PRINT February 1977

Robert Rauschenberg

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG IS BOTH a protean artist and cultural symbol. He is enormously prolific and talented. But the successes and failures of his career are bound up with his character, which scripted, certain accomplishments and blocked many others. The diversity of materials, styles, and images in his career is surely one of the most prodigious in Western art since the Second World War. But dealing with that career, one sees how Rauschenberg was the captive of the appetite for artistic transformation he himself did so much to stimulate. Writers have turned his artistic success into the material of myth, extending past that of Oldenburg, and certainly equaling that of Warhol, though not on the level of stylish irony. Rauschenberg’s paintings and sculptures—unique objects—as well as his innumerable multiples, posters, and mass-produced “signature” works have been blessed by this myth.

That “signature” immediately confers importance. Everything which passes through his hands becomes art by a special magic touch. Warhol signs a cup; Rauschenberg, more innocently, signs a piece of cardboard. The very fact of his noticing a material transforms it into an extension of his sensibility, which is assumed to be constant, priceless, and inviolable. This is, to say the least, a mystification. But it is based on the honorable idea that Rauschenberg is a real artist who yet reaches out beyond art and tells us something about seeing and discovering the world in new ways.

I was born the year Rauschenberg began the red paintings. For me, having grown up in the collage-oriented Bay Area, Rauschenberg’s was the first living painting.

It was contemporary art, and I understand it as a sibling, not as a parental model. More than that, I accepted it as art, as what art naturally was, without hesitation. There was never any problem about whether it was Dada or anti-art; its status was never in question. I never thought of even the most extreme combines as ugly, and the original beauty has not worn thin.

I never had to be “won over” to Rauschenberg’s program. His playful effortlessness and promiscuous materialism are understood psychologically in an instant. For the young, untrained eye, the red paintings and the combines are as easily read as a photograph: things are what they appear to be, neither abstraction nor art history intervenes. I think Rauschenberg’s early involvement with photography (1949) shows his love of what happens on the surface and the primacy of the thing over formal considerations. Photography in the West has always been a concrete illustration of reality, and the satisfaction of almost all the population’s visual “needs.” (Both these things serve and are served by photography’s essential use in commercial and promotional advertising.) It is the source of knowledge about what exists, and it holds out the possibility of gratification (consumerism). In Rauschenberg’s work, it is the world made usable as material, as shared experience, and the possibility of access without possession.

RAUSCHENBERG WAS BORN in 1925. That makes him a Great Depression baby. Although he was apparently a poor student, he was admitted to the University of Texas. The first “artworks” he saw were reproductions of paintings in libraries in California. He had bad experiences with rigid art training, as with Albers. He seems to have preferred photography, dance and music (or, at least, dancers and musicians). Education meant specialization and certain disciplines which seemed “imported” and unrelated to Rauschen berg’s rootless life-style which was alienated from center of “culture”; the kind of “teaching” he preferred was that of John Cage: nonacademic, tinged with Asian philosophy, interdisciplinary, and permissive. Cage, more than ten years Rauschenberg’s senior, was, at the time of Black Mountain, already over forty years old. His reputation was still in the wilderness. There was instilled there, I think, a dedication to a kind of poverty, and a resistance to authority.

Between the end of the war and 1960, roughly, Rauschenberg was poor. Photography is an inexpensive art hobby. The dirt paintings were made with free materials. The rope and box objects made in North Africa were expendable and cumbersome objects thrown in a river. (It is no coincidence that the Zen/Cage philosophy of personal “giving up” was very attractive to him and was a rationalized explanation of Rauschenberg’s already formed ethic of nonpossession.) The white paintings are, on one level, about the possibilities of interest in minimal amounts of material. It is, then, of interest that Rauschenberg was to lose all his work in two fires (1951). His art was made from junk material, logically, if only to reflect its precariousness in the course of the world.

