The Shock of the Old

John Haber
in New York City

Robert Rauschenberg

New York's split between uptown and downtown cultures is legendary. There they are—elegant and experimental, traditional and glib, serious and shocking. Only half tongue in cheek, one could call the two modern and postmodern.

Robert Rauschenberg's art packs all the momentum of the city. Like Picasso, he transformed modern art time and time again, with a rapid-fire wit that runs the danger of fatigue. Raushenberg: A Retrospective (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1998)His retrospective sprawls all over town, like my story of Modernism versus Postmodernism. It also comes with enough twists to throw those terms right out the window. And why not? His work helped to invent them.

A related review looks at a 2006 exhibition of his combine paintings alone. It contains a postscript as well, the week of his death in May 2008. Rauschenberg channeled so many kinds of energy and invented so many media that he made art a generous and treacherous collaboration.

The Modern's up . . .

Uptown, the Guggenheim Museum takes on Robert Rauschenberg and his career chronologically. A stroll up the ramp shows how he spurred one significant innovation after another. Tower galleries off to the side concentrate on extended projects.

The museum's Soho branch shows a different artist. It holds paintings from the last ten years, along with, oh, contraptions. (I bet Rauschenberg would never glorify them as sculpture.) Half a mile west, the Ace Gallery, in conjunction with the museum, exhibits a single work, The Two-Furlong Piece. It spans pretty much the same years—and nearly one quarter of a mile.

Uptown, the Guggenheim spans decades of searching, startling, and self-creation. While Abstract Expressionists were producing their finest work, Rauschenberg made his white paintings, cobbling together panels too dull even to serve as house paint. With Minimalism still years away, he was testing its limits.

In the Rauschenberg combines of the mid-1950s he turned collage into assemblage, anticipating and outshining Bruce Conner out west. If John Chamberlain flees associations with car crashes, Rauschenberg tossed an automobile tire around a goat and called it his Monogram. Before Jasper Johns, he had scrawled numbers on white canvas. Rauschenberg's Paint Cans happen to belong to Johns.

His silkscreens of the 1960s threw media icons up on canvas. As he instigated Pop Art, he gave it a startling everyday reality. Like installation artists, he also recycled his environment. After he left New York in 1970, he even made art out of the cardboard packing cases that once headed off to his dealer, Leo Castelli, who had taken him on years before at the urging of Ileana Sonnabend.

Rauschenberg defied categories. Starting with him, painting had one foot in the beauty of abstraction, one foot in Pop skepticism, and a few dancing feet left over for performance art.

. . . and a rusted battery's down

A different Rauschenberg is on view in Soho. He knew all along what video and postmodern art would one day mean. He looks like an artist for the 1990s.

As I reached a sound-activated work, three members of gen X were having a super time. They were giving art the left-over noises of a frat party. In reply, blobs of mud plopped up and down, with the simmering provocation of Postmodernism.

Rauschenberg's latest paintings, many of them silkscreens in rich, bright color, look just as contemporary. They add up to a fast-paced travelogue of Europe and America. They seem more than appropriate for this decade's short attention spans, color copiers, and multinational art scene.

What they are not, however, is cynical. Rauschenberg never really gives up on the chance that artists will reinvent the past and recreate the future.

One can see his links to the past in his frightfully low technology. Only a year ago, there at the Guggenheim Soho, a show equated video with high technology and slick techniques. Not Robert Rauschenberg. He takes not computers but rusting metal discards, just as he did decades ago. Back then, with Empire, he set out a used ventilation duct, the kind resting on New York apartment buildings.

The latest paintings feel quite as old-fashioned in their own way, perhaps another link to Pablo Picasso. They record good times and local traditions. One sees it in the titles—Arcadian Retreats of Italy, the Urban Bourbon of New York City. One sees it in the technique, too. For Italy he silkscreens on wet plaster, making fresco. His urban paintings mark a return to the blacks and whites of his earliest paintings. Their metal supports lend paint the bold outlines and colored swirls of oil slick.

Bob's modernist hand

Rauschenberg comes across as a paradox, the first postmodern awareness within Modernism at its most determined. What makes him so modern? (And why did his estate end up donating his Canyon, a combine painting with a stuffed eagle, to the Modern?) Think what a story about Modernism versus Postmodernism will never contain.

