Painter Robert Rauschenberg Takes a Trip to China and Pops Back with New Shows and New Vitality

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Scheduling an art opening on New Year's Eve is an act of social heresy, but as 1982 was winding down, the scene in Manhattan's SoHo district was just cranking up. Into three galleries crowded 1,500 guests, including such vanguards of the avant-garde as choreographers Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham and composer Philip Glass, as well as rock musicians David Byrne and Steve Miller. Host of the evening was master of modern art Robert Rauschenberg, 57, whose party list is as eclectic and unconventional as his work. "I thought our opening would remind people how interesting and lively art can be," he says.

Rauschenberg has plenty of reasons to celebrate the new year. After floundering in the '70s ("I felt completely out of touch," he admits), the all-American bad boy of art is flourishing. The Museum of Modern Art is exhibiting selections from the collage series, 7 Characters, he made in China last summer. SoHo's Leo Castelli Gallery has installed a new Rauschenberg extravaganza: a 100-foot-long photographic print composed of color snapshots from his China trip. Also on display are large-scale ceramic pieces the artist made on a side trip to Japan.

Rauschenberg's new exuberance for work is welcome relief from the artistic suffocation he felt in the last decade. "It's taken me a few years to do something other than criticize everybody else's attitudes." As for himself, the paladin of modernism has always drawn inspiration from such unlikely sources as magazine ads and garbage dumps. "I always worked with my head hanging out the window," he explains.

Last June he decided to take a flier and set off for China, setting up a warehouse studio at a remote paper mill, reputedly the world's oldest. But with trepidation. "I like to perform on location," he says, "but China frightened me. It's one thing to go to New Jersey to make a fool of myself. It's another to go all the way to China."

In fact, all went well. At his request, the paper mill produced an unusually stiff paper sheet of mulberry fibers onto which the artist assembled an assortment of images he picked out in Shanghai poster shops. Covered with a specially created translucent paper, the collages are a distinctive cultural exchange—a marriage of Chinese iconography and Rauschenberg whimsy.

On the second leg of his journey, he improvised at a Japanese ceramics factory, which claims that its clay will not change for 3,000 years. The "Clayworks" series features images transferred as glazes onto the clay surface. Rauschenberg insisted each piece, including accessories such as chains, be made of clay. "I have to invent devices to stay fertile," he says.

"I sometimes feel my life is getting on and off planes," Rauschenberg says. Divorced in 1953, he nonetheless flew back from Japan to attend a photographic exhibit by his son, Christopher, 31, in Portland, Oreg. In the spring he launches a 150-piece retrospective on its three-year, worldwide tour, including Peking. Other projects include a quarter-mile-long painting that he is working on at his retreat on Florida's Captiva Island, with a half-dozen assistants headed by photographer Terry Van Brunt. For variety, he is creating the cover of the next Talking Heads album. But the man who astonishes the art world doesn't surprise himself. Says he, "What I'm up to is a natural development of when I declared the whole world a potential palette."

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