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Bending over to Look

John Haber
in New York City

 

Bird asked what a paleontologist was and Mom said that if he took a complete, illustrated guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shred it into a hundred pieces, cast them into the wind from the museum's steps, let a few weeks pass, went back and scoured Fifth Avenue and Central Park for as many surviving scraps as he could find, then tried to reconstruct the history of painting, including schools, styles, genres, and names of painters from his scraps, that would be like being a paleontologist. The only difference is that paleontologists study fossils in order to figure out the origins and evolution of life.
     —Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines

In an exhibition of what Robert Rauschenberg called his combines, the first image I recognized was my own. That alone should have told me something: it should have told me to look harder.

New Yorkers have already had a good look at the combines. A 1977 Rauschenberg retrospective occupied the Guggenheim, its former downtown space, and a quarter mile of Soho gallery walls. Quite a few combines now belong to his longtime dealer, Sonnabend, who also exhibited in Soho. All those spaces except for Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda have since moved on, along with pretty much the rest of the Soho art scene, leaving still more ghostly presences at the Met now. How could I have wasted so much time on my own? Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)

By its focus on the combines, however, the Met has something to contribute, starting with the fun of it. A leisurely layout, without the obstacles of the Guggenheim's ramp, gives one time to look—and to sense one's own presence. More important, it allows the combines a clear course of development entirely their own. It confirms Rauschenberg's temperament and place, between Modernism and all that came after.

Last and best, it drives home the visceral nature of the work. I myself largely overlooked that physical encounter when I saw the combines in 1977, between his paintings and silkscreens. This time, it hit me from the moment I entered. No wonder I had to bend over to look harder. In a postscript, I look again at his generous influence and collaborations, on the occasion of his death in May 2008.

Between performances

True, I already had to look awfully hard. On entering, I could see at most two partitions, partly covered with fabric, with plenty of room to circulate between them. I could see a small, round mirror set into the front wall, a mark of vanity in more ways than one. I mistook it for a window, a ruse to make one look into the narrow space so plainly already there. But no, its sheen gives it away, although it does not clearly reflect much of anything.

I came closer, to find myself, but it lies deceptively below eye level, at least for me. A little scrunching brought me more or less into focus. It also embarrassed me with the realization that I did not belong there in the first place. Rauschenberg had created this implausibly tiny stage set for another—Merce Cunningham, as it happens. Perhaps, like its first viewers, I should have imagined the presence of others. Perhaps instead I should have noticed their absence

Or perhaps I should have seem the set for itself, so obviously makeshift and bare, just as I should have appreciated the fall of light on unpolished metal. Every time Rauschenberg holds out a presence, it dissolves into an image, and every time he presents an image, it takes shape in this world as an object.

In another decade, a Rauschenberg silkscreen incorporates Venus at her toilet. However, his combines, as he called his assemblages, already embarrass one into looking. One always sees something palpably other than oneself. That something incorporates the particulars of everyday life, but never quite one's own—the occupants of a disturbing bed, the travelers who have left behind only their spare tire, perhaps the child who once petted that stuffed goat. It evokes the traces of still others, only beginning with the artist, but the traces they have left behind never add up to a full encounter.

The combines all evoke that kind of partial encounter. Oneself, the people one never gets to know, and the fragments of their lives lie everywhere and nowhere in particular. Ironically, if not wisely, the exhibition catalog has a photo of the young Robert Rauschenberg on its cover. When a work pretends to include the Manhattan phone book, I might locate the artist or even you inside, if only it did not date back almost forty years and if only Rauschenberg had not made it partly of wood. When he paints the letters YOUR ASS across another work, he could be representing you, offering you a place to sit, or cursing you out.

It all began with that otherwise undistinguished performance set in the mid-1950s, and it ended barely five years later, with yet another performance. This time the artist invited audience participation, but those viewers have long departed, leaving only you, me, and the work behind. Each party, Rauschenberg seems to say, enters as part of the spectacle and as a physical presence, as image and as object. And that still leaves an excess of others, with no one to count them or to account for them.