Rauschenberg’s developed taste for discarded material and mass-produced items is reflected in his own prodigious production, his easy attitude toward subject matter, and his belief that the subject matter itself must reflect its origin and history. And the “work” of the artist becomes the transference of material from the world to painting (as Rosalind Krauss has written). The combine painting must be secure enough to handle the onslaught of real-world residues, while maintaining an ambivalent relation to their extra-art associations. Johns’ Flags must be both flags and paintings; Rauschenberg’s junk must be both junk and art.

Now there is some irony in the fact that paintings made from the waste of capitalism find their way into the great masterpieces of capitalism’s art. Like Picasso’s and Schwitters’ collages, Rauschenberg’s creations, made from the most banal materials, and without the prized craft of traditional realism, became priceless artworks. Working with a knowledge of Dada (as well as Cubist collage) he knew that it was impossible to portray his subjects, that there could be no “representation” of junk; there had to be actual junk. This attitude could be extended beyond the painting. So, later, he added large three-dimensional objects to a canvas. Rauschenberg literalized the space and dissociated its detritus from its possible political/economic meaning. This neutralization has been pointed out by Max Kozloff, who suggests that Rauschenberg’s attitude toward something like the NASA space program carries with it unavoidable contradictions in terms of professed sympathies with technology and his erstwhile activism against agencies which derive their power from those industrial/ military technologies.

THERE IS NO cynicism or distrust in Rauschenberg (if anything sets him apart from Johns, it’s that). Rauschenberg takes the look of collage and the permissiveness of the readymade without using their respective conceptual underpinnings. There is no idea with Rauschenberg; there is little intellectualization. There is chosen and arranged material. The very variety of material makes it almost impossible to say anything “wrong” or irrelevant about his work.

In his opposition to the conceptual premises of the readymade (or his indifference to them), Rauschenberg has consistently refused to deal in gestures. The readymade gets its sustenance as a powerful criticism, as a (visually) acute representation of a highly defined position. A gesture is preceded by an analysis of basic assumptions about art. It involves an alienation of one aspect of a convention from the given set. Rauschenberg does not isolate things; he brings them together. He works at the point where collage and the readymade meet, but the radical aspects of both are cancelled out in his best works. Cubist collage is based on a space which is metaphorical and puts pressure on that space by the introduction of real objects. Readymades isolate objects and rely on that isolation (extended to the isolation of the museum context) for meaning.

Rauschenberg does not work with metaphorical space, nor does he depict space. Utterly literal, the space of his work is also very traditionally constructed. The collages (especially the red paintings, but also the silk-screened ones) are more “classically” arranged than either a Cubist painting or a Schwitters collage. The paintings are composed in areas of tension/repose, with clusters of tightly constructed accumulations of detailed object/materials and large areas of untrammeled fabric (or some kind of area without incident.) Collection and Rebus have such deliberate balance of parts and stress points. Small Rebus has the most incredible diagonal composition, with paint smears, runners in a photograph, stamps and Europa being raped all tilting to the upper right hand corner with an offhand elegance.

What this amounts to is that Rauschenberg is interested in the formal only insofar as it is visually pleasing, and that makes his form basically decorative. In Picasso, letters function as “flat,” and are readable (they spell something). Letters show up in Rauschenberg, but they either don’t spell anything, or are only details on another, general surface (comics or newspaper or street sign). The reason why it would be ridiculous to give a formal description of a Rauschenberg is because he does not compose space even though he balances parts. Form becomes an occasion for the exercise of bald decorative devices (simple repetition, placing one thing next to another in rows, local consistency and density of material, overall balancing, flatness, etc.). The most basic quality of a decorative surface is that it is complete (in itself) but arbitrary (in that the edge could have been made anywhere). And this is just how Rauschenberg’s paintings work.

The proof of this can be shown negatively, by the failure of Rauschenberg’s three-dimensional, freestanding combines. Unlike the conventional, arbitrary space of a painting, the space of sculpture is unbounded. Rauschenberg tries to map two-dimensional collage into three dimensions, but he cannot find a way of locating our view, for the sculptural space is constantly being threatened with the real world at every turn. Since he composes parts without composing space as a whole, the paintings are defined locally; the sculptures exist without differentiation (usually because of the homogeneity of the material) and nonarbitrarily (they are meant to end where they end in space by their own physicality).

