PRINT September 1997

Open Charms

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a corny and annoying movie, for sure, but like a lot of corny and annoying movies, it’s grounded in a solid premise: that the fabric of the social world is so seamless and closely woven that individual contributions to its texture and configuration are perceptible only by imagining it without them. So try this little trick with me: Stand up here with the angel for a moment and look down on the ’50s and ’60s in the United States and Europe. Now (a snap of the fingers!), envision that same world without Robert Rauschenberg. Note the immediate visual deficit; the sudden scarcity of quick and dirty; the diminishment of fast and glamorous; the drought of permission, generosity, resourcefulness, dishabille, texture, and laughter.

Observe, as well, the declining failure rate (because fewer chances are being taken) and the gradual balkanization of the art world, now lacking those delicate networks, connections, collaborations, and confusions that were dependent upon Rauschenberg’s ebullient sociability. Ask yourself this: Whose spirit held this thing together? Who stood there, magically poised between the Abstract Expressionists, the Dadameisters, the Popsters, the Fluxii, the Black Mountaineers, and the Techno-nerds? Who, in his absence, will work that woozy territory between painting, dance, sculpture, theater, drawing, music, printmaking, assemblage, and design? Who will chart the space between art and life—explore the cultural junkyard between News at Eleven and the documented past? To whom does one look for permission to perform the task at hand with the materials at hand? Who, in fact, has a hand?

To imagine the world without Rauschenberg is to recognize him as the last, great, ecumenical, artistic practitioner. For nearly twenty years, from around 1955 to 1975, he was literally everywhere, and everywhere visible, practicing art. The fact that we don't think about him much these days, I would suggest, is less the consequence of his declining vogue than a signifier of his overwhelming success at knitting our world together. We have lost our taste for his exuberant brand of local invention, but Rauschenberg still encompasses us. We are all in his debt, yet none of us can claim him as our own. The metamorphic abundance of his production is too various, too offhand, and too unfashionably lifelike.

Today we are more specialized. We make nicer distinctions, and more delicate refinements. We make fewer things with cleaner methods, toiling in small departments of a bureaucracy erected on the site of Rauschenberg’s carnival. We practice “video” art, or “installation” art, or “performance” art, or “photo” art, or “digital” art and presume that each of these compartmentalized subgenres partakes of a broader cultural endeavor. The filigree of connections that binds them together, however, dates back to the age of Rauschenberg’s gaudy sideshow, to his untidy, proliferating collection of mutant objects and affable freaks. Their heterogeneous domain defines the site we have resubdivided.

Not surprisingly then, the items of Rauschenberg’s production that appeal to us now are the works that divide, reduce, and negate. We hark back to his ideological work from the early ’50s, to the preliminary statements of permission that he employed to clear the decks for action, because even though we no longer believe in action, we still love clearing the decks. So we are beguiled by the ghostly blueprint, the Model A tire print, the white paintings, the black paintings, the red paintings, the dirt painting, the grass painting—and we are entranced, most of all, by his erasure of de Kooning’s drawing back in 1953, presuming, I suppose, that it marks the birth of the academic industry dedicated to erasing de Kooning on the grounds of ideological insouciance.

So it has come down to this: Robert Rauschenberg, the veritable demiurge of additive, affirmative, combinatorial practice in postwar art, is now “the guy who erased de Kooning.” His action is routinely aligned with Marcel Duchamp’s purportedly revolutionary substitution of shopping for labor (vis à vis a certain bathroom fixture), and construed as one of the talismanic gestures of “antiart,” as a conceptual repudiation of practice (and of de Kooning’s practice in particular), as if Rauschenberg had pulled up a de Kooning on the screen of his Macintosh and hit the delete key. If anything defines Rauschenberg’s inaccessibility in the present, this pervasive misprision does.

Consider these factors: first, Willem de Kooning collaborated on the project. He gave Rauschenberg the drawing that he would subsequently erase and was careful to give him a good one—and one not easily worn away. Thus, far from being a conceptual act, Rauschenberg’s erasure of the drawing was a work, and took a lot of it—a month of carefully expended studio time, during which Rauschenberg reenacted de Kooning’s practice backwards, finally achieving a blank page upon which he could begin anew, but not afresh, since erasing a wonderful drawing brings with it the obligation to replace that work with something equally accomplished.

This is about as far from repudiation as you can get. It is the act of an artist daring himself to rise to the challenge of history, trying, not to obliterate the past, but to invent the present and reconstitute the past in its reflection. Certainly, de Kooning offered his drawing to be erased in just this spirit. Far from being an “act of negation,” then, the work is more like a goodbye to negation. It concludes the deck-clearing portion of Rauschenberg’s career. Thus, having erased the de Kooning, he immediately set about replacing it, offering up in its stead a cornucopia of dazzling, catch-all paintings and objects, the bulk of which objectify the look and feel of de Kooning’s practice while employing the detritus of contemporary culture to emphasize the analogies that de Kooning himself insisted upon between his manner and the turbulent fluidity of contemporary urban life.

Viewed from this perspective, Rauschenberg’s de Kooning project faces both ways, marking the end of his negations and his first generous embrace of art as social practice. It initiates his period of joyful and restless collaboration—first with de Kooning, then with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Yvonne Rainer, Billy Klüver, Ron Tyler, NASA, his dog Laika, and the garbage in the alley. In the sociability of art/life, one operates in the midst of things. Thus, manners, morals, politics, and aesthetics are as indistinguishable in Rauschenberg’s practice as they are in Warhol’s, although, unlike Warhol, Rauschenberg invariably devotes all his generosity to the task of inventing the present. History, theory, and desire submit to its specificity and contingency, not the other way around.

“Today is their creator,” he said of his early white paintings; and in Rauschenberg’s moment of triumph, he took a practice of art embedded in a dream of “history” and delivered it into the densely populated present. The works still reside there, but we, I suspect, no longer do. We are living in “history” again, and worrying about Rauschenberg in history. Is he “really important?” Is he “really a great artist?” Jesus, who knows? Are Pontormo and Tiepolo great artists? Are Fragonard and Boucher? Is Picabia? Polke? Who cares? They are wonderful artists whom we cannot do without, as is Rauschenberg a wonderful artist whom we cannot do without—and wonder is an attribute of the present, only available to us if we can get there. If we do, Rauschenberg will be waiting there for us—with some really cool stuff.

Dave Hickey is a freelance writer who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. His most recent book, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, is forthcoming from Art Issues Press.