PRINT September 1997

This Is Now

IN 1951, at the height of Jackson Pollock’s achievement as a painter, even his most ardent admirers had yet to articulate the radical implications of lowering the canvas from easel to floor. At that same moment, the neophyte artists Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil were already extending that breakthrough procedure into new territory. Their horizontal imprints of human bodies on blueprint paper share a seamless, allover procedure with the great poured canvases, yet recover simultaneously the monumental human figure that had been all but banished from New York School painting. Collaboration between the sexes; the deployment of industrial materials; the substitution of bodily index for painted sign: an adequate vocabulary for comprehending the implications of the blueprint pieces lay ten to twenty years in the future. Not only critics, but the entire interested audience for advanced art, had only just absorbed the terms of an American modernism predicated on a certain look of freely gestured pigment. Underlying principles that might be more vividly realized in other procedures and other media lay, for the moment, beyond conscious apprehension.

As Rauschenberg acutely felt the need for a context in which he might gauge the import of his work, he appeared to have no recourse but the one established by the generation before him. Those artists, as it happened, had enjoyed an exceptional convergence between their own first maturity and the ripening of critical intelligence in figures like Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, among others. That coincidence doubly enhanced the charisma of all the parties involved. Rauschenberg sought out the Betty Parsons Gallery for his first shows because of her sponsorship of Pollock and Clyfford Still—because, as he put it, “I just wanted to know if there was something I was doing that was remotely related to what they were doing.”1

The relationship was, of course, far from remote, but no one there had the capacity to tell him what it was. It was therefore a stroke of good fortune that his search for a community of the imagination succeeded in another quarter entirely; the Parsons exhibition drew the attention of composer John Cage, began a long friendship between the two, and opened the first context of engaged response that Rauschenberg was to enjoy. On the heels of the New York show, both men returned to Black Mountain College in what may have been its freest, most loosely experimental period, the young artist reappearing more as a peer of its stellar faculty than as the untested student he had been two years before. The monochromes Rauschenberg began there took him in two opposed directions: the black paintings toward a saturated repleteness (he said that he began them by painting over a ground of newspapers so that the field would already be full of marks2); the white paintings toward a barely touched emptiness and vulnerability to every event in their vicinity. It was the latter that provoked Cage’s enthusiastic approval: the composer would one day recall—in a frequently quoted remark—that the canvases seemed like “airports for lights, shadows, and particles.”3

Cage, as Rauschenberg later recalled, “was the only one who gave me permission to continue my own thoughts.”4 And the gift was reciprocated: that same hothouse summer, when David Tudor performed 4'33“, Cage’s composition inspired by the younger artist’s example, Rauschenberg gained an elating critical response that no writer on art was in a position to offer. The white canvases were on the artist’s mind when he wrote to Betty Parsons about exhibition plans for the coming year: ”they take you to a place in painting art has not been. They are large white (I white as I God) canvases organized and selected with the experience of time and presented with the innocence of a virgin.“ The terms of his appeal make plain how much he had come to reciprocate Cage’s philosophical take on the work; as he put it to Parsons, ”It is completely irrelevant that I am making them—today is their creator."5 He went so far as to swear that he would forfeit all rights to any further shows for the chance to exhibit these works alone.

In any event, Parsons declined his entreaties to support “the plastic fullness of nothing.” As Rauschenberg later put it with some delicacy, “there was confusion and unrest over my point of view with some of the other Betty Parsons artists,”6 a reaction that would became manifest when he showed the black and white monochromes at Eleanor Ward’s new Stable Gallery in 1953. There he faced his first assault of critical hostility, not least of which included that launched by some of the older New York artists. But Rauschenberg’s coming to terms with the resistance to his work was inspired: he enlisted the cooperation—and thus the complicity—of the acknowledged leader among the abstract painters. His notorious act of erasing a drawing solicited from Willem de Kooning in no way obliterated its object; instead, with the faint ghost of the heavy original marks still visible after weeks of labor (and another drawing showing from the opposite side of the sheet), it made it possible for his white paintings and an autograph piece of de Kooning’s art to be apprehended in parallel to one another—the internal contrasts of the latter being diminished to the point that it demanded the same slowed-down, hyper-receptive mode of attention in order to yield up its visual rewards.