One would miss Rauschenberg's grounding in Abstract Expressionism. Large gestures fill those early paintings. They echo in those outsize canvases and gravity-defying combine paintings. In Bed, an assemblage of sheets and brushstrokes, a bed got up off the floor as cavalierly as had Pollock's drips and hand prints. Perhaps both artists rested on their materials while they worked.

One would miss the faith in his own hand. In one performance, a tube let electric current leap across him. Talk about "shock art," but in personal terms, and so much for virtual reality. What could be more real, more low tech, or more "near at hand" than an artist's own two arms? I see the same ironic spirit in the silkscreened "Bob's Hand" of more than one recent painting.

One would miss the confidence he inherited from postwar art. His images never outgrew America's sense of new beginnings. The "Caution" sign in one combine painting announces high-stake risks. So does John F. Kennedy's raised finger, pointing unforgettably out from another.

One would miss the inspiration he, like the New York School, drew from the new urban landscape. The black paintings of the 1950s rip collage to shreds.


One would miss another component of Modernism, too—how Rauschenberg turned on the past. His famous Erased de Kooning preserves everything from de Kooning but the result. The older man supplied a drawing, but Rauschenberg makes it a collaboration. Where de Kooning's hand sweeps, so does Rauschenberg's, but with the blunt end of the pencil. Broad gesture remains, but it annihilates itself.

Another early work looks like a Joseph Cornell box, but with nothing inside. Silkscreens amount to rebuses that spell nothing, like a broken allegory. One painting, Rebus, makes the riddle explicit, as if art and language are themselves exhausted. Already his combine paintings had displayed the brutal traces of its death. In Bed he overlaid collage with blood red.

Rauschenberg repeatedly plays off the artist's imagination against the utter uselessness of what he imagines. One can, if one wants, salute a Johns flag or take a shotgun to his targets. One could even drink from Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup or piss in Duchamp's Fountain—or at least this male critic could. That rusty ventilation fan in Rauschenberg's Empire is never, ever going to turn.

The loss of meaning has obvious connections to the Cold War, the bomb, and all sorts of other solemn things. Around the same time as he made the black box, Rauschenberg pasted up city maps, leaving a round, white area in the middle—a ground zero. While Americans took off to the suburbs, he was looking at the blankness they hoped to leave behind. Hardly a year later, he began his white paintings.

One of the first combine paintings, Hymnal, could sum it up. What looks at first like a big painting is an assemblage. And what looks at first like the promised book is a block of wood—a blunt, sealed surface smeared with paint.

A little higher, a rectangular inset contains actual book pages, but without a cover. They are held together only weakly, by string. Painting has become tongue-tied. In the beginning was the word, but now there is only the work. Rauschenberg gives to art a palpable emptiness and an air of imminent destruction.

Taking the sixties lying down

Unlike for the Pop Art of James Rosenquist, destruction to Rauschenberg did not mean decay. It meant the opportunity to try something else, something more open to chance and to time. Compared to Johns, in particular, it meant having fun. He had, with his most famous combine painting, made his bed, and he was determined to lie in it. The early assemblages of dirt and torn paper ask Modernism to take it easy.

Parachutes, kites, birds—images of flight recur again and again, but the birds are stuffed. In Coca Cola wings flank two soda bottles. Just what takes flight, however? Is it consumerism, the American economy, art, or nothing at all? Rauschenberg will not stand still for an answer. In more ways than one, for him painting is always in flight.

The uselessness never blinks at phony optimism, but it never lectures either. Leave that to cold warriors. Retroactive, the 1964 painting with JFK's finger, also reproduces an old master. If I can make it out, it represents an expulsion from paradise, maybe Masaccio's. The president, like an angel of God, could be chiding America for its human limits. He could be speaking about his own fallen dreams in this year after his death.

In the image just above it, a man lands thanks to (yes) another of those parachutes, like the space capsule in Rauschenberg's Die Hard of the same year. It is yet another falling to earth.

Reality bites

This is an art of realism, not mistrust and despair. The word rebus, the Latin for "things," shares its roots with the word real. Rauschenberg borrowed headlines and household objects so that art could be something rather than represent it. He took images from culture, but not in the way of Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, or George Segal a few years later. He took television as a part of modern life, not the other way around.

For that probing realism without cynicism, look at how he confronts another limitation of past art. Naked women turn up in silkscreen after silkscreen, and always as something for men to see. He transfers the Rokeby Venus, by Diego Velázquez, and the Mona Lisa with the deadening pleasure of Andy Warhol and Warhol's influence. Men like JFK, he suggests, make speeches while women sit for paintings—or lie down for them. Their traces appear in the bright reds saturating the bed.

