Monday, February 6, 2017

Why is Robert Rauschenberg’s art important?

Context is probably more important than the actual work in terms of Robert Rauschenberg’s art.  Like many artists who became famous in the mid-20th century, De Kooning, Pollock, Warhol, there are scores of them, all began their careers living, working, and most importantly socializing in New York City which was the center of the “Art World” in the 20th Century.  

When you dig deeper into many of the biographies of artists who “made it” in the 1930’s to 1980’s, perhaps even earlier going back to the first decade of the 20th century with the Ashcan School and the Armory show, you should notice that after the Paris, New York becomes the city in which artists moved to to establish their careers.

Rauschenberg ran in many of the same circles as some of the abstract expressionists.  He knew and worked with a famous choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and there is enough compelling evidence to make it reasonable to believe that his downstairs neighbor and artistic partner Jasper Johns was also his lover.  The two worked together as window decorators and it’s clear that Rauschenberg introduced Johns to his gallery.

The physical or formal properties and working method that Rauschenberg, and Johns incorporated owes quite a bit to the earlier Dada movement and more importantly the reuse of found objects, often found by dumpster diving and collecting trash.  Duchamp called this the “ready-made.”  Picasso and other artists also used this technique quite a bit, especially in his synthetic cubist art and this validated the practice.

Using repurposed junk and found objects became so much of a staple in terms of artists’ practices that it hard to visit any college artists’ studio without noticing something the artist has found in the street, dragged back to their studio and somehow repurposed and redecorating it to call it art. 
Rauschenberg used this technique extensively in the majority of his work from the 1950’s but instead of using Duchamp’s term “ready-made,” Rauschenberg named his technique the “combine.”  Yeah, he combined stuff he found to make art.

Rauschenberg’s “Canyon,” from 1959 Combine on canvas 81 3/4 x 70 x 24 inches uses layers of newspaper that have been painted over along with other found printed stuff.  He combines these things with a stuffed bird, a pillow and other found things.  

The work is not really a collage as is this case with Picasso’s synthetic cubist works or the earlier Dada artists’ collages such as those by Hannah Hoch.  His work is not as organized as Picasso and Hoch, in fact it’s not really organized at all but rather has the appearance of being assembled in an unplanned way.  When one looks at Picasso’s “Still Life with Chair Caning,” or other works, they are clearly organized in some way to represent something.  To portray or make a facsimile of something that Picasso is rerepresenting.  In Hoch’s work the work appears randomly organized because it doesn’t give the illusion of space but it does represent for Hoch the fragmentation of the world.  Rauschenberg’s “Canyon” is harder to figure out.  It’s almost like a kind of Rorschach or thematic Apperception test.  Each person who looks at it and tries to figure it out will focus on different things and even the title doesn’t give us much of a clue as to how we are supposed to interpret it.  We don’t know what it’s really about.  I think that maybe the point.

I’ve looked through many essays and texts that are designed to “teach” or “explain” this work in particular.  I’ve been looking at this “combine/artwork” for almost more than 25 years and I think it may be an instance of the artist being very similar to the tailors in the children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Some of the things written about it are more about the individual writers attempts to figure out what it symbolizes rather than really explaining what it really means.  Even the stuff written about it is hard to understand and it makes the viewer and student, well kind of feel “stupid” because we don’t get or understanding what’s going on here and I suspect that was both Rauschenberg’s intention and the people who have written about it are buying his invisible suit.  It’s probably like Duchamp’s claim in his manifesto on Dada, “Dada doesn’t mean anything.”
You decide for yourself, here are two extensive quotes from sources that are designed to explain what the work means but I’m afraid they may be flights of fancy:

Mark Robinson, at the Baltimore Museum of Art 
A work that epitomizes Rauschenberg's combine theory is Canyon. Created in 1959, this piece combines fabric, cardboard, paper, photographs, metal, paint and other elements with collage work and several striking 3D elements -- namely, a stuffed bald eagle perched on a box and a suspended pillow. The most striking elements of this work are, obviously, the eagle and the pillow. Upon first seeing the work, the viewer is immediately drawn in it, his or her curiosity sparked by this odd inclusion of "non-artistic" elements. By attaching the eagle and pillow to the piece, Rauschenberg is making a statement about the acceptance of everyday objects as possible materials for art (he was no doubt influenced by Marcel Duchamp in this respect).  The incorporation of the eagle, perched and ready to attack, makes a bold statement about the often-confrontational nature of Rauschenberg's work. The bald eagle itself is an already loaded image, as it is often seen as a symbol of patriotism. This eagle, however, is by no means patriotic -- it is a fierce creature, recontextualized by its surroundings. The pillow, on the other hand, places an emphasis on the more symbolic nature of Canyon. Visually, it seems to give weight to the piece, almost pulling it down off the wall. More importantly, however, it adds a sexual symbolism to the piece. It evokes images of male and female sexuality -- namely the male genitalia and the female breasts. Because it is a pillow, it is soft and comforting, a stark contrast to the confrontational eagle. While the three-dimensional objects dominate the lower part of the piece, the top is comprised primarily of a collage of many different types of media. This collage, in fact, takes up nearly two-thirds of the canvas. Although easily overlooked because of the visual dominance of the eagle and pillow, it provides both a background and a context for the lower part of the piece. For example, the photograph of the small child reaching upward is a direct reference to the perched eagle below.  Many of the elements included in the work make references to popular culture -- a magazine spread, found domestic photographs and a picture of the statue of liberty, to name a few. This further emphasizes Rauschenberg's theory about everyday objects as art. This is probably the most important theme presented in Canyon and it is shown with both subtlety and excess."  (