NOT THAT MANY WERE YET PREPARED to respond in this way. And where achievement exceeds the available frames of explanation, the usual suspicion is of trickery or fraud. Leo Steinberg was at least good humored when faced with some early “combine” sculptures in 1956: “On the merry work of Robert Rauschenberg the kindest commentary I can make is that some of my friends, whose (other) judgments I respect, think it not out of place in an art exhibition. Presumably these ‘combines’ of elaborated whimsy, glue, and chic will steal the show. Eulenspiegel is abroad again, and one must be patient.”7 With the best of critics in this frame of mind, Rauschenberg’s need for useful responses found a long-term, intimate answer in his relationship with Jasper Johns. As each has acknowledged, the two young transplants from the South saw one another’s work daily and formed their own shifting dyad of artist-audience, each giving the other, as Cage had once done, “the permission to do what they wanted.” As is well known, Johns at first gratefully assumed the role of apprentice within their alliance: as he later recalled, “Bob was the first person I knew who was a devoted painter, whose whole life was geared to painting.”8 What can be known of their shared existence has been recounted elsewhere;9 what matters here is what Rauschenberg saw in the mirror of his junior partner’s fledgling practice and gathering confidence as an independent voice.

In this light, Johns’ famous destruction of his early work in 1954 takes on considerable weight. The few surviving pieces that had safely passed into other hands show the reflection of certain Rauschenberg trademarks: Johns’ untitled monochrome panel of 1954 reproduces the uniformly encrusted, peeling surface of the black paintings; the embellishment of Construction with Toy Piano comes out of Rauschenberg’s characteristically free way with grids of newspaper collage; even the obsessive layers of graphite in the drawing of two oranges mimics the act of erasing de Kooning in reverse (and had Johns carried out his first plan to paint Flag on a bedsheet, the echoes would have lingered longer10). While Johns in no way abandons these traits, he comes to bury them under a firm geometry of encaustic color, where they lose the look of controlled disorder that Rauschenberg habitually sought. The appearance of restraint and impersonality that he achieved in the process struck a powerful chord with opinion-formers like Alfred Barr when Johns achieved his sudden and startling recognition in 1958; and the abrupt change in their relative degrees of success is likely to have played a part in the artists’ break a few years later.

At the beginning, however, Rauschenberg went out of his way to push his partner’s work to the fore. He acknowledged the productive give and take in Short-Circuit, an early combine he showed at the Stable Gallery in 1955, containing a small version of Johns’ Flag set into a compartment of the relief tableau. Also visible yet equally unrecognized in that relief were the divergent paths the artists would follow thereafter: Johns’ achievement of powerful compactness and condensation in his painting-objects coincided with Rauschenberg’s violation of conventional borders in both two and three dimensions.

The piece that most decisively established the latter’s shift in direction contains both direct and indirect tributes to his partnership with Johns: an untitled construction, probably finished in the latter part of 1954, breaks the planar Cubist arrangement that constrained a work like Rebus; among the collages of small photographs that cover its various surfaces is one of Johns, while a pair of white buck shoes lend a concrete, intimate presence to the large, framed image of the young, southern dandy who anchors the left corner of the combine. The mutable expansiveness of Rauschenberg’s constructions lent rhetorical force to his confident assumption (as he later recalled it) “that my friends and I were inventing art.”11 The necessary granting of permission shows itself less in any record of personal encouragement by Johns (from which outside observers were in any event barred) and more in reciprocal proposals and responses to one another’s work—in a progressive differentiation within what had been to that point a broadly shared set of procedures and materials. It was enough to sustain Johns in the lengthy interval, three entire years, between the sudden onset of his first mature mode in the studio and its belated exposure to the world in his first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli gallery. Then, as the awakened interest and confirmation of the wider world flooded over Johns, the abruptly overshadowed Rauschenberg turned—of necessity, one would think—toward a drastically different set of stimuli and interlocutors.

