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Some artists leave an important mark; only a handful deliver the kind of legacy handed down by Robert Rauschenberg, the twentieth century’s art-gospel-spreading, medium-challenging, style-switching creative Johnny Appleseed. Born to a fundamentalist Christian family in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg made transformational, age-defying artwork in New York City by age 25 in 1950. By the time the trendsetting polymath died in his artistic idyll of Captiva Island, Florida, in 2008, at 82, he had anticipated just about every modern art movement after Abstract Expressionism — from Minimalism to Conceptualism, from Pop to performance.
A champion innovator and virtuoso tinkerer in the vein of generative giants Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, Rauschenberg is justly known today both for being spectacularly influential and for possessing an outsize vision. For the man baptized Milton Ernest Rauschenberg — Robert was the oddly normcore nom d’artiste he adopted after attending school on the G.I. Bill — art functioned primarily as a way of “working with other people.” Crucially, it also illustrated a central article of his secular faith. Rather than treat advances like intellectual property, he firmly believed in creative communism: “Ideas are not real estate.”
That generous precept and a healthy cross-section of the mountain of brazenly collaborative artwork it engendered is now on view at MoMA in what is easily the year’s most important exhibition — the ginormous, exhilarating survey “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Billed as “the first twenty-first-century retrospective” of Rauschenberg’s massively influential oeuvre, the show includes more than 250 artworks made over six decades in every conceivable medium — much of it with the help of some two dozen Rauschenberg co-conspirators. Throughout his lifetime, the artist made no secret of the fact that his ingenious friends often supplied fire for his tinder — they, in turn, ranged from assistants to traveling companions, from co-authors to lovers.
MoMA’s sprawling display comprises painting, sculpture, drawing, prints, photography, soundworks, projected performance footage, and several installations featuring art made with what were once, in the digitally challenged 1970s, emerging computer technologies. To say that Rauschenberg and his collaborators — a virtual Who’s Who of downtown luminaries that numbered, among others, artists Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, composers John Cage and Morton Feldman, and choreographers Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown — covered the cultural waterfront is a titanic understatement. From the 1960s forward, they were the waterfront, routinely launching ships that explored whole continents of contemporary expression. (Most of Rauschenberg’s collaborators deserve their own surveys, an idea borne out by “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” an exhibition currently running at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center.)
Organized by MoMA and the Tate Modern — and conceptualized by twin curatorial teams helmed by MoMA’s Leah Dickerman and the Tate’s Achim Borchardt-Hume — “Among Friends” combines the artist’s own signed production with work by confederates into an especially loose-limbed, chronological exhibition format. MoMA terms the show’s structure an “open monograph,” a concept introduced in the exhibition’s first gallery, which presents Rauschenberg’s 1950s photographs of friends; x-ray-like “blueprints” developed by the artist’s then-wife, Susan Weil; and a lithograph by Twombly, his sometime lover. The fact that artist, filmmaker, and frequent Rauschenberg contributor Charles Atlas assisted on MoMA’s exhibition design provides yet another layer to the show’s explicit emphasis on collaboration.
If Rauschenberg lettered in at least as many art forms as there are high school sports, his most lasting contributions arguably belong to painting — art’s oldest medium and, in the 1950s, the most pretentious. His first exhibited artworks — which included the childlike, non-expressionist 1950 acrylic-on-canvas 22 the Lily White — baffled the hard-drinking, macho Abstract Expressionists when they appeared on the walls of the Betty Parsons Gallery, a favored dealer. When Rauschenberg returned with several large all-white and all-black minimalist constructions from a summer spent at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, that unlikely Bauhaus-on-Appalachia, the scene’s elder statesmen — Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, et al. — blackballed the young rebel. Per curator Dickerman’s excellent catalog essay, they were convinced Rauschenberg was plotting “the destruction of painting.”
Which he was, of course — albeit in the most generous, impersonal, truth-to-materials kind of way. Even if Rauschenberg’s conversations at the Cedar Tavern with Jackson Pollock invariably began and ended with “Who are you? What do you do?” the then circumspectly gay artist also viscerally rejected the Ab-Exers’ strict “rules and rationales” and what he termed “all that metaphoric suffering.” Later, Rauschenberg confessed to being indifferent to Ab-Ex’s inauthentic lingo: “it revolved around words like ‘tortured,’ ‘struggle,’ pain’….I could never see those qualities in paint,” he told one interviewer. What he developed, instead, was a radically fecund, anti-formalist openness to working the teeming seam between art and life — something that was “closer to collaboration with materials than any kind of conscious manipulation and control.”
What this means in practical terms is the true subject of “Among Friends,” an exhibition that charts Rauschenberg’s openness not only to human collaboration, but also to accident, interdisciplinarity, the indistinct use of high and low materials, the influence of time, and ultimately the belief that all of life belongs inside the artist’s frame. If a work like his 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing, born out of Rauschenberg’s need “to know whether a drawing could be made out of erasing,” also literalized de Kooning’s anxiety about Rauschenberg’s motives, other works like Monogram (1955–59) illustrated his desire to push collage beyond including comic strips and newspaper clippings. This last work, his most famous sculptural collage or “combine” — it consists of a stuffed angora goat girdled with a tire atop a painted platform — anticipated the artist’s most memorable quip: “I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.” The aftershocks of that statement are still being felt today.
With a protean artist like Rauschenberg, the entirety of contemporary art history easily reads like a bunch of footnotes: from Johns’s own use of objects in his paintings (the two were lovers and studiomates, so the influence was clearly mutual) to Andy Warhol’s use of mass-produced imagery to John Baldessari’s conceptual use of various media. But there is another way to experience Rauschenberg’s artworks, such as his anti–Vietnam War silkscreens, his innovative dance collaborations (in one, Pelican, from 1963, he put on roller skates, strapped on a parachute, and performed an elaborate pas de trois), and the large ink transfers he made with the assistance of digital images provided by pals after a 2002 stroke left him unable to take photographs. There’s an omnivorousness there, as well as a literal largeness of soul, which are diametrically opposed to our ultra-niched, bias-confirming cultural present. One is riven by blinkered fakery; Rauschenberg’s radical egalitarianism, as materialized in this glorious survey, is legend.