Even those of us who revere the work of Robert Rauschenberg have to admit that his mad aesthetic output, while jovial and fearless, borders on being suicidal and squandering and can lead to art that peters out, turns theatrical, or becomes formulaic. Although Rauschenberg contributed enormously to postwar ideas about agglomeration, order, appropriation, duplication, assemblage, collage, and photo-into-painting, his aesthetic garrulousness often turns his work into a department store: something scanned, not studied. Unlike Jasper Johns, whose art relies heavily on people talking almost ad nausea about every detail, Rauschenberg is so convinced that all things in the world are equal that the work itself often equals out and gets slushy in the mind. He is a sort of artistic suicide bomber: a true believer who is unafraid to have his work look cruddy.
Nevertheless, Robert Rauschenberg may be the American Picasso. He is a Dionysian maverick of experimentation, openness, visual wit, and roguish nerve; an artist who cannot be diminished by others but who can only diminish himself; someone whose envelope-pushing has been inspirational for generations. As Johns generously avowed, “Rauschenberg was the man who in this century invented the most since Picasso.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s glorious, jaw-dropping show of Rauschenberg’s revolutionary combine paintings drives this point home as never before. Although the combines occupy a mythic place in art history, seeing so many of them so beautifully installed at the Met—even if the final galleries get flabby and much of the other work is entombed in Plexi-boxes or isolated on platforms—is to understand that history as it unfolded and as it influenced subsequent art. Rauschenberg, 80, made most of the 67 works on view in the 1950s. New York was the new center of the art world, the birthplace of abstract expressionism. Just as a generation of older artists was finally gaining attention, artists like Rauschenberg began pushing art into regions the abstract expressionists never imagined. A New Jerusalem had been envisioned; a New Babylon emerged.
Everything abstract expressionism was, Rauschenberg and Co. weren’t. Ab-Ex was big, lofty, abstract, and made by older straight men. This neo-Dada, proto-Pop, and Pop art was smaller, cooler, figurative, vernacular, and often made by younger gay men. As Rauschenberg professed, “I could never make the language of Abstract Expressionism work for me—words like ‘tortured,’ ‘struggle,’ and ‘pain,’ I could never see those qualities in paint. How can red be ‘passion?’ Red is red. Jasper and I used to start each day by having to move out from Abstract Expressionism.”
By 1953 this moving out had heated up. That year, after weeks of working with 15 erasers on a particularly dark drawing given to him by the artist, Rauschenberg produced Erased de Kooning Drawing and called it art. Actually, he called it “a monochrome no-image,” saying he wanted to “purge” himself while “exercising the possibilities.” Later he stated, “I would substitute anything for preconceptions and deliberateness.”
In 1955 Rauschenberg shattered preconceptions with Bed, a painting done on a quilt given to him by artist Dorothea Rockburne. This painting is incredibly sexual and looks like sheets after lovemaking. As a single bed it also implies autoerotic and private desires. An unexplored side of Bed is the polymorphous materiality of its glistening sticky substances: nail polish and toothpaste. Formally, which is the way the art world prefers to look at things,
Bed performs a kind of triple rotation of psychic and optical space: You look down on, at, and into it simultaneously. Grasping the anti-Greenbergian implications of this, in 1962 art historian Leo Steinberg turned a catchy, maybe empty phrase, labeling this spatial transformation “the flatbed picture plane,” a method that he said “expresses the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.”
Rauschenberg obliterated illusionist Cartesian space and, as he put it, ennobled the ordinary. “All material has history,” Rauschenberg said. Now he was utilizing that history while atomizing cubism, Cornell, Duchamp, abstract expressionism, and Schwitters (whose work he didn’t see until 1959). “I had to make a surface,” he said, “which invited a constant change of focus and examination of detail. Listening happens in time. Looking also happens in time.”
That looking turned breathless in 1959 when Rauschenberg completed Monogram, one of the most outlandish and barbarous works of art ever made. Monogram features a stuffed Angora goat encircled by a tire. The goat, whose snout is covered in multicolored war paint, is standing on a painting, as if grazing at pasture. A sort of gargoyle or ravaging scavenger guarding over and also destroying art, this cloven-hoofed creature is a shamanic manifestation of Rauschenberg. In early Christian art goats symbolized the damned. This is exactly what Rauschenberg was as a gay/bisexual man and an artist, at the time. A dingy tennis ball behind the animal suggests it has defecated on painting. Allegorically, Rauschenberg is a bull in the china shop of art history, a satyr squeezing through the eye of an aesthetic/erotic needle. As Johns’s Flag (1954-1955) is a Delphic rebel yell that says, “I create and am a part of this symbol of American openness even though as a gay man I am shunned by it,” so Monogram is Rauschenberg’s credo, a line drawn in the psychic sands of American sexual and cultural values. It is a love letter, a death threat, and a ransom note. It is Rauschenberg carving his monogram into art history.
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.”
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,
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.