Rauschenberg Takes Manhattan

© San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2006 Traces of ink and crayon on paper, with mount and hand-lettered ink by Jasper Johns 64.14x55.25x1.27cm Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), traces of ink and crayon on paper, with mount and hand-lettered ink by Jasper Johns; courtesy The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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Not long ago in these pages, Karen Wilkin described the standard history of American art as “freeze-dried.” Rarely has a critic pointed up the confines of art historical discourse as pithily. Even the casual student of art knows what such a history entails, with its litany of movements and artists. It is one that extols novelty over aesthetics, style over vision, Barnett Newman over Fairfield Porter. It is a history that exalts an avant-garde, no matter how moribund, over the rigors of tradition. It is a history that has attempted to elevate Marcel Duchamp to a status equal to that of Picasso and Matisse and, for the most part, succeeded. It is a history as blah as it is blind—blind, that is, to the arts of painting and sculpture. Within this fast and flavorless telling of history Robert Rauschenberg plays a pivotal role.

As an art student, I first learned of Rauschenberg as the artist who erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning. This was not simply an audacious prank, we were told, but an undertaking of epic proportions. Reading what has been written about the artist in light of his retrospective, it becomes clear that this was but one of many such endeavors. Indeed, one marvels not just at the scope of Rauschenberg’s artistic influence, but at how different life on earth would have been without him. Charles Stuckey writes in the exhibition catalogue, for instance, that the latter half of the twentieth century “might well be called the Rauschenberg era.” In the September Artforum, the critic Dave Hickey imagines the 1950s and 1960s without Rauschenberg and finds an “immediate visual deficit.” Others see him as a harbinger of Pop Art, performance art, neoexpressionism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism, as well as an icon of democratic goodwill. If comparisons are to be taken at face value, he can count among his peers Jefferson, Mozart, Giorgio Morandi, and Johannes Vermeer. Clearly, Rauschenberg is less an artist than a cultural tornado whose path has left no one and nothing untouched.

Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective includes some four hundred works, occupying the uptown and downtown Guggenheims and the cavernous Ace Gallery. Rauschenberg’s role in postwar art is seen by many as being key and can be traced to his famously stated aspiration to work in the gap between art and life. Now, one is tempted to reply that there is a sound reason for this gap. Art and life are, after all, two very different things—no one ever died because of a bad drawing. Yet only someone oblivious to (or contemptuous of) the nuances of art would think that art and life don’t inform each other. What has fascinated Rauschenberg throughout his career is not art as such, but art as culture and style. An oddly likable disciple of Duchamp, Rauschenberg celebrates the freedom implicit in the Dadaist aesthetic. In doing so, he helped bring it into the mainstream. This is his ultimate contribution to American culture: making anti-art safe for the masses. The question is whether the masses will be able to withstand such a gargantuan exhibition. Will it prove to be a blockbuster that busts—or, at least, sobers—even its most ardent admirers?

Rauschenberg’s rise to infamy—and, of course, subsequent fame—is inextricably linked with Abstract Expressionism. The heyday of the New York School being before my time, I can only imagine the obstacle it must have been for young artists. In this milieu, Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) must have seemed a refreshingly mischievous display of patricide. Yet, Rauschenberg’s Duchampian riff on de Kooning wasn’t completely nihilistic; it was suffused with a peculiar kind of admiration. (If he were a hardcore Dadaist, Rauschenberg could have, I suppose, burned de Kooning’s drawing.) The smears, drips, and globs of paint in his work are meant, in part, as affectionate satires of the New York School; they are, if you will, compositional Band-Aids that stretch across his disparate images and objects. But satire had better inhabit the subject it seeks to deflate or else it’s meaningless. This is where Rauschenberg falls flat. His appropriations of Ab Ex facture are, at best, cute and dated—the Mad magazine version of modern art. Consequently, the work is slick even at its grubbiest. Rauschenberg puts me in mind of no one so much as Leroy Neiman, another clever, proficient artist who uses Ab Ex means to achieve other ends.

One can still see traces of de Kooning’s line in Erased de Kooning Drawing, one of the few works on view that can be classified, if just barely, as drawing. Rauschenberg is renowned for confounding established artistic categories. Little of his work can be called painting or sculpture without a sizable caveat. Starting roughly with his collagelike “Combines” of the Fifties, Rauschenberg set out to prove that (in his own words) “there’s more to the world than paint.” While one does come across mundane materials such as oil paint on canvas at the Guggenheims, one is also confronted with taxidermied goats, eagles, and chickens, pillows, a ventilation duct, paper bags, shoes, a unicycle, tar paper, a bathtub, stained and battered cardboard boxes, electronically controlled rotating Plexiglas disks, a bank of video screens, a BMW, a flashing viewer-activated environment, and a bubbling mud bath. This partial list only hints at the range of objects Rauschenberg has used in the service of his art. On this point, one must agree with his devotees: Rauschenberg is, indeed, an innovator.