The great Rauschenberg paintings from 1953 to 1958 (the year he had his first show at Castelli’s), have many interesting facets, but I am going to continue my line of thought about the relation of this work to decoration. I am thinking of the fabrics and pillow cases, the hats and ties, the pieces of carved wood, the linens and quilts, the rugs and the washing towels, the rags and embroidered doilies and lace. And these patterned objects, sewn and printed, besides functioning decoratively on the painting, are themselves designed with nonfunctional decorative elements.

The basic assumption that a painting is first of all an object is now a worn-out idea. As a working thesis and model explicated by Jasper Johns, it has provoked painting for the last 20 years. Now, although Rauschenberg’s work was clearly established, widely admired and historically secure at the same moment as Johns’, it has carried little weight and exercised limited influence for succeeding art (mainstream, New York art). The only exception to this is possibly James Rosenquist, and the Red Grooms/Ray Johnson circle.

As Rauschenberg’s work subscribed neither to the strictures of modernism nor the imperatives of the readymade, it followed a course too diverse and irregular to function as a model; there was no logical “next step” out of his art. But moreover, I suggest that the decorative basis of Rauschenberg’s work, both his general latent bias in favor of the decorative and the explicitly decorative units, put off both critics and artists from understanding what now may be interpreted as his adversary position. A decorative basis allowed Rauschenberg to show us what a painting could be of, not just what a painting could be. This point of view would obviously have nothing to offer art wrapped up in its own self-definition. Rauschenberg, I think, looked backward because he did not question the fact of painting, but rather, as I have said, he reinforced the very notion of painting as a decorative object hung on a wall. (The visual evidence strongly rejects Leo Steinberg’s thesis of Rauschenberg’s psychological tilt of the picture plane towards a “flatbed,” oriented like a desk or other horizontal surface.)

Yet the decorative effects Rauschenberg created with collage differ from what we might expect from such a strategy because, instead of abstract or schematic decorative units, Rauschenberg introduces a “reformed” realism, by means of photographs. Here, his choice of photos involves three general kinds of images, or subject matter.

One is the action photo: runners, pole vaulters, dancers, mountain climbers, baseball pitchers, birds in flight, etc. These are representations of physical movement. A finite stable painting may allude to movement, but it cannot have actual motion in time (which Rauschenberg nevertheless made literal in the sprouting grass paintings). The subject of time was taken up in the Clock series in the late ’60s, and clocks have been used in combine paintings—and they, of course, measure time by movement. The photograph, of course, “stops” the time and the action. Almost all writers have noticed how Rauschenberg holds action in “abeyance” (Alan Solomon), or “delay” (Rosalind Krauss),or more suggestively, Max Kozloff’s “fascinated passivity,” where the whole idea of freezing movement is extended to public voyeurism.

The second kind of photograph is the reproduced artwork: Titian, Leonardo, van Gogh, Renoir, Goya, etc. This use of cultural artifacts reminds us that anything is subject to mass media’s unending attempt to expropriate everything possible from its original function and turn it into a commodity, and, more specifically, kitsch. As Rauschenberg is not, in this period, interested in using unique materials, this particular reference to past art is a mildly ironic lesson in art history, whose icons may be reduced and transferred to a dish towel, or postcard, or calendar. Anything becomes kitsch when it is better known through reproductions of itself than through the real thing (the Mona Lisa, Mount Rushmore, Beethoven’s Fifth as rock music).

The last category of “photograph” is closely related to the second; it is the image of the famous person. Rauschenberg favors Kennedy, Gloria Vanderbilt, Abraham Lincoln, Merce Cunningham, Krushchev. We know famous people by their faces, reproduced photographically in mass media.

