Our Picasso?

A line drawn in the psychic sands of American sexual and cultural values

Still Rabble-Rousing
Rauschenberg created a turning point in visual syntax and optical structure

Roy Lichtenstein said Robert Rauschenberg's combines "marked the end of Abstract Expressionism and the return of the subject." The combines are radical for the way they fuse painting, sculpture, and everyday objects. More importantly, they also instantly absorbed photography. This is the alchemical ingredient that saves the combines from being merely souped-up assemblage. As Lorenzo Ghiberti fused illusionist space and materials in his miraculous bas-relief baptistry doors (1403–1424), Rauschenberg created a turning point in visual syntax and optical structure. If all representational images promise depth, the synaptic rhythms and rhymes of the combines create a new kind of visual poetry. As Rauschenberg put it, the combines offered him "a new kind of wisdom."

Robert's rules of disorder: Monogram 1955-59
photo: Robin Holland
Robert's rules of disorder: Monogram 1955-59

Rauschenberg creates a place for uncertainty in art and destabilizes notions of objecthood and spectatorship. This enrages his detractors who view him as an artistic anti-Christ, the American most responsible for art going to hell. In 1967, Clement Greenberg, who had lost his eye but not his bullying ways, denigrated Rauschenberg's work as "novelty art," saying it was merely "far-out" and "not even up to Grant Wood." Ever since, ultra-conservatives have followed suit. Recently, Lance Esplund wrote in The New York Sun that Rauschenberg was "to blame for art that is solely about reaction, confusion, nihilism, and reduction—art that doesn't give a damn." He went on to Rauschenberg's work is colorless, muddled, mute, accidental, lifeless, faithless, glib, distant, boring, academic, cumbersome, and ugly. In addition to suggesting that someone should hide this guy's thesaurus, it demonstrates how provocative Rauschenberg's work still is,

Heavenly Inferno

I love some of the combines but if I could take only one Rauschenberg to a desert island, it would unquestionably be his 34 illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. Begun in 1959, at the exact moment he was moving away from the combines ("Could I do anything else?") and "in desperation for wanting to make drawings as complex as collages," the Dante series, the most focused of his entire career, not only finds him inventing the "transfer" technique—whereby lighter fluid applied to the backs of images transfers them to other surfaces—but laying the groundwork for his next, and to me most astonishing breakthrough, the silk-screen paintings of the early '60s in which Rauschenberg treats images as material.


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