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Tuesday, September 15, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An artist's symphony of images -- Robert Rauschenberg Leaves A Visual `Echo' In Benaroya Hall's Lobby

Seattle Times Art Critic

As a bevy of mostly music and architecture critics from around the country schmoozed over white wine and hors d'oeuvres Saturday afternoon in Benaroya Hall, Robert Rauschenberg, the nation's most acclaimed living artist, slipped into the building's grand central lobby relatively unnoticed.

A small, trim, congenial man dressed in a dun-colored linen suit, he padded to the far end of the circular lobby to have a look at the 45-foot-long, 12-foot-high mural he made for the entrance of the performance hall. Called "Echo," the piece, a vegetable-dye transfer on polylaminate, is a symphony of multiple images, from trumpets, musical scores and violins to palm fronds whipped by the wind, soaring gothic cathedrals and bicycles.

Like much of his most celebrated work, it is rich in seemingly disparate images that nevertheless offer a world of layered associations and interpretations. And, as he has done often throughout his long and extraordinarily prolific career, in "Echo" he has mixed the sublime with the commonplace, the rare and beautiful with the gritty and profane. Along with the image of a handwritten manuscript by John Cage that has text by Gertrude Stein - the manuscript is from Rauschenberg's private collection - is the image of a New York City bag lady pushing her dilapidated grocery cart overflowing with plastic bags.

I asked him if he minded the two massive square posts situated in front of his mural. Visually, they slice through the mural like a pair of broad chalk lines.

"The posts were smaller in the model," Rauschenberg said. "Maybe that's where they put all the plumbing. It's like having one room in the house where you put all the stuff you don't want to see."

(Actually, the columns support the roof and house duct shafts for the lobby air conditioning, explained Mark Reddington, the design partner with LMN Architects, the company that designed the building.)

Still Rauschenberg doesn't appear too upset by the interference of the columns, and he's happy to explain some of the images in the mural. Are the palm trees, swamps and picturesque piers suggestive of his home in Captiva, Fla., where he has lived and worked for decades? Yes, though he has more symbolic reasons for including them than mere beauty.

"The palm frond is from a storm. It's for Wagner." And the placid scene of a thick grove of swamp trees and calm water? "That's for the pastorals."

"I don't want to explain everything, because that takes away from the mystery," he said. It also takes away from the chance to make little jokes, which he seems to enjoy very much. When a reporter asked if the upturned bicycle is a reference to Marcel Duchamp's famous bicycle, he grinned conspiratorially. "No, it's my bicycle."

Musing over his Cage manuscript prompted him to wonder aloud why Washington state has produced so many outstanding choreographers. Cage was a longtime collaborator with Merce Cunningham, and in the '60s Rauschenberg often worked on performance pieces with Cunningham, Cage and Trisha Brown, another Washington state choreographer with an international reputation. "Maybe it's in the water? Maybe it's all the fish people eat here? I've always been involved with music and dance. See that red thing up there? That's a Tibetan musical score."

At 72, Rauschenberg is the most influential American artist alive today. Though he came of age with abstract expressionism, he found his own voice early on, coining the term "combines" to describe his then-unique artworks melding photo transfers, painting, mixed media and three-dimensional objects. He became a composer of visual meditations and symphonies, creating cacophonies of images that, like music, are evocative though never literal. He became a ground-breaker in virtually every medium, from painting and printmaking to mixed media, performance art and sculpture.

Decades before it became fashionable, Rauschenberg was making artworks that fused images from the street and the world at large; he was traveling the globe doing collaborations with Asian and European artists and artisans long before multiculturalism became a buzzword. He has championed environmental causes and has embraced technology. Born in modest circumstances in Port Arthur, on the Texas Gulf Coast, he has long been fascinated by space exploration and NASA launches.

A measure of Rauschenberg's international renown is the monumental retrospective organized last year by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The show was so mammoth that it filled both the uptown and downtown Guggenheim sites, as well as a large private gallery in SoHo. The retrospective has since been packed up and shipped off to other venues. It opens in November in the new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"Echo" is the central artwork in the interior of Benaroya Hall. It was commissioned by Virginia and Bagley Wright, Seattle philanthropists and longtime art collectors. Virginia Wright said she decided to commission the piece because she is a longtime admirer of Rauschenberg's work, and because "in the last two to three years, he has done such staggeringly beautiful work. He's doing very fine work in his senior years, and I thought he would do something thematic that would be appropriate, and, of course, he has. It's totally about music."

The other main artworks in the new hall include two large, swirling, baroque-looking crystal chandeliers by Dale Chihuly that have been sited at both ends of the long promenade that runs along Third Avenue. The milky white chandeliers were commissioned by Jack and Becky Benaroya, the Seattle philanthropists whose seed money made the hall's construction possible.

And there's "Schubert Sonata," the incongruously delicate, 22-foot-tall steel sculpture by New York sculptor Mark Di Suvero that was moved from the Harbor Steps staircase below First Avenue to a ledge on the outside of the symphony hall on University Street. The piece is visible from inside the glass-walled lobby and is wonderfully poetic as its massive steel arm sways in the breeze. It is on permanent loan from the Seattle Art Museum, which was given the piece by Virginia and Bagley Wright and Jon and Mary Shirley.

Passing by the Third Avenue side of the hall after dark offers the best chance to see "Sky Tones," an installation of colored lights created by San Francisco artist Anna Valentina Murch. The idea was to create the illusion of a luminous night sky, a kind of after-dark rainbow ranging from blue to gold and pink. The dramatic, quite-beautiful piece was paid for by the percent-for-art programs of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle City Light.

A less obvious artwork connected to the new hall is "Temple of Music," by Seattle artist Erin Shie Palmer. Palmer's mission was to integrate art into the Metro bus tunnel entrance under Benaroya Hall. Her piece includes small sandblasted images about music and sound perception along the wall of the entryway, as well as custom-made handrails, neon lights and a curved ceiling meant to suggest the form of trains and tunnels. "Temple of Music" was paid for by the percent-for-art programs for the Seattle Symphony, King County Public Art Commission and Seattle City Light.

It is the Rauschenberg mural that is the most remarkable artwork in the new hall, however. It is a boon to have the mural in Seattle, a city Rauschenberg is little connected to, even though his son, Christopher Rauschenberg, a photographer, lives in Portland. And, in spite of the somewhat awkward placing of the mural, in an odd way the columns force viewers to read the mural like a film, one frame after another.

One of the best vantages for viewing "Echo" is on the raised circular promenade in the lobby across from the mural. As you walk from one end of the promenade, French horns, harps and dockside cargoes are revealed and then concealed to expose new images of musical scores and machinery. Like music itself, voices in the mural come forward and recede in song.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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