The same seems to have happened to the image of Rauschenberg’s art, conditioned by its reproduction in the mass media, by photographs of his work unavailable to all those who cannot travel to European museums to see them first-hand, those of us who only know it from the Forge monograph and the art press. Despite the incredible number of graphics and posters, the works we know best are the ones we see again and again in photographs. That means we know them in the wrong size and the wrong scale, in the wrong colors and as illustrations to a text. So then, Bed becomes, like Rubens’ Venus, mined as a piece of historical kitsch, collaged on the front of Time. In short, Rauschenberg has been misappropriated by the media, which he himself has scavenged.

Rauschenberg’s subject matter, then, is that of an industrialized urban environment; it is tied to the people who live there, who travel among the dumps and walk along the streets. It is the waste of overconsumption and obsolesence. The newspapers are the day-to-day garbage of mass communications. Larger sign letters are decorative—disintegrated leftovers from another social usage.

The color in Rauschenberg’s early paintings is not just any color, and the paint is not just any kind of paint. It is commercial wall paint, commercial printer’s ink and the colors available for our living spaces. Just as the objects penetrate the painting from the real world, keeping their self-color, so too does the paint. Paint is what covers a real wall as well as an oil painting. The white paintings show us that the simplest kind of nonfunctional, decorative addition to a wall/painting is a single monochrome coat of paint.

When Rauschenberg turned to the silkscreen for the transferring of images onto canvas, he was able to “go public” in reference and also extend the process of reproduction to his material (images). Before, the materials in the collages and combines were things anyone could get or everyone has, but with the possible exception of the photographs, they did not lend themselves to repetition from one work to the next. In fact, the fabric and patterned designs were just part of a large whole of similar material, and so could not be discreetly repeated as a single thing. Factum I and II are about the inability to repeat a painting using the same materials.)

Suddenly, with the screens, the same image could be re-used and a new internal consistency was achieved, available before only through color. Far from being only items within his own biography, or objects he happened upon, or objects which we only use privately (clothing, towels, doilies or umbrellas), Rauschenberg shared these images with a large public: Kennedy, the Statue of Liberty, urban skylines, factories, military vehicles, helicopters, the bald eagle, traffic, space flight. Although actually more traditional in technique (there is no more there than paint on canvas) the paintings of 1962–64 are finally liberated from the decorative functions (the images themselves are not decorative and thus cannot be handled in that way), and the balancing and “placing” of the earlier work. They are no longer arranged locally, nor are they arranged as parts; they are paratactically unstructured. The images float without regard to each other, images slip off the canvas, overlap each other, and generally look confused.

Although the color screen paintings come dangerously close to being “expensive” (they are done in a very expensive technical process and were done when money for them became available), the subjects fight off facility which arrives with the luscious color and beautifully “badly” painted criss-crosses and color spectrums. They were to be the last paintings where material of definite reality and emotive power were to be used in his paintings.

UP TO THIS point, Rauschenberg’s career is similar to Picasso’s in terms of their common itinerary of success and the progression from poverty to economic stability, “outsider” to “insider” status. Picasso reached this status before the First World War, and it hit Rauschenberg on the eve of Vietnam, race riots, student unrest and the peace movement. While Picasso was to enter a safe Neoclassic period after the war in reaction to the Dada reaction, Rauschenberg withdrew from painting altogether during the crisis period. By 1964, he was preparing his retrospectives at the Jewish Museum and at Whitechapel. He took a tour around the world with the Cunningham Dance Company and intensified his dedication to lithography.

In the next decade, a change occurred. While his art suffered, he became involved with technology and identified himself more closely with the powers that created the waste he had once used without judgment—now, he positively affirmed science and the corporate presence as they were to lead out from the world dilemmas. Giving up residues littering the streets, he took up hardware handed him by agencies and foundations.