CASTELLI WOULD OF COURSE remain his dealer and supporter. But after Johns’ breakthrough, Rauschenberg found greater sustenance in that branch of the enterprise managed by the dealer’s divorced wife Ileana. Her new husband, Michael Sonnabend, is said to have been instrumental in encouraging Rauschenberg’s next decisive move, one even more dramatic in many respects than that fostered by the artist’s alliance with Johns in 1954–55. The project in question was the series of thirty-four drawings illustrating each canto of Dante’s Inferno, the completion of which occupied him, at extended intervals, from mid-1958 well into 1960.

On a technical level, it was through the Dante series that Rauschenberg fully exploited the process of photographic transfer, in this instance a direct and rather primitive use of solvent to dissolve the ink from a magazine or newspaper photograph to the paper underneath (he claims to have initially tried it out during a visit to Cuba with Cy Twombly). He effected the transfer by scoring the back of the clipping with the tip of an empty ballpoint pen, leaving a characteristic flurry of striations running through each imprint. What Rauschenberg lacked in deploying the solvent process was any freedom to manipulate the size of images and thus the relative scale between them; but he brilliantly overcame this shortcoming by exploiting the unavoidable incongruities of size as a primary means for lending visual force to the terrifying verbal figures and vertiginous narrative of the poem.

Rauschenberg’s studious and intensely serious application to the task, his continually apt and surprising discovery of contemporary visual equivalents to the imagery of the poem, undermines any perception—then or now—that his art is a conduit for an undiscriminating “vernacular glance.”12 This notion had just received a powerful, if indirect impetus in 1958 with the prominent publication of Allan Kaprow’s “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” in the pages of ArtNews. There Kaprow—as promoter of Happenings—memorably evoked the advanced urban artist of the moment as one “preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life: either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-Second Street.... He will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness.”13

This description, for all its subsequent influence, never captured more than a partial, not to say secondary, implication of Pollock’s practice. For its pertinence, it depended on the existence of some vivid, contemporary correlative, and no example fit the rhetoric more conspicuously than did Rauschenberg’s combines of the previous three years. But the description, by implication, did nearly as great a disservice to the unmentioned Rauschenberg as it had to Pollock, and with less polemical justification. Like most criticism that seeks to capture a trend of the moment, it summed up a passing tendency and missed the movement in the work as a whole: while Kaprow was rehearsing Cage, Rauschenberg—for whom Cagean random walks were old news—was about to enter a different dialogue with a long-dead classical master.

Over extended periods at an isolated retreat on the Florida coast, far from the “vastness of Forty-Second Street,” Rauschenberg slaved over the Dante drawings, fashioning each sheet as a direct reaction to his first encounter with the canto in question; not until a given drawing was finished did he go on to read the next. But each step in his self-taught acquisition of classical learning led to another. And 1959 saw a distinctly new turn in his parallel production of combine sculptures: Canyon, Pail for Ganymede, and Gift for Apollo all sort through Greek mythology with evident purpose, shifting Rauschenberg’s usual discarded and junk materials into complex reflections on paternal and erotic love between men.14

The stuffed eagle in Canyon made for a deft transition from the Americana that had dominated Rauschenberg’s previous found images to the ancient Mediterranean (simultaneously a preoccupation of his old companion Twombly, then working in Rome). A friend happened to live next door to one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, all of whose belongings had been piled in the corridor after his death. These included the eagle, which then entered the combine trailing the most concrete aura of militant patriotism;15 but once in place, the Rough Rider’s trophy became the disguise of Zeus in his seizing of the beautiful youth Ganymede, carried off to Olympus and installed there as cupbearer to its ruler. Suspended from the canvas frame is a pillow cinched in such a way as to evoke the struggling youth in Correggio’s or Rembrandt’s paintings of the theme; above the eagle is a photograph of a male infant (in fact the artist’s son Christopher as a baby) appearing to beckon toward the sky and thoroughly complicating the account of the ancient god’s act of love.16 Pail for Ganymede permits the perpetual offering of the cup, and in its upright configuration, with head and genital extensions, makes a diminutive, anthropomorphic kouros. Gift for Apollo evokes a god renowned for bisexual attachments, but the pail dangling from a ramshackle chariot calls to mind more the fall of the god’s son Phaeton than, say, his passion for Hyacinth.

