Robert Rauschenberg at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (1954), mixed-media, 80″ x 96″ x 3-/12″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, an exhibition on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is surprisingly moving: Its trajectory is more genuinely sad than anyone could have guessed. The Met didn’t intend that its array of “daring and influential works by one of America’s great modern artists” would offer a parable on squandered artistic promise. But that’s exactly what it is. The exhibition highlights, with devastating accuracy, an artist who sacrificed a small but precious gift for the sake of overblown gestures and careerist ambitions.

The combines are constructions cobbled together from a surfeit of found objects—old sheets, a stuffed Angora goat, blinking lights, socks and a bed, to name just a few. They’re augmented with frantic passages of brushwork that refer explicitly to the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. Though the pastiches of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline aren’t unappreciative, Mr. Rauschenberg has never displayed an affinity for oil paint—he can’t pick up a brush without swaddling it in irony. Much has been made of the experiments in mixing media, but even at his most “far out,” Mr. Rauschenberg remains a pictorial artist—and a rather academic one. The combines never really go over the top; the flat ground of the canvas is their ball-and-chain.

Influenced by the collages of Kurt Schwitters and the anti-aesthetic theories of Marcel Duchamp, Mr. Rauschenberg isn’t a true Dadaist. Sympathetic to Dadaism’s flagrant, nose-thumbing ethos, Mr. Rauschenberg’s go-get-’em esprit and happy superficiality could never submit to outright nihilism. He’s an amiable guy. Still, it was Mr. Rauschenberg—more so than Jasper Johns, his lethargic coeval in Dada lite—who transformed Duchamp’s aesthetic from a curious sidebar of history to the predigested engine of culture it is now. It’s Mr. Rauschenberg’s example that’s largely responsible for flashy mediocrities like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Thanks a lot, Bob.

Nonetheless, there are a smattering of early works—HoneysuckleLevee and an untitled piece from around 1955, in particular—that evince a sensitivity to the materials used in their crafting and hint at special correspondences that are more than the sum of their tatters. Had Mr. Rauschenberg explored this tendency on the intimate scale it called for, he might have made an unassuming and welcome contribution to the history of 20th-century American art. As it is, he became the Leroy Nieman of the avant-garde—an unapologetic hack ready, willing and able to reiterate a hugely successful, aesthetically empty formula.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 15, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.


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