Persimmon reproduces another fine-art image, the Venus at Her Toilet by Peter Paul Rubens. She gazes into her mirror, back to the viewer, arranging herself as beautiful object. Meanwhile, her image in the mirror looks out invitingly. The viewer can have his cake and be asked to eat it, too.

Persimmon forces these old conventions to the surface. However, Rauschenberg does not set himself up, above the past or the viewer. The image of a large human eye lies directly beneath the nude. It adds one more term in a potential infinite series, just as Velázquez adapted Titian—and just as a silkscreen can repeat itself. To break the chain, the viewer must look away, to fill in another kind of space entirely, the real world.

Meet the press

Before Rauschenberg, critics spoke of modern art's increasing formalism and "flatness." One of his first supporters, Leo Steinberg, saw what had changed. Steinberg wrote of the "flatbed," as shallow as a printing press—and just as able to hold a world.

Modern art still fell flat, but it was about to bounce back as Postmodernism. It can no longer look at itself without admiration, fear, and shame—and without changing once again.

A printing press can turn out fresh copies as endlessly as a Minimalist series. It can be no accident that Rauschenberg studied at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers. Among other things, Albers also served him as a direct link to the Bauhaus, a school where modern art and practical design merged. From Rauschenberg on, Modernism was to give art its styles and rhetoric, while Postmodernism was going to give painting a history.

Yet the same image points to the artist's progressive decline. A press can print greeting cards as easily as headlines, and Rauschenberg has more and more reveled in the compromise. A flatbed empties as it fills, flattens, and reproduces. By 1970 filling had almost entirely taken over, and increasingly I lose the kick. The increasing blandness of his work after that shows how much his art lost when he took off for warmer climates. In the cardboard Spreads, his reused shipping materials look ready to return to the warehouse for another profitable deal.

Nobody writes about Rauschenberg without describing his charm. In every photo I have seen, he is about to break into a smile. Increasingly in his work, I have fun, but nothing cuts me very deeply. In the conjunctions of images, I find far too many of his paintings irrelevant, cursory, contrived, or patronizing. They start to look like canned travel writing, like the museum's own tour of Africa not long before. Younger artists, such as Donald Baechler, use Rauschenberg's very devices to construct a more troubled and rewarding memory.

A 1990 project calls itself the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange. It has little, though, in the way of a genuine interchange with the people he encountered overseas. He brought his assistants and his biases, and ROCI looks way too much like a corporate acronym (although he pronounced it "Rocky"). I can all but hear postmodern complaints about modern art as imperialism. I can also hear complaints about postmodern facility.

Filling in for Postmodernism

Rauschenberg's mix on view downtown animates all his art, in all its casual, cherished beauty and suspicion of formalism. It confronts emptiness, meaning, politics, and the shock of the imagination. It keeps asking how art can remain strange in a world accustomed to practically anything. Too often, that means sharing Postmodernism's willingness to shock and its inability to startle. Yet it will never erase his earlier scope and achievement.

With late Rauschenberg, as with gallery-going today, I still have fun, and I still do not know for sure what to expect. I enjoyed so much the quarter-mile piece at Ace Gallery that I wanted to bring children downtown to play. Its sheer scale makes it enormously forgiving. No images have to confront each other for long. Not surprisingly, the retrospective's next stop has as yet found no gallery big enough for this display of tolerance. Visitors to the Menil Foundation in Houston may well never see it.

The retrospective extends across generations. The ads for it have touted a revolution. If I began by circling back uptown, I ended up coming full circle. I thought how Modernism first hit America downtown, in the fabled 1913 Armory Show off East 26th Street. I thought of how Postmodernism in art is a very modern invention.

Rauschenberg's bulky assemblages and long career deserve an equally outsize retrospective—and they got it. His long ties to New York's rhythms make its geographical scale only fitting, and his sense of fun keeps it from getting tiring, even when it draws too heavily on the Rauschenberg estate. I would not have cut it back one bit.

BACK to John's arts home page

Robert Rauschenberg's retrospective runs at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Soho through January 4, 1998, as well as at the Ace Gallery through November 9, 1997. Related reviews look at Rauschenberg combines and and "Rauschenberg: Among Friends."


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME