Nasher Museum of Art, Durham
Through Jan. 11

As anyone who’s surfed Tumblr knows, curation is now creation. But this idea predates the Internetputting one thing next to another has been considered a creative act for at least a couple of centuries. We call it collage, montage, bricolage, assemblage. Now one of its masters, the American iconoclast Robert Rauschenberg, gets a rare local assessment at the Nasher.

RAUSCHENBERG: COLLECTING AND CONNECTING samples from the artist’s most provocative works, from all-black or all-white monochrome paintings (some of which were created at Black Mountain College outside Asheville) that infuriated early-’50s audiences to “combine” paintings in which photographic imagery is silkscreened on the canvas. But the Nasher’s inspired curation is what’s really on display. The most significant word in the exhibit’s subtitle is the last one, not the first.

It’s three shows in one. There’s Rauschenbergmore than 30 pieces spanning four decades in almost every medium imaginable, on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York. There are complementary works from the Nasher’s permanent collection, ranging from Russian Conceptualists to Ai Weiwei, Mickalene Thomas and David Salle. And there’s an inset bonus room of Bruce Conner‘s work that identifies some affinities with Rauschenberg.

This is an exhibit you can think of as a website, mentally clicking and dragging artwork from one room to another to make your own connections, embodying Rauschenberg’s insistence on casting the viewer as a meaning-maker on par with the artist. Decentralized curation by Duke art professor Kristine Stiles and five undergraduate assistants gives further encouragement to mix and match.

This approach isn’t without risk. The work from the Nasher’s collection sometimes reads as noise. In the first room, two of Rauschenberg’s 1951 monochromes and a gorgeous 1975 work from his “Hoarfrost” series are crowded by a nearly whited-out Paul Graham photo and a Weiwei white marble chair. The connection feels shallow. The whiteness of the latter works touches on issues of class and authority respectively, while Rauschenberg’s monochromes explore sheer aesthetic concerns.

But a great connection is made with Yuri Albert’s all-black “About Beauty” from his late-’80s Alphabet for the Blind series, where titles are written in large Braille symbols on the canvas. Albert uses his work’s status as untouchable art object to render the title unreadable by the very readers for whom it’s intended, expanding Rauschenberg’s questions about the relationship between artifact and image into questions about language and meaning.

After right-clicking and deleting Graham and Weiwei from the first room, why not cut-and-paste in the intense Conner mandala works from the last? His “#100 MANDALA” frees one’s eye from dimensions in the same way that Rauschenberg’s white and black paintings do. While we’re at it, let’s drag over Conner’s intentionally faded “UNTITLED D-1 (Ink drawing made to be hung in the sun to disappear over time)” (1965-71), with a related link to Rauschenberg’s famed 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” which is not in the show. These works all take divergent paths of overstimulation and absence to arrive at the same deep awareness of how the eye creates an image.

In all, a surprising number of contact points between Conner and Rauschenberg (both of whom died in 2008) emerge. There are also works by both artists that use fingerprints to cast art as a proxy for identity. Spread out in a valise, Conner’s “PRINTS” (1974) is a protest against being fingerprinted to teach at San Jose State University. Though he eventually complied, Conner forced the state to return the fingerprints to him after the job ended. And Rauschenberg sent his thumbprint to The New Yorker when the magazine requested a self-portrait in 1964.

Both artists had a trickster relationship with authority, simultaneously exploiting its resources and making fun of its pretensions, but Conner was the more mischievous of the pair. The Nasher has buttons and posters from his facetious 1967 run for San Francisco City Supervisor, and the gallery’s note with his photos of the city’s punk scene mention that he founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association with artists including Jay DeFeo and Jess Collins in 1959.

Rauschenberg founded or cofounded several organizations in earnest, including Experiments in Art and Technology in 1967, which fostered collaborations between artists and engineers, and the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, through which he visited 10 countries (notably including Russia and Cuba) in the late ’80s to create work emphasizing cultural exchange. EAT challenged notions about the separation of art from the sciences, while ROCI was a progressive force against Cold War nationalism. Several combine paintings from ROCI are in the show.

A highlight is the opportunity to see Conner’s 1966 film Breakaway. Sometimes called the first music video (though it was shot on 16mm film and predated MTV by 15 years), it features Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame dancing in various states of dress against a black background as her vocals play forward, then backward. Conner’s camera work and quick-cut editingwholly integrated into modern practices but innovative for the timedisrupt linearity with the same collage methods found in Rauschenberg combines.

Less could have been more in this show, and some connections between Nasher pieces and Rauschenberg works are simply visual or formal. Couldn’t any collage from the latter 20th century go next to a combine? But this is a faint complaint. We are all curators now, and can remix a trimmer show around the focus that interests us. Thankfully, the Nasher has supplied plenty of material with which to do that work.

Chris Vitiello writes for the INDY on art, music and hockey.