But so what? While innovation can be a means of gaining notoriety, it is rarely a guaranty of good art. More often than not it is, in fact, a ruse for a dearth of inspiration. Rauschenberg’s “anything goes” approach to art-making is, however, not without charm. Putting the Combines together must have been a hell of a lot of fun, and Rauschenberg’s enthusiasm is palpable, if only in the early parts of the show. One can almost picture the light bulb flashing above his head as he tinkered with the idea of putting an actual window frame inside a canvas, as in Trophy V (For Jasper Johns) (1959). Yet enthusiasm doesn’t—can’t, really—carry the work alone. Rauschenberg is so preoccupied with expanding the parameters of art that he loses sight of what made them relevant in the first place. In doing so, he overwhelms the viewer. By pushing the envelope, he pushes us away. Rauschenberg denies art’s capacity to evoke experience through illusion. His objects, call them what he will, only serve to make the viewer self-conscious. In an age of self-consciousness, this may mark him as an artist for our times. But isn’t art supposed to enlarge our sense of self by allowing us, if only momentarily, to step out of it?

Despite its surfeit of imagery and materials, Rauschenberg’s work is flimsy. No object or image is invested with gravity or presence, and he can’t pull them together in a coherent manner. Or, rather, he connects them in a facile one. He does have a rudimentary sense of composition—did he learn about the grid from Josef Albers at Black Mountain College?—and an eye for juxtaposition. What is missing, however, is the imaginative leap of faith. (Comparisons to Joseph Cornell only bring home the point.) His is a talent altogether too breezy to spur thought or reflection. Retroactive I (1964), with its silk-screened images of JFK, an astronaut, and a crate full of apples, promises a kind of absurdist historical summation, but it is, basically, an illustration with arty touches. Rauschenberg attempts to capture the flux and pace of real time, yet all he can muster is the pictorial equivalent of channel surfing. The work is diverting in as much as one isn’t compelled to look at it. This is particularly telling (and onerous) in the examples of work from the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange project. No one can fault Rauschenberg for promoting world peace, but all he brought back from his travels, in terms of art, is lurid, ethnic kitsch. Faced with the world’s diverse peoples, customs, and cultures, all the artist can find is himself.

By the time one winds through the fun-house ambience of the SoHo Guggenheim and the interminable installation at Ace Gallery, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–present), it has long become apparent that Rauschenberg is a victim of style—his own. This is the fate of stylists: once they’ve defined themselves there’s nowhere left to go. The work on the second floor of the downtown museum is particularly rote. Although he has always employed a variety of materials and processes, Rauschenberg never actually experiments with them. Whether he is working with brass, mirrored aluminum, light boxes, vegetable-dye transfers, or frescoes, the results are invariably the same, and Rauschenberg can’t conceal his lethargy. Here he isn’t an artist so much as an alarmingly proficient factory. The only time one sees a flash of life is in the Glut series from the 1980s, assemblages made from gas station signs and automobile parts. They barely function as art, but there is a sense that Rauschenberg briefly rekindled some sense of purpose. This series was, however, short-lived. We are left, then, with the mementos of an artist bored by his own good fortune.

Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective betrays a lightweight artist in heavyweight drag, but don’t underestimate the nature or depth of his influence. When Hickey goes on to posit Rauschenberg as the locus from which the art of our time radiates and coalesces, he’s right, if not for the reasons he thinks. It is no coincidence that Jake and Dinos Chapman, the cutting-edge flavor of the month, are having their American debut concurrent with the Rauschenberg hoopla. Rauschenberg may, for all I know, disdain the Chapman brothers’ unctuous perversities, but scatological horror shows are not that far removed from painting on one’s bed. Rauschenberg and his progeny haven’t filled the gap between art and life; they’ve obliterated it. “A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric” is a Rauschenberg quote from the 1960s and the rallying cry of a generation—or two. The notion that anything can be art may once have been the cynical joke of an avant-gardist crank. It is now, however, the reigning orthodoxy. Once everything is art then nothing is art, and we are left in a world without distinctions. This is the world Robert Rauschenberg has disastrously ushered in.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 1997 edition of The New Criterion

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