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Taking Venice

In 1964, Robert Rauschenberg won the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary work. The documentary “Taking Venice” is about the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that resulted in Rauschenberg taking the prize. Director Amei Wallach, an art critic and specialist in fine arts documentaries (she also did “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here” and “Louise Bourgeois: The Mistress and the Tangerine”), portrays Rauschenberg’s victory as an exercise in postwar American power.

A band of sharp-witted American diplomats and art world players figured out how to manifest a win for Rauschenberg, whose work mixed collage, painting, and silkscreen and sometimes utilized ordinary household objects, curios, and junk. This was the Pop-Art era, in which many exhibits, particularly in the US, prompted visitors to ask, “Is this really art?” Rauschenberg was one of the exemplars of the movement, along with Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, and Andy Warhol. Prior to Venice, he had been criticized both at home and abroad as, in his own words, “a clown” or “a novelty." But he was also becoming more popular and had begun to sell work for large sums of money, so it’s not as if he was Philip Glass still driving a taxi cab after “Einstein on the Beach” had premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. There's a mysterious inevitability to the way that certain cultural figures keep rising throughout their careers, and Rauschenberg had that kind of aura. He seemed like somebody already headed for the summit of the mountain who just needed a push to get to the top. 

This made him the perfect candidate for special attention from the American government at the Biennale. The US had become a superpower, and President John F. Kennedy (who was prominently featured in Rauschenberg's work and would be assassinated six months before the Biennale) was the most enthusiastic supporter of the arts that the country had ever had in the White House. The State Department under Kennedy wanted to establish that America was making unique, adventurous fine art that was meaningful and beautiful, wasn’t just being dumped in overseas economies like blue jeans and Coca-Cola, and was proof of why people should be on Team America instead of Team Soviet Union. 

As a journalist, Wallace got in under the wire, as it were, and interviewed major players in the 1964 Venice Biennale who were in their seventies and eighties and still lucid, along with witnesses. The biggest get is Alice Denney, the former vice-commissioner of the US pavilion and a key player in this art history sideshow. Denney’s husband was deputy director for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She suggested a man named Alan R. Solomon to be the US Biennale commissioner along with her. Solomon was a smooth, smart man who, in the words of New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins, had “a fine hand in his aggression.” 

Solomon also had a genius for realizing that any rule that’s not written down isn’t actually a rule and can be bent or broken as long as the gambit is so clever that people feel admiration or envy for not thinking of it first—and as long as the person on whose behalf the effort is being expended seems like a winner anyhow. Rauschenberg did seem like a winner. He was a showman and provocateur and what we would now call a brand, in addition to being an increasingly significant force in gallery art. The combination of Rauschenberg’s game-for-anything confidence and the background operations of Solomon and his allies created a momentum that nobody could halt. 

As the New York Times obituary for Solomon recalled: “Insisting on eight sizable one-man shows for artists, [Solomon] soon ran out of space in the cramped American pavilion at the public gardens,” the site of all the official exhibits, where each artist was allowed to display only one painting. “With the agreement of the careless Biennale authorities, Solomon extended his show into a vacant American consulate building, much to the dismay of other nationals who had been denied such privileges.” There were other improvisations as well. In the middle of the night, a construction crew built a makeshift addition to a courtyard-like area in front of the official site with a roof to protect against the elements (today, we’d probably call it a “pop-up exhibit”) where Rauschenberg’s work could be ported over from the auxiliary site, to neutralize gripes about his stuff being shown outside of the official exhibition venue. The strategy was to get people to experience more of Rauschenberg than any other artist at the Biennale. 

This is a fascinating story. Counterproductive style choices get in the way of the telling, though. “Taking Venice” wears out its welcome by making the movie seem conventionally exciting, hip, commercial. Motion graphics, re-creations, and digital additions and erasures in historical photos clutter up scenes and montages that would’ve been more impactful if we’d been able to contemplate the images as-is. There’s also a hyped-up score that runs the gamut from Steven Soderbergh heist flick to Michael Bay action thriller. If the point was to convey a cinematic equivalent of Rauschenberg’s pop sensibility, it doesn’t come across for a lot of reasons. This includes the fact that Rauschenberg’s style circa 1964 struck people as "new," but these filmmaking techniques are so overused in modern nonfiction that you're surprised when you don't see them.  

“Taking Venice'' also jumps around in time to explore Rauschenberg’s development as an artist and person. There are detours about various subjects, including Rauschenberg’s romantic relationship with Jasper Johns and the “experiments and collaborations” he did at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College with the likes of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham (the latter did ultimately show up in Venice, staging a performance the night before the awards deliberation that became the hottest ticket in town). These interludes take the focus off the US government’s efforts to tip the exhibition in Rauschenberg’s favor. It’s a tight movie in terms of running time, and yet so overstuffed and jumbled that it often feels as if it was inclined to turn into a straightforward, critical-biographical documentary about Rauschenberg but stopped itself from doing so. 

What’s the takeaway? Denney tells the filmmakers, “We might have won it anyway, but we really engineered it.” Rauschenberg himself later questioned the political agenda that propelled him into the top spot. That his victory was obtained through a government-financed PR machine rather than achieved organically would seem to contradict the US narrative of America's bright and shiny newness trouncing the ossified gatekeepers of Europe in a merit-based contest. The movie skates over that irony instead of digging into it. After the war, the US was an insatiable economic and industrial colossus, described by critics abroad (and by some at home) as a cultural and economic colonizer, even though it thought of itself as a great liberator. Rauschenberg’s win only amplified such complaints. But the Venice operation is presented here as an exercise in Yankee chutzpah that paid off for the US and Rauschenberg: a process movie.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Taking Venice (2024)

98 minutes

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