Hilton Kramer thus chose his ground poorly when he attacked Rauschenberg (and Johns) as “unlettered vulgarians” without moorings in the great European traditions. Launched from his pulpit as editor of Arts at the beginning of 1959, this was the onset of a real polemic about them both—though Rauschenberg bore the brunt of it. Plainly trading on his insider’s knowledge that the two had made a living dressing shopwindows (under the collective pseudonym Matson Jones), Kramer declared that he saw “no difference between his work and the decorative displays which often grace the windows of Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdale’s. The latter aim to delight the eye with a bright smartness, and Rauschenberg’s work differs from them only in ‘risking’ some nasty touches.” Borrowing from Clement Greenberg the ready-made dismissal of any object-based artwork as testifying to the operations of “taste” rather than genuine art, Kramer proceeded to assign Rauschenberg and Johns together to “the decadent periphery of bourgeois taste.”17

As Kramer had no objection to bourgeois taste as such, the emphasis falls on “decadent,” an insinuating code for unorthodox sexuality: “Like Narcissus at the pool,” he continues, “they see only the gutter and are exhilarated to think that art can be proliferated out of a milieu in which they feel so comfortably at home.” He was not in the end enough of an insider to see how thoroughly Rauschenberg’s work was putting the lie to any unearned putdowns of his education or the level of inherited culture his art could assimilate. The snobbish dishonesty of this invective stung Johns to a rare public protest in a letter to Arts: calling it (with justice) “vicious,” he rose to their common defense with curt, aggrieved dignity. “No abundance of false labels,” he concluded, “will establish the witless hierarchy that Mr. Kramer suggested.”18 Leo Steinberg, too, was moved publicly to dissociate his former dismissive opinion from Kramer’s screed, honorably insisting that the latter print his praise of Rauschenberg’s recent work as a letter to the editor.19

While Kramer thus presumed to speak for Europe, actual Europeans were arriving at different conclusions. As in America, the first to come to a productive reckoning with Rauschenberg’s example—more through the medium of ideas and hearsay than through seeing his work in the flesh—were fellow artists rather than writers. And while exact lines of affiliation remain obscure and much debated, there can be no doubt that his early work put (or put back) on the table a set of important notions for the benefit of an international avant-garde, where they received the sort of systematic elaboration that Rauschenberg himself generally avoided.

During the later ’50s, for example, Yves Klein reiterated—albeit to decidedly different ends—certain premises of the white paintings in his extensive series of monochrome panels; he also resurrected the idea of surfaces encrusted with gold leaf, while his notorious anthropométries shadowed in their results on canvas Rauschenberg’s and Susan Weil’s blueprint traces of the nude (when Klein had his first New York show in 1961, Rauschenberg is said to have found the resemblances irritatingly close20). But the dialogue could also move in a direction opposed to Klein’s bravura staging of his artistic persona. Piero Manzoni’s encased lines of enormous length distinctly echo the tire-print drawing effected with the help of John Cage and a Model A Ford in 1951. In contrast to the Americans, who had made an ironically spectacular display of their mechanized version of the artist’s primal mark on the world, Manzoni hid his from sight, thus carrying out much the same operation in his turn that Rauschenberg had already performed on de Kooning.

