Robert Rauschenberg proves that size is relative in his latest exhibition, "Runts," which opened on Thursday evening. With each of its 16 panels measuring approximately 5 feet by 6 feet, the new series is small only when compared to the artist's previous work, or to the gallery space, designed by artist Robert Irwin in 2001, which usually has a feeling of cloistered vastness. But a half hour into the evening, the space was already crowded with an influx of Chelsea gallery hoppers, uptown clientele, and well-known figures in the arts, including the painter Alex Katz and the dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown.
The main attraction for the eclectic gathering was the artist himself, a quintessential figure of American art. Dressed in an elegant striped black velvet jacket, Mr. Rauschenberg, 82, was flanked by a NY1 news crew and illuminated by the bright light of their spots. The artist Chuck Close was one of the first to greet Mr. Rauschenberg, leaning in to kiss him warmly on the forehead. "Bob is so important to so many people," Mr. Close said. "He kicked down more doors than just about anyone I can think of."
Mr. Rauschenberg's boundary-breaking work has influenced (and incorporated) artists in a variety of creative fields, including dance and music. His long-time collaborator and friend Merce Cunningham was also in attendance. The two legends held court in the packed gallery, their wheelchairs sitting side-by-side.
Before a crowd of on-lookers, Mr. Rauschenberg took time to speak with a long line of fellow artists, old friends, and new admirers. Jennifer Benton, whose two brothers work with the artist, made the trip up from Florida for the opening; although she lives near Mr. Rauschenberg's Captiva island studio, she had yet to see this series of work — all created in 2007. Daniel Boccato, a high-school art student from Yonkers, had a chance to speak with the esteemed artist, leaning in close to hear his idol's softly spoken words.
Those who didn't get the opportunity to talk with Mr. Rauschenberg can read the essays he wrote between 1958 and 1981 in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. They shed light on his creative process and reflect his innovative approach to both image and word. A handwritten entry from 1968 intersperses thoughts on his recent work with random sights seen while driving — he was on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the time — literally mixing the messages together. The resulting sentences – such as "It is nearly impossible free ice to write about jeepaxle my work" — offer the same type of non-linear experience as his montage paintings. Both are visual and verbal plays, filled with poignant tangents and interruptions.
In "Runts," Mr. Rauschenberg continues his work with photographic transfer, uniting groups of contrasting images onto large aluminum panels. His experimentation with this technical process has been ongoing since the '60s, but his imagery has shifted. In "Runts," the artist moves further away from the shared images of mass media, relying instead on his personal photography, a transition evidenced in his last three series.
The tableaus in "Runts" are more intimate not just in scale but in content. With snapshots of graffiti juxtaposed with Greek ruins, multicolored kayaks amid subway signage and hydrants, the resulting panels are pared down compared to earlier work. They show an artist, 60 years into his career, still actively gathering daily moments and weaving them into art. As Mr. Close said, "He's like the energizer bunny, he just keeps going and going." Those gathered to celebrate the new show hope that Mr. Rauschenberg will indeed keep at it for years to come.