Physical comedy

Perhaps if I had not looked so quickly into the mirror, I would not have heard the artist's laughter or, for that matter, my own. Both as spectacle and as physical encounter, the combines stop short of familiar comforts but just short of threatening as well. In the space between, they create a place for exploration and for play. In the first combine conceived independently of the stage, Rauschenberg pastes images of Charlie Chaplin across the bottom, like successive frames in a filmstrip. In his combines, the artist plays the ultimate physical comedian.

Like many a comedian, Rauschenberg knows his timing. One watches for him to pull out yet another prop, another bit of media into the mix. Remarkably, even work as close to this and as innovative as Nam June Paik's recycled TVs still lay years in the future. One can see its mark even now, as when Andrea Zittel attempts her Repair Work.

For once, the Met spares one the distraction of explanations next to each work, beyond title, date, owner, and media. That leaves a formidably long, pedantic wall label for each room, but with surprisingly little puffery for a change. Besides, returning to the art from those collected references adds to Rauschenberg's own trickery. It sent me in repeated treasure hunts. So did the decision to cite not just "mixed media," but pretty much every object that went into that wild half-decade. And a wild time it was.

Along with the stage, the combines have their roots in painting—in particular, the acrid, splotchy monochrome of his red paintings. That series clearly set forth Rauschenberg's claims as an artist. Already it both emulated and savaged the painting that came before. Its dark tone of long-dried blood recaps postwar abstraction, including its casual gestures, the grid of paper scraps pasted on canvas, and a formalist's restriction to a single color. This painter really had borrowed from Willem de Kooning and studied at Black Mountain with Josef Albers. The transition from the red paintings comes simply as the collage elements multiply, as if to extend his savage studies all the way back to Pablo Picasso and the origins of modern art.

As with Chaplin or a comic strip above it, Rauschenberg takes the fine art out of collage and paint alike. The collage elements seem mocking and arbitrary, just like the earlier red paint strokes. They, too, must have seemed out of place in a museum—especially coming before Pop Art. They also refuse to add up. Cubism accumulates associations with a violin, in everything from color, shape, and texture to song titles and musical notes. In contrast, one does not interpret a combine painting so much in depth as in time. Each impression has a life to itself, and the leap from one to another adds to the comedy.

Postwar poetry was moving in the same way, as when John Ashbery demands that one read each phrase in turn for itself rather than tease out its source. If Cubism has its counterpart in T. S. Eliot's agonized or mystical compression, Rauschenberg anticipates Ashbery's teasing expansion. And yet even his forcible immersion in the ordinary recalls fine-art traditions, in still life—just as that vanity mirror recalls an old name for still-life painting, vanitas.

The elements of painting

One sees the elements of painting recombining throughout the first assemblages. Drips of paint congeal on his Bed, just as its quilting echoes both the fabric and the grid of oil on linen. No wonder the bed must hang flat against the wall. A growing incorporation of clothing also makes me think of a ground for painting. Even as the first stage set morphs into architectural elements, such as doors, I think of the grid they outline and their determined flatness. Perhaps they pun as well on "panel painting."

Rauschenberg has all the elements of his art in place now, and he need only keep pushing them past their limits. In the next year, his architectural elements become more notably three dimensional, first with ledges jutting out and then fully in the round. The everyday objects still ground the work in real life, but a curiously dysfunctional one. One cannot lie in that bed, a roof exhaust fan refuses to turn, and several plugs in the wall do not, as far as I can see, power a thing. His Rebus defies translation. I wondered if his tire and license plate echo the crash that brought an end to Jackson Pollock's life.

In a third stage, the comics and calendars develop into a greater reliance on text. The text may say something, or it may appear as a single block letter S or T. It may function, in other words, as word or image, subject or pure form, the content of a painting or the title that frame it. Images of all kinds become more prominent, as the architecture recedes into the background. Some of the most three-dimensional arrangements include electric wires, like neon signs that no longer deliver the goods in an age of LEDs. The intersection of art and science has a way of disturbing both.

