Cop and Robert

New York

Left: Curator David Ross with PaceWildenstein's Arne Glimcher and Douglas Baxter. Right: Robert Rauschenberg with Merce Cunningham. (All photos: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Mr. Rauschenberg hasn’t arrived yet,” the press officer informed me brightly as I signed in for the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” “but, ah, Mr. Bennett has.” Sure enough, hot on my heels was none other than Tony Bennett, legendary Queens-born crooner and, not incidentally, committed figurative painter. As Bennett and his companion checked their coats, I made my way up the main stairs and towards the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, where the exhibition of sixty-seven works made between 1954 and 1964 is on view. Fifteen minutes after the slated opening time, the gallery was already packed and buzzing.

Organized by Paul Schimmel, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (to which the show will travel in May), and organized and installed at the Met by Nan Rosenthal, Senior Consultant in the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, the show both packed an immediate punch and made an unarguable case for a protracted return visit. The installation (cleanly designed by Dan Kershaw) was favorably compared to the Guggenheim’s cluttered 1997 retrospective and 2000’s ill-conceived installation of Synapsis Shuffle, 1999, at the Whitney; not since the latter’s roundup of his 1962-64 Silkscreen Paintings in 1990 has the artist been the focus of such a successfully focused show.

Left: Artists Mark di Suvero and James Rosenquist. Right: Marian Javits and friend.

Tearing myself away from the first room, a substantial show in itself containing Untitled, 1954, arguably the first of the genre-bending painted constructions on which the survey focuses, and the iconic Bed, 1955, among others, I spotted the artist just ahead, surrounded by admirers and clearly enjoying the occasion. A quick look around sufficed for me to also complete my mental checklist of major New York museum directors: Glenn Lowry? Present. Thomas Krens? Yep. Philippe de Montebello? Naturally. Adam Weinberg? Over there taking photos. Also doing the rounds was an extraordinary cadre of illustrious figures including James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Mel Bochner, Leo Steinberg, and—wheelchair-bound, as was the eighty-year-old artist—old friend and collaborator Merce Cunningham.

But while the crowd’s demographic tended towards the senior and sedate, a scattering of much younger viewers also made their presence felt. The boys in particular were an endearing spectacle in their slightly-too-big suits and just-this-side-of-unkempt hair. I noticed one immersed in an extended and not entirely friendly eye-level face-off with the tire-encircled Angora goat in Monogram, 1955-59. Elsewhere, perhaps thinking ahead to the imminent holiday, one little girl discussed with her father whether the stuffed bird in freestanding Combine, Untitled, 1954, is a turkey. (For the record, it’s a Dominique hen.)

Left: The Met's Nan Rosenthal with Robert Rauschenberg. Right: Police Commissioner Ray Kelly with Robert Rauschenberg.

Eventually, we filtered back downstairs to the grandiose Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court, where the juxtaposition of a flautist with the neo-classical sculptures on permanent view hinted at the possibility (albeit remote) of Bacchanalian revelry later in the evening. Among those loitering at the bar and sampling the hors d’oeuvres were curator Donna De Salvo, art historian Thomas Crow, critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, and scene chroniclers Walter Robinson of Artnet and Robin Cembalest of Art News. At around eight o’clock, a burst of applause signaled Rauschenberg’s reappearance. Hearing a woman to my side express the desire for a camera, I snapped a quick shot of the artist, then one of her. “They’ll be all over the internet tomorrow!” she shrieked. “Truer than you think,” I replied. “Well, I have my own photo of the artist already,” she bragged, “from 1979,” and flounced off.

Collaring me to catch up and share an unconfirmed rumor that Sting was somewhere in the building, Cembalest then pointed out a high-ranking member of the real police, New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly. We immediately agreed on the need to find out two things from the man: what in particular had prompted his attendance, and whether he had any insight into the likelihood of the then-threatened (and, at time of writing, well-underway) metropolitan public transport workers’ strike actually taking place. With one eye constantly glued to his BlackBerry (“You really oughta get one of these.”), Kelly denied any exclusive knowledge of the dispute, but did reveal one intriguing nugget: America’s modern master and America’s top cop share a lawyer.

Michael Wilson