Collage Education, Rauschenberg’s Combines, now at the Met, are rich and dense in a way that has to be seen to be believed. By Mark Stevens Published Dec 18, 2005

Rauschenberg's Canyon (1959), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early in the twentieth century, artists began jumping out art’s window. The Russian modernists soared into the revolutionary sky. The Dadaists, arching an eyebrow, admired the cracked glass. The Cubists couldn’t stop blinking, beautifully agog. At mid-century, Robert Rauschenberg went through the window with American gusto. He had an appetite for the churning street outside, and he seemed full of jazzy slang. He was rude—vitally and impishly rude—in a way no American painter (except the de Kooning of Woman I) had ever been before him. He’d put anything in art: postcards, socks, street junk, paint, neckties, wire, cartoons, even stuffed animals. Especially stuffed animals. The absurdist taxidermy was funny as well as provocative. The goat-and-rooster shtick made wicked fun of both the macho posturing of the fifties and the holy pomposities then gathering around painting. Sometimes, art needs a good rooster squawk.

Once through the window, Rauschenberg had one of the great, decade-long runs in American art, which is now the subject of “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Nan Rosenthal oversaw the installation at the Met—the exhibit includes 67 works created between 1954 and 1964. Among them are both famous works (the goatish Monogram) and rarely exhibited pieces. Rauschenberg himself invented the term “Combines” to describe a pungent style of mix-and-match collage. In his oeuvre, this early decade of the Combines, especially the first five years, matters the most. It anticipates much that came later, and it raises an important question: Are the Combines less than meets the eye, a slapdash everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that ultimately just celebrates energy for energy’s sake?

They’re more than meets the eye. My first impression of the show—before looking at the imagery—was one of a controlled, formal richness. An artist in love with the hot and messy splash of inspiration, of course, but also one who’s knotty, thoughtful, and considered. Rauschenberg mostly worked with what Rosenthal calls a “syncopated grid,” a formal structure within which he weighted and composed lights, colors, and shapes. In an image like Canyon, for example, he calculated how the weight of the hanging bag sets off the strength of the eagle’s wings as it pulls upward into the image-laden sky. Reproductions don’t convey the tactile feeling of Rauschenberg’s color. His surfaces are rich, steeped, time-marinated.

As you draw closer to a Combine, its imagery begins to come into focus, and everything starts to connect and connect and connect. You find that not only do the blacks in Canyon rhyme with the bird’s wings; so does that ribbing in the upper right, which mirrors the tips of the outstretched feathers. (And there’s wt., the abbreviation for “weight,” within the same ribbed black.) Canyon takes its inspiration in part from a Rembrandt Ganymede that depicts an eagle pulling a heavy, bawling boy into the air, one who looks rather like the child in the snapshot in the Combine; the hanging bag evokes the boy’s buttocks. Connections zigzag across mental boundaries. Weight, for example, can be literal or illusory, a matter of words, images, colors, and shapes.
There’s an argument that art should probe deeply, that it should rigorously edit experience in order to reach some bedrock essence. Nothing wrong with that. Rauschenberg’s endless connections, some lighthearted and some not, do something else. He celebrates the floating textures of consciousness—the way the mind moves, wanders, and joins together. One of my favorite Combines, Hymnal, contains (among much else) a book, a piece of paisley that looks the way hymns sound, and some ill-tempered graffiti. It can be good to concentrate on the hymn alone. It can also be good, as you pick up the hymnal, to acknowledge the message scratched on the pew.

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines 
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
December 20 through april 2.

Okay, had enough?  Here’s what I think it really probably means.

Johns and Rauschenberg, like Warhol, were part of a movement more popularly known as “Pop Art.”  In art school students are often taught that the movement of Pop Art was in some ways a criticism of consumer culture of the last couple of decades. By making discarded junk that was mass produced into one of a kind works of “fine art” artists were pointing out the flaws in how we perceive things as valuable.  If this sounds familiar, it because Duchamp and the Dada movement had already done something like this decades earlier, but more interestingly and possibly with a bit more humor and fun thrown in. I think that Rauschenberg was sincere and was serious when he made the same kinds of artistic statements in the 1950s.

I think Rauschenberg wasn’t really making an image but rather making an object that was designed to change how art viewers thought about art.  Even though earlier artists like Duchamp, Max Ernst, Picasso and others were making art that reacted against or rebelled against earlier art techniques and meanings.  Rauschenberg is doing something very similar, however he has raised the stakes by making something(s) that are actually pretty ugly and therefore they are meant to challenge us and to make us think about our ideas about what art is.  I think that the actual meaning or symbols in the piece might be irrelevant to the idea that his art is making us think about what art is, and what is precious about “art” even if made of junk hanging on our walls.  What’s kind of funny about this is that by the time he did this, artists such as Duchamp, Hoch, Kirchner, Pollock, Franz Kline etc, had been doing this already for close to 50 years.