So then, this period is filled with combine drawings, multiples, performances and political work. Rauschenberg put his art to the service of a variety of causes: the re-election of Jacob Javits, money for CORE, Judson Church, The Paris Review, Earth Day, for the improvement of the laws that relate to artists’ rights, and the Metropolitan’s Centennial. These were (artistically) secondary to ephemeral Evenings of Art and Technology and the Experiments in Art and Technology.

During this time, Rauschenberg took the extreme position which his work always suggested, and the screen paintings and lithography made obvious—that the artist could produce in monumentally large quantities, especially if one had the optimistic thought that they might “improve the world,” in Cage’s own words. So in more than one way, Rauschenberg became involved with issues derived from Duchamp: he quit painting and he exposed himself through mass reproduction. And at this point, Picasso and Duchamp and Rauschenberg meet. For all became little more than what their media images allowed them to be. They internalized and acted upon the myth of the genius, the artist as genius.

As far as Rauschenberg is consumed with materials and not ideas, the tension between the commonness and availability of material and the specialness of the art object is gone, once it assumed that everything he does emanates, not from his sensuous materialism and eye for detail, but from “genius.” With the coming of Pop art, the artist was elevated to media giant in new ways—it made him a star. He became a commodity and a ripe target for rip-offs while being “praised.” Since Rauschenberg’s work has always been strongly autobiographical, it is easy to be more interested in who he is than what he does, and the media try to separate those things to mystify both.

From the supply of magazine photos, and paper, and possibilities to work in France and India, Rauschenberg became undone, with “too much art.” He tried to fight it with theater and scientific technology. As Harold Rosenberg has written (in The Anxious Object), “[Painting] retains its vigor only as long as it continues to sustain its dilemmas: if it slips over into action (”life“) there is no painting.” And so it was with Rauschenberg.

Although at the time it was not understood, Rauschenberg was making a “statement” when he reissued the white paintings in 1968. It was an admission that painting was hopeless. It had been attacked by sculpture and multimedia, and Pop art was dead, and Minimal painting—well, Minimal painting looked suspiciously like misread Rauschenbergs from 1951. It was also the first time he descended to “gesture” art, and it signaled something deeply troubling. He was becoming self-conscious about his position, the “problems” of art and started looking to art for subject matter instead of the world at large.

ROSALIND KRAUSS HAS written that the specific issues which interested her in Rauschenberg’s early work reappeared in his paper pieces in 1974, but that they did not represent a return to the quality of the earlier work. But she did not give any reason why this was the case. I agree with her judgment, but I would like to add why I have come to that position.

For Rauschenberg, the art he has been producing is so intimately connected with his life-style that it is once again impossible to separate biography from the art.

It was painful to read Rauschenberg speaking of being poor in New York when he first got there, and living hand to mouth for many years; it was upseting because I could only wish he could be poor again, for his art was the richer for it. He also said (in the same Time article) that “we all get comfortable in the end.” Although he apparently lives simply at his retreat in Florida (Picasso supposedly lived simply in his country villas), it is a prerogative of the rich to choose where they shall live simply. “You don’t know how many disturbances I miss out on down here,” he says, but we do know, we can see it in his work. His work has become slack and undisturbed.

Too many combine drawings fill up the missing years 1965–1970 before he returned to unique-object production, and these are all dimmed-out versions of the screen paintings. The only work from 1971 is Castelli Small Turtle Bowl, which, despite its title, is a gigantic piece of cardboard, and it “relates” to the Tampa series and the Cardbirds. By virtue of its uniqueness and size, I take it as the “major” work of this period. It is, as far as I could ascertain, a large cardboard box opened up and attached to wood stretchers. No image, no painting, no attachments, no detail save some staples and writing in magic marker. It is just a single thing, what it is and nothing else. It is material as object as readymade, not as painting. Rauschenberg’s entire sensibility is not compatible with single-image art. He must use details and surface variety. The individual constituents of his collages could never stand on their own; their meaning derives from collage where they are art/decoration and material/subjects.

This is where it hit me hardest: it is no longer necessary for Rauschenberg to do anything but choose and sign—everything he picks up automatically becomes art.

