the industrial imagery of “Monogram”. Despite numerous efforts to attach it to canvas, the goat, he said, “refused to be abstracted into art” until he transformed it by adding the tyre.

‘Monogram’ (1955-59) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Transformation and collaboration remained key to Rauschenberg’s vision, evident in later work here including the 1970s grids of cardboard packing boxes, alluding to globalisation, 1980s posters for the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange project, and 1990s ink-jet photographic prints. Made after Rauschenberg left New York to live on Captiva Island, Florida in 1971 and became a public rather than avant-garde figure, these lack excitement, the connection to urban experience. They wilt in comparison to the earlier work.

A richer coda is on offer in Mayfair at Offer Waterman, which brings together an exceptional selection of transfer drawings from 1958-69, made by dissolving newspaper photos and text with a solvent, then rubbing them on to paper with pencil or pen, sometimes adding gouache and watercolour. Mass-produced imagery is seamlessly combined with the handmade intimacy of drawing, and political themes evoked.

‘Triathlon (Scenario)’ (2005) © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

With images from Listerine mouthwash to a radar station, “Orange Body” features examples of 1960s Americana at microscopic and cosmic scales, arranged to surround the caption “Deadlines Scrapped over Desegregation” amid rushing helmeted heroes: baseball players, astronauts. “Headline”, first owned by Andy Warhol, is a blur of politicians’ faces, the pro-slavery Confederate flag and car licence plates from Mississippi all revolving round a still square of calm with a reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

These careful, thoughtful collages of protest extend our understanding of the most private group of works on display at Tate, the 34 illustrations to Dante’s “Inferno” created by the same transfer method. Here, on surfaces luscious, smoky, scratchy, flickering, Dante is a shorts-clad athlete from Sports Illustrated among wrestlers and weightlifters, his celestial messengers are astronauts, demons are the riot police, and handless clocks symbolise eternity. All these unfold through fragile, fugitive veils — “Inferno” is Rauschenberg’s most homoerotic work — musing on pain, conflict and suffering in an ancient narrative with which Rauschenberg nevertheless achieves his life-long aim: “to ennoble the ordinary”.

‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Tate Modern, London, to April 2, tate.org.uk

‘Rauschenberg, Transfer Drawings’, Offer Waterman, to January 13, waterman.co.uk

Photographs: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation; New York Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

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