The seemingly arbitrary arrangements continue to suggest the ordinary passage of time, but also a withholding of resolutions and a distance from the viewer's particular moment. One combine includes an entire calendar, but the artist duplicates the work almost exactly. Later combines include clocks, but they tell the right time at most twice a day. Other works supply a fragmentary map of the American West, the famous automobile tire around a stuffed goat, and a license plate, and perhaps I should associate that round mirror with an automobile's side view. Rauschenberg's notion of mundane reality includes the rootlessness of time on the open road, and his notion of still life refuses to sit still. No wonder the later silkscreens indulge in a travelogue, like a portrait of civilization in motion.

Around 1960, paint starts to take over, with lush, wide strokes of white and bright, simple colors. Many use vertical brushstrokes, reasserting the grid that he learned long ago from Albers. They also echo the combines' insistence on the law of gravity. Everything, even a gesture, bears weight, but as carefully calibrated as an illusion. Canyon, from 1959 and now at MoMA thanks to the estate of Ileana Sonnabend, suspends a pillow from the main panel, tied with a string like a rock. It at once pulls the painting to earth and promises a soft landing, just like the parachutes in silkscreens yet to come.

Still, Rauschenberg is working in two-dimensions again. He seems to have absorbed the discovery of images so well that he has learned again his love of art. When he calls the first clock combine First Time Painting, he means the time of day. However, he also discovers painting again as if for the first time. And finally, with few more chairs and stage sets, none really standouts, it all ceases. He moves on, to silkscreen, perhaps because the image has become primary, and he has to give its associations room to play.

Down to earth

Entering the 1960s, Rauschenberg leaves behind five years as packed and slow to unfold as any of the combines. Ironically, he turns from assemblages in three dimensions just as Louise Nevelson was coming into her own. Yet they more than any other period supply the lessons that I once drew from his retrospective.

The combines show his closeness to Modernism and its past, but also his singular role in creating the anti-art and installation that followed. His vertically arranged chambers and their range of associations would put to shame intriguing enough recent shows by Barry McGee or Rob Fischer, and his electric wires supply the truest shock art of all. Yet he still revels in the handmade object, apart from and even in direct confrontation with the viewer. By comparison to Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg is the consummate showman. Johns's quasi-functional maps and drawers lie elsewhere. So, however, does Minimalism's theater in which the viewer performs, just as I did not belong in that mirror.

The combines also exemplify Rauschenberg's balance of native optimism and hard-won realism. His stuffed birds and animals will neither sit comfortably in their display cases nor take flight. As I found in visiting the Rauschenberg retrospective, he plays off the artist's imagination against the utter uselessness of what he imagines. He could be insisting on the only grounds for hope left in the nuclear age. He could be insisting on the comedy that remains in art once the mirror refuses to stare back.

What I missed in 1997, however, stared past me in the mirror—starting with the sheer fun of this period, unlike the brutal work just before it and the nuanced silkscreens just after, not to mention the dull late work that weighs down the Rauschenberg estate. But I missed, too, the physical, even animal nature of the combines, from the coarse bedding and pillow to the stuffed birds and the barely perceptible outlines of a male body. This physical insistence, too, links to both past and present. From the past, it echoes formalism's insistence on art as object. It also echoes a representational tradition, in which images could function as icon or as memorial for the dead. For the present, it prefigures all those gallery obstructions that dare one to pass.

It includes the dual roots of the combines in gestural painting and in dance. It includes as well as the main elements of the earliest combines, architecture and clothing. Who inhabits both, if not people? It includes the culture that supplies all this debris. Rauschenberg rarely finds his found objects in nature. Even the birds and animals owe their time in his studio to taxidermy.

All those anonymous presences multiply, because no one can ever quite pin them down. Portraiture as absence goes back at least to Picasso's dark, masked musicians, and it cements Rauschenberg's role as the first postmodern artist. It also comes back to the modesty that makes his art so human and, like the pillow, so down to earth. That pretend telephone directory forms the centerpiece of Hymnal. A metal plug lodged within it evokes those stories of people saved from gunfire by a pocket Bible, but now the prayer has become a Manhattan address. If salvation lies anywhere in this art, it lies in the streets of the city and across its rooftops.

