David Greenhalgh, NGA Curatorial Assistant, dives into the Kenneth Tyler Archive and soaks up the vision of ‘American Master’ Robert Rauschenberg.
‘Should everything, without exception, be considered to be valuable or to be garbage, and then should it all be saved or thrown away?’
- Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, 1977
As an archivist, my work begins and ends with documents. It can be easy to get lost amongst the printed page, bytes and formatted files, and images that reveal themselves when held up to the light. Eventually, I find myself almost inhabiting the lives of the people I find printed across the page. If time travel were possible, a filing cabinet in an archive would certainly be the portal.
Serious mental effort is required if I wish to be transported through time and space. There are an immense number of documents that must be read, considered and understood in relation to one another, in the archive’s original order. Working through an archive is akin to moving through a thicket of lantana: dense, thorny and difficult to penetrate if you approach it with speed. I must move slowly, page by page.
The steady pace of archival work is constantly challenged by the eternal dilemma of ongoing production: there is a disconnect between the pace in which documents can be worked through, and the speed with which they are created. As an archivist, I am also subjectively blind to what may be considered valuable — so I retain everything, no matter how innocuous it may seem.
As I work my way through the Kenneth Tyler Archive at the National Gallery of Australia, I have the privilege of gazing over a history of 20th century American art and its luminaries: Andy Warhol, Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Frank Stella, all of whom are currently on display in the NGA’s American Masters exhibition.
While archivists have a reputation for a professional neutrality, I’ll admit that I’ve begun to develop affinities with particular artists Kenneth Tyler worked with as master printer. I cherish moments with certain photos or sheets of print documentation as I stuff these great artists into inert plastic sleeves.
The closest intangible relationship I’ve developed is with Robert Rauschenberg. He has a warm and personable smile, an angular all-caps signature and, in most images, a glass of liquor in his hand. While I’m drawn to his charisma, I’m even more fascinated by the feeling that we’re having a conversation through time.
Rauschenberg’s artwork understands the dilemma of the archivist. His work seems to directly address the beginnings of our information saturated world.
The resonance of Rauschenberg in my work as an archivist is more than just a gut-feeling. Post-war, the United States was prosperous and media flourished: advertising, publishing and television were everywhere. The transition to a post-industrial economy was underway, and information became the basis for the modern economy.
The rest of the developed world soon followed suit. Documents and images were omnipresent. The Information Society had arrived. America was rapidly changing and so was art.
In 2003, Rauschenberg reflected on this period, recalling, ‘I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the refuse, by the excess of the world’.
While other collage artists of the era sought to carefully liberate subjects from their document with scissors and Stanley knives, Rauschenberg tore the image from its binding and transferred it to the canvas. The artist didn’t delicately edit — he amassed, often from one edge of the canvas to the other. In his practice, he drew from archival photographs — in the photograph above, Rauschenberg can be seen combing Miami Herald filing cabinets on the hunt for images.
Rauschenberg’s images–mediated, reported, reproduced–reflect his experience of a world where information is complex, multifaceted and not easily categorised, yet needing to be understood.
When we look at Rauschenberg’s work, we aren’t passive bystanders to a didactic image. Instead, we all become archival researchers, interpreting a deluge of documents.