The Pyramid series, all white with embedded white cloths, is more uninflected surface material; the problem is that if we are not fascinated with the paper as material there is no reasonable interest here. As for his sculptures, they are throwbacks to the works he dumped in the river in Italy. Long limp ropes are attached to clay blocks; lumpy mud cakes and thin rusted metal tubes are connected to each other suggestively. For the first time in Rauschenberg’s career we are reminded of younger artists’ work, in particular, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. The surrealism which hung over the older three-dimensional work is right out in the open. Mannerism sets in and he hangs works from the ceiling and plays with strained punning and enervated, twisting forms. This possessive, obsessive attachment to art materials engages us on the level of production only.

The Hoarfrosts are a return to transferred images, and they are, on the most basic level, really beautiful works. When there is a color, a pattern, an image to impress your eye’s memory, then individual pieces come to life—it can be a swimmer diving into a blue pool, a swath of striped cloth, peach silk with a bucket.

The problem with the embedded collages from newspapers and magazines is that they are too light to read, too randomly placed to come forward as single pieces of material, and consequently serve as the background. The problem is that there is no “foreground.” Materials are no longer on a separate but equal footing: they run into one another without definition. They can be seen whole as pleasant decoration, but with such a relaxation of intention and dehydrated image that they become “dematerialized.” There is no way for the images to be framed or tautened, because the canvas stretcher has been forsaken for a spectator/material interaction. Left suspended, easily breezing back and forth as people walk by, they remind one of a belabored point made by the white paintings about the shadows of passing onlookers.

Rauschenberg can’t seem to get the bleach out of his system. It’s the parched look from the sand and sun and the sky and it is not shared experience—it reflects Rauschenberg’s new retreat from his audience. When one approaches the Jammers, it is not so much that he has forsaken’ everything to develop something new; it is a comfortable skimming of the surface look of his older work. The waving silk sails of the Jammers are, again, gorgeous but empty. Whereas the combines exhibited the energy of the baseball players who graced them, the concentration of the dancers who moved in them, we now have to settle for the inferred pleasure cruise, the yacht on the sea and the leisure of sunbathing. The silks and cloths, luscious and deeply hued, are like the ones in the early Minutia—but they are no longer found, roughed up from being in the garbage, which gave them a curious life of their own. The spotless blues and yellows and whites, all in yards of shimmering satin, were manufactured to be art and that’s all. They came into the world with that functionless function. They “progress” from material to art with no in between, no effort.

One thing these works make clear: art looks different when it’s made away from New York City. Rauschenberg has been doing crypto-L.A. art now for five years—wooden poles leaned against the wall; “paintings” without stretchers; good-looking, precious materials, offhand but elegantly flowing. Florida and Southern California is where people 10 years past Rauschenberg’s age go to retire. That is his experience right now—but as one member of his audience, I confess that in my experience, art made in a beautiful environment can never compete with the beauty of the environment, and when shown in a dirty urban space, it cannot help but look like postcards from a tropical vacation, unrelated to day-to-day life.

THE RETROSPECTIVE AT the National Collection was sneaky in one respect. The hanging was chronologically backward—from the Jammers to the white and black paintings. The two conspicuous Jammers chosen were an all-white, five-“panel” one and an all-black three-sectioned one. So, some kind of circular continuity was being established even though there is none. It unfortunately gave the impression of finality when Rauschenberg is, we hope, still in mid-career. On top of this, the first room is incredibly weak—it included, of all things, a composite transfer drawing/Christmas card, Yule ’75, with a long list of prestigious lenders. (The catalogue’s wonderful typo lists them as “leaders”). All one could say, if one knew the work, is that it had to get better because all those great works were back there, fulfilling enough for anyone.

The Rauschenberg retrospective was shown at the National Collection of Fine Arts from October 30 to January 2. It will be at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from March 25 to May 17. From there it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 24–August 21; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, September 23–October 30; and the Art Institute of Chicago, December 3–January 15, 1978.