Sunday, June 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008.

Robert Rauschenberg at work, circa 1963.

Retroactive I, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1963.

Trophy II (For Teeny and Marcel Duchamp), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1960.
The American artist Robert Rauschenberg died in May at the age of 82. He was one of the 20th century's greatest artists, and one of my own favorite artists. He was brilliant in many different mediums, and consistently prolific. His friend Jasper Johns said once that Rauschenberg was the artist "who had created the most in this century, except for Picasso."

Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and had no idea becoming an artist was a career possibility until about the age of 20, when he visited the Henry E. Huntington Library, in San Marino, CA. There he saw Thomas Gainsborough's famous painting, The Blue Boy. "This was my first encounter with art as art," he said. When he understood that "somebody actually MADE those paintings, it was the first time I realized you could be an artist." He studied at the renowned Black Mountain College under Josef Albers in the late 1940's. One can scarcely imagine two artists more different in approach than Albers and Rauschenberg. Albers's most famous works come from a series of more than 1,000 works called Homage to the Square, which are rigidly geometric works, most with the same basic pattern. In contrast, Rauschenberg's work always looked thrown together, he always let the outside world into his works, and he engaged with the outside world in a way that was scorned by many serious art critics at the time. Although the two men did not get along, Rauschenberg respected Albers, saying of him, "Albers was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person. He wasn't easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it. Years later, though, I'm still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world. He didn't teach you how to 'do art.' The focus was always on your personal sense of looking. I consider Albers the most important teacher I've ever had, and I'm sure he considers me one of his poorest students."

Some of Rauschenberg's earliest important works would set the tone for Minimalism, a movement that was still a decade off, and in a way, became the first and last words on the subject. He created a series of all-white canvases in the early 1950's, and also painted a series of all-black canvases around the same time. What could possibly be more minimal than that? These works also had a great influence on the composer John Cage, and his famous piece 4'33", which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Or so it seems. What actually happens during the silence is that the audience becomes aware of all the other noise around them, as nothing is ever totally silent. A similar thing happens with Rauschenberg's white paintings. You can see reflections of what's happening in the gallery on the all-white canvas. In this way, the painting becomes a reflection of the outside world, just as Cage's piece, which is ostensibly silent, becomes a reflection of the concert hall.

But Rauschenberg's restless nature would not let him stay in Minimalism very long. By the mid-fifties, he was creating challenging new works that were a hybrid of sculpture and painting. Rauschenberg's term for them was combines, because they combined the two art forms. A typical combine work would feature all kinds of different colored paint, along with artifacts from the outside world, such as neckties, a stuffed rooster, a bedspread, and, most famously, a stuffed goat. The combines are difficult to interpret, but they show an artist willing to engage the outside world in a conversation. In his 1955 work Bed, Rauschenberg took his pillow and blanket, attached them to a canvas, and slathered them with different colors of paint. Similar to Jasper Johns's work of the same period, Rauschenberg was littering his work with man-made objects, like Coca-Cola bottles, thus paving the way for Pop Art.

It was around this time, the mid-fifties, that Jasper Johns entered Rauschenberg's orbit. There was an instant connection, and soon the two lovers were sharing an apartment. They would discuss art endlessly, and their influence on one another's work was of lasting importance. By the time they broke up in 1961, both artists were at a creative peak. Johns's career was taking off, as MOMA had bought three works from his 1958 solo exhibition, and Rauschenberg was building momentum.

Rauschenberg's work underwent another huge change when he discovered silkscreens around 1961. Now, in addition to his combines, he was creating canvases with silkscreened images of stop signs, bald eagles, JFK, and glasses of water, all held together by expressionistic brush strokes. Because of the silkscreened images, these pictures were somewhat similar to those being done by Andy Warhol at the same time. Indeed, Warhol may have been the person who introduced Rauschenberg to silkscreening. But, instead of focusing on rows and rows of the same image, as Warhol often did, Rauschenberg's canvases were jammed, almost overloaded, with visual information. Rauschenberg's work, largely critically derided until this time, was now being re-evaluated. He had a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1963, which raised his stock considerably. But the biggest honor was yet to come. In 1964, he won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, becoming just the third American artist to ever do so. The art establishment was finally taking notice of this striking artist. So what did Rauschenberg do? From Europe, he called a friend in New York, and told him to go to his studio and destroy all of his silkscreens. He would never work with that set of images again. Now that success had finally beckoned, Rauschenberg firmly broke with the past, partly for fear of repeating himself and becoming stale. As he said in an interview from 2000, "I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time I am bored or understand-I use those words interchangeably-another appetite has formed."

His work continued to change and grow throughout the rest of his long career. In 1984, he formed the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or ROCI for short. The aim was to travel to other countries, and exchange art and ideas, in the hope of promoting "world peace and understanding." To the end, he kept right on creating and transforming, always seeking some new idea. He was once asked what his greatest fear was. He said, "That I might run out of world." Thankfully, he never did.

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