It was, again, to be decades before these correspondences were opened up to serious reflection.21 By the end of the ’50s, Rauschenberg himself had moved on, via the Dante project, to graphic representation and an entirely other avenue back to Europe. And that moment, exceptionally, engendered an immediate and lively critical dialogue, when Abrams enlisted Dore Ashton to contribute a set of explanatory commentaries, one for each image/canto, for the facsimile portfolio of the drawings it was publishing. Ashton’s texts had an accessible afterlife: when the drawings were shown in London, for example, visitors could pick up the commentaries as a typescript handout, and Norbert Lynton, writing at the time, pronounced them “an impressive and deeply moving piece of close-to-the-original art writing: quite the best thing to read about Rauschenberg.”22

Ashton had already distinguished herself, among the passing reviews of Rauschenberg’s first New York shows, by her sympathy and originality of response—if largely in casting about for evocative verbal parallels rather than venturing any close analysis. On the Stable Gallery exhibition of the black and white canvases, she had written, “Sick unto death of ‘good painting,’ Rauschenberg has decided that paintings have lives of their own. They come dressed as they are[,] excite, incite, make vacuums in walls.”23 But by 1959 Ashton’s fleeting comments had given way to prolonged immersion in the artist’s own comprehension of his achievement. As she rather breathlessly recalled their collaboration:

In the hours and hours we spent in his studio reading over John Ciardi’s translation and gazing at the drawings, both of us saw the inexhaustible points of departure. The wheel of collaborations—Dante with his predecessors, Dante with posterity, Eliot with Dante, Ciardi with Dante, I with Rauschenberg, and Rauschenberg with all—brings good fortune.

Reading the commentaries alongside the drawings, one does not doubt that her exhilaration was real and justified. Where she does not give herself sufficient credit is in the strong complementarity of her texts to their visual counterparts. While the transferred illustrations often hover near the threshold of visibility amid the washes and furious pencil hatchings that blanket the surface,24 her paraphrases display a telegraph-like concision and bite. They perform the most useful function of any exegesis, bringing to light features of the original that might have remained obscure, without for all that trespassing on the freshness of sudden visual recognitions. Her metaphor of the wheel is the right one, in that the parallel strength of Rauschenberg’s effort is to bring the viewer back to Dante—to make the reader of the poem more refreshed and attentive.

It is rare, of course, that the activity of critical paraphrase has such profound support in another text understood to underlie the visual. It proved to be an exceptional moment for Rauschenberg as well, in that he was to forgo this ground of legibility as he expanded the photographic transfer technique to a more flexible silk-screen medium and the large dimensions of stretched canvas. Ashton had spoken with admiration of his deference to Dante “being in the right key—neither is he servile nor is he competitive.” And this was in part a matter of physical dimensions: “He has made his illustrations on modest, book-size sheets [and] kept them very nearly in grisaille to preserve the character of a book page.”25 The new work on canvas left that decorum behind, which was risky but in keeping with his apparent ambitions. Having done justice to a literary world as immense in dimension as the Inferno, Rauschenberg appears to have imagined that the subdivine comedy of contemporary American life in these explosive years would likewise submit itself to his multivalent allegories.

The direct continuity between the Inferno illustrations and the ’60s work can leave no doubt that they are the product of allegorical thinking, even if the allegories that result remain elusive to most observers. His prints of 1964, subtitled “postscript to 34 Drawings for Dante’s Inferno,” differ so little from the rest of his contemporaneous work as to acknowledge the continuity in explicit terms.26 In one (Mark), a jet fighter climbs the upper right corner while Lyndon Johnson speaks woodenly through a television screen in the lower right; on an arc between them a pole-vaulter seen from above is about to be flung into a zone of furious confusion and danger. Such thematic coherence was fully authorized by habits of viewing inculcated in the Dante series. Ashton had pointed out that throughout those drawings “are statements against militarism, political conflict, senseless patriotism and crass popular ideals, couched in terms dear to Dante’s heart.”27 Writing from France in 1964, Alain Jouffroy was in no doubt that the new paintings carried on in the same vein: in Rauschenberg’s silk-screen paintings he saw “the society of the United States, for the first time, magisterially illuminated as on a stage, where the symbolic objects of ‘the American Way of Life,’ the morality of