A postscript: share and share alike

In the summer 2008 show at the Jewish Museum, about art from 1940 to 1976, Robert Rauschenberg appears exactly once. The number is less important, though, than how he appears—slim, youthful, confident, shirtless and outdoors, his arms raised, swaying in a communal dance. The photograph captures him at Black Mountain, the North Carolina college that had room for Josef Albers, but also the wilder discipline of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Just twenty-three, Rauschenberg showed up with Susan Weil, the painter he briefly married. He also got to meet Dorothea Rockburne, who later assisted in his studio. In the photograph, as so often in life, he submitted to the energy of others and gave generously of himself, while somehow taking over the picture.

If anyone carried American art from Bauhaus to our house, Rauschenberg did. The real subjects of the Jewish Museum's show, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, may for once have missed the point as critics, but few artists did. If they had, he might simply have thanked them, just as he graciously credited Albers's strict, unsympathetic instruction. Worse comes to worse, one can always listen and do the exact opposite. At least he could—for, as perhaps his greatest gift, he made the lesson all but impossible for others. He died May 12, 2008, at age 82, after throwing so many ideas and objects into painting that one can hardly imagine anywhere to stand outside it.

The 1995 Rauschenberg retrospective showed just how much ground he covered. It also showed his talent for making the ground explicit, where others took irony as requiring reserve and indirection. Weil spoke of how Abstract Expressionism stood for them less as a style than as a possibility—a renewed sense of freedom. Rauschenberg happily practiced both, slapping coarse red brushwork onto a real comforter and calling it Bed. In one account he recycled his own bedspread, and in another he swiped it from Rockburne's little girl. His silkscreen paintings served as almost fifty years of autobiography, national history, and travelogue, in a technique that he improvised by dissolving newsprint.

For all his achievement and unrivaled influence, however, I think first of how much he shared. I think of him bumming around Italy with Cy Twombly, long before the latter called it home. I think of him trying out his black paintings by redecorating Cage's living quarters, naturally without asking first. I think of his audacity and shyness in approaching Kooning, who had hit his stride, too, with black and white paintings, for two drawings to erase. He took his period as roommate, lover, and business partner to Jasper Johns as an obligation to bring ideas. Rauschenberg continued his silkscreens until the end, again in collaboration, but with a global chain of producers.

The combine painting began with a collaboration, a stage set for Cunningham every inch worth of the modern stage, and joint projects in performance, design, and music continued for many years to come. Most of all, Rauschenberg adapts the images and materials of other lives, by the very nature of combines and silkscreens, while somehow standing alone. Perhaps that stance, too, is uniquely his. Early modern art in Europe turned on close partnerships, like that of Picasso and Braque, and on firmly delineated movements like Blue Rider or Dada, with opportunities as in political movements for apostasy and rejections. Rosenberg and the great postwar American artists shared mostly arguments, as over drinks. When they gathered to protest a museum exhibition, they posed together as "the Irascibles."

By the end, Rauschenberg's studio network approached an industry more closely than Andy Warhol and Warhol's Factory ever could. His geniality, as much as his success and his working methods, contributes to the relative blandness of his late work, not unlike for Andy Warhol or an aging de Kooning. Johns, in his portraits of absence and solitude, seems emotionally worlds away—but perhaps he was all along. It takes a moment to remember the harsh humor of Rauschenberg's greatest art, like the tire around a goat, the painted letters YOUR ASS, or the bloodied bed. It takes a moment to recall its American mythology of rise and fall, from black paintings to a space capsule falling back into the atmosphere. Still, without that geniality, without that generosity, his art could never have encompassed so much.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Robert Rauschenberg's combines ran through April 2, 2006, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. An earlier review places the combines in context of a career retrospective.

 

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