PRINT September 1997

History Printer

STROLLING THROUGH THE LOUVRE with French critic Pierre Schneider, Barnett Newman stopped before Delacroix’s grandly theatrical The Death of Sardanapalus. Newman, in his quaint American diction, conferred upon Robert Rauschenberg an art-historical pedigree: “The cut-out forms, the jumble, Guernica, even Rauschenberg is related to this. It is what in journalism we used to call ‘circus layout’: make a mix-up of the page. It’s like a three ring circus. A lot of things going on at the same time.”

Newman was right. There were a lot of things going on at the same time in Rauschenberg right from the beginning. Though he tried hard to elude the toils of art history (he always denied such obvious precursors as the Dadaists, and especially Schwitters), if we peer closely enough at Rauschenberg’s origins, we can see that his rejection of history was paradoxically an acknowledgment of it. Consider a letter he wrote to Betty Parsons around 1951. He announces his famous white paintings with a Zen-like intonation borrowed, no doubt, from his mentor John Cage who, at the time, was busy delivering his lavishly Eastern non-lectures. Rauschenberg tells his dealer that his white paintings deal with “the plastic fullness of nothing, the point a circle begins and ends.” But this series is also “a natural response to the current pressures and the faithless, and a promoter of institutional optimism.” In a statement of what would become a recurrent preoccupation in a half-century of undertakings, Rauschenberg concluded: “Today is their creator.” By adding up a myriad of todays, Rauschenberg assumed then that he was making a historical statement, a “natural response to current pressures.” Nothing reveals this ambition more than his audacious joust with Dante himself, which produced what I still think of as his magnum opus. (He never continued his dialogue with the Florentine master of the demotic, perhaps because homo ludens was stronger in Rauschenberg than in his adversary.)

The talkers of “no history,” who so strenuously denied, with Rauschenberg, any provenance for his enfant terriblism, will now have to become Ringmeisters in his three-ring circus (retrospectively, of course) by imposing some kind of order on his willed chaos. Today is now yesterday after all. As far as I know, there are no sewing machines or dissecting tables in Rauschenberg’s art, but there are plenty of “as beautiful as . . . ” encounters. What is that Rubens doing there in the midst of the slipping and sliding imagery of the day? I suspect that it will be the deep spadework of the Surrealists that will make it possible for the ringmasters to read historical intelligibility into Rauschenberg’s half-century of ludic labors. The goat, the bed, Dante: what they have in common is precisely the Surrealist prescription of juxtaposition, an endless painting of the unlike in ever-changing perspectives. Images. Dante and Kennedy. Goat and tire. Up and down. In and out. Never at rest, always spurring the viewer’s response by enjoining his imagination to countenance the unlikely. Above all, the contingent.

But that’s not all.

There is the international life of the performer to consider—his public enfant terriblism that so often administered marvelous shock. Rauschenberg thrust his person into art history by tramping the world, always prodigiously aiming to fill up that famous gap between art and life. In Japan, he ordered a golden screen, which the renowned iemoto, Sofu Teshigahara, had made up to the most splendid and costly classical standards. Rauschenberg confronted this elegant artifact in his demonstration-performance and lunged at it, making a great slash, which positively thrilled his audience with horror. And what about the much touted erasure of a de Kooning drawing? Yes. This antagonist to history made history by calling attention to it.

And that’s still not all. There was also his entry into the world of the future by way of E. A. T., Experiments in Art and Technology, which he, together with Billy Klüver and others, launched. Rauschenberg, with his inventive sense of play, far outdistanced the other aspirants in futurology. I loved the pinging vibrations of his electronic tennis game in the very Armory where once Duchamp had delivered his own in 1913. Not to mention the beautiful (what would he say to such an adjective?) installation of musical chairs—a positively magical tableau-vivant in which sounds were emitted by sensors activated by the slightest movements and voices of the spectator.

Rauschenberg used to tell me, while we worked on his livre de luxe of Dante’s Inferno, “There’s more to the world than paint.” Like many of his generation, he did not approve of his progenitors and the way they had strayed into painterly metaphysics. He wanted to inject a homeopathic dose of humor, and at the same time, a dose of still another metaphysic that he had absorbed from the angelism of John Cage and the indifference of Marcel Duchamp. That grand and ambivalent insouciance, at once iconoclastic and–oh dear–life-enhancing, harked back to some Zen artists who long ago proclaimed the rights of the impure.

So. The goat, the bed, Dante, and the electronic tennis game and, not so long ago, at the august Metropolitan museum, a labyrinthine quarter mile of retrospective images, definitely designed to tell a history, in which Rauschenberg’s spirit of topicality all but did him in. The fate of the topical, when it strays outside form, when it adheres to the old newspaper circus layout is, alas, the fate of yesterday’s newspaper. Just the same, in the trail of vivid fragments Rauschenberg leaves behind him as he makes his mondial way, there will certainly follow some pedantic Theseus who will “place” him in history and unravel all of his artful dodges.

Still, here he is, uptown and downtown, with one foot in and one foot out.