The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg
While creating the universe, did God have in mind that, at a certain point, a stuffed goat with a car tire around its middle would materialize to round out the scheme? It came to pass, in New York, with “Monogram” (1955-59)—goat, tire, and also paint, paper, fabric, printed matter, metal, wood, shoe heel, and tennis ball—which is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, in “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” an immense retrospective of the protean artist, who died in 2008, at the age of eighty-two. Of course, anything may feel inevitable after it has happened, but some things feel more consequentially so than others.
Early in his career, Rauschenberg specialized in talismans of destiny, such as, in 1951, a series of uninflected all-white paintings that inspired the composer John Cage, a friend, to create “4'33" ”: a pianist not playing a piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Once done, things like that needn’t—mustn’t, really—ever be done again, but they register. Eschewing taste, they are neither good nor bad, as art. They complicate what art has been, is, and can be, for people who are inclined to ponder those matters—in this case, most of the innovative artists of the past sixty years. Rauschenberg’s work, in mediums that range from painting and photography to a big vat of bubbling gray mud (“Mud Muse,” 1968-71), is uneven, and it lost pertinence and drama in his later decades. For a great artist, he made remarkably little good art. But the example of his nimble intelligence and zestful audacity affected the sense of vocation—thoughts and motives, doubts and dreams—of subsequent generations, to this day.
He was a dyslexic son of evangelical parents in Port Arthur, Texas (a place whose other escapees include Janis Joplin). He was seventeen when he enrolled at the University of Texas to study pharmacology. In 1944, he became a neuropsychiatric technician in the Naval Hospital Corps, in San Diego. Then the G.I. Bill staked him to art studies in Kansas City and in Paris, where he met the painter Susan Weil. In 1948, he and Weil entered the creative crucible of Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina—just missing the presence there of Willem de Kooning, Cage, the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller, who had erected a geodesic dome on the campus. The head of the art program was the German Bauhaus émigré Josef Albers, whose rigorous lessons in the aesthetic effects of combined materials and juxtaposed colors were imprinted on Rauschenberg, though to ends hardly orthodox. The uses to which he put them included light impressions, on blueprint paper, of Weil and himself in the nude, and black paintings on crinkly newspaper glued to screen doors. Having moved to New York in 1949, Rauschenberg and Weil married in 1950, had a son the next year, and divorced in 1952. Rauschenberg had fallen in love with the painter Cy Twombly and, in 1951, leaving Weil and the baby, returned with him to Black Mountain. Cage and Cunningham came back, too. In 1953, Rauschenberg employed Cage’s Model A Ford to produce an inky tire track, about twenty-three feet long, on joined sheets of typing paper—another item that feels as if it had been fated since the beginning of time.
Spasms of creative collaboration distinguished Black Mountain. A “concert,” in August, 1952, conceived by Cage, had artists, dancers, and poets performing simultaneously, around and amid the audience, while films and slides were projected. Rauschenberg had mounted white paintings on the ceiling, and he played what one audience member recalled as “old hokey records” on an antique gramophone. Amusingly, in the MOMA show, slide-projected quotes from veterans of the event differ in matters of fact. You had to have been there. Collaboration was a regular elixir for Rauschenberg. Occasions of it, documented with abundant videos over the whole course of his career, include mesmerizing dance works that he performed himself or for which he provided sets, props, and costumes. (You will be made happy if you can spare the nearly twenty-two ravishing minutes of “Set and Reset,” a 1983 dance choreographed by Trisha Brown.) Most legendary is “9 Evenings” (1966), a series of ten determinedly high-tech collaborations with several artists and a team of engineers in the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue. I attended and can assure you that, contrary to the glamorously edited videos in the show, they were malfunctioning, formless, benumbing ordeals. To appreciate “9 Evenings,” you had to have not been there.
At the beating heart of the show is the revolutionary period of the mid- to late fifties, when Rauschenberg, in league with Twombly and, especially, with his subsequent lover, Jasper Johns, took the measure of an art world dominated by the recent international triumph of Abstract Expressionism. His Combines—kitchen-sink mélanges of painting, sculpture, collage, and assemblage, including “Monogram”—absorbed that movement’s aesthetic breakthroughs, in dispersed composition and eloquent paint-handling, while subverting its frequently macho pathos. So, too, did Johns’s tenderly brushed “Flags” and Twombly’s laconic scribblings. The MOMA show’s lead curator, Leah Dickerman, has incorporated first-rate works by those artists, and others, to augment a sense of the tumultuous change, which in Rauschenberg’s case entailed irreverence brought to the point of malice. Permanently stunning are his “Factum I” and “Factum II” (1957): painted and collaged canvases that lampoon the ostensible spontaneity of Action painting by appearing, except on close inspection, to be identical twins, down to every last drip and splash. But the work that might be his most iconic involves an anecdote. In 1953, bearing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, Rauschenberg visited de Kooning, who was then at the peak of his influence in New York, and asked for a drawing in order to erase it. The relic, with ghostly, ineffaceable traces of the original handiwork, is in the show. Rauschenberg revered de Kooning’s genius but plainly had it in for his reputation, as it seems de Kooning wryly understood. The gesture proved prophetic: within a decade, surging Pop art and minimalism had rendered de Kooning and his many followers, in the eyes of art-world cognoscenti, pitiably passé.
Rauschenberg, too, was challenged by the shift in fashions, which was attended by a market suddenly avid for radically new paintings. He mastered the use of solvents to transfer images from printed sources to paper or canvas. The show convenes a suite of drawings employing that technique, made between 1958 and 1960: putative illustrations of the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno. They are lyrically filmy and very lovely, though only by a willing stretch do they relate much to the poem. Then, in 1962, Rauschenberg struck gold when Andy Warhol schooled him in the craft of silk-screening photographs onto canvas. He had a hundred and fifty screens made from pictures of Old Master paintings, urban scenes, astronauts, President Kennedy, birds, and other allurements. He mixed and matched them with freehand brushwork, in eye-popping colors. In 1964, the results—which today impress me as more facile than felt—made him the first American to win the top prize at the Venice Biennale, and, at thirty-nine, the youngest artist. To his lasting credit, he recoiled from the razzmatazz of the success. Lest he be tempted to cash in on the vogue of his silk-screen style, he immediately phoned a friend in New York and ordered him to destroy all the screens. He got plenty rich, and he hardly minded that, but his freedom from outside pressures mattered more to him.
Rauschenberg’s integrity, while unimpeachable, never had much to do with high standards of art. (Johns and Twombly far outshine him in that regard.) It was a commitment to sheer activity, with friends at hand, if not involved. His later career, following a move, in 1970, to Captiva Island, in Florida, was consumed by fetching but rather nerveless experimentation—with print mediums, cardboard reliefs, exotic fabrics, reflective surfaces, and incessant photography—and by collaborative projects, at times in politically minded causes, around the globe. Many of the late works are snappy, and some are beautiful, but none deliver the jolt of even the silk-screen paintings. He was a performance artist, first and last. You respond to his works not with an absorption in their quality but with a vicarious share in his brainstorming excitement while making them. For a time, momentously, what he did caught a wave of history and drove it farther inland than could otherwise have been the case. But even when he was reduced to being a beachcomber of his own legacy, the world was a better place with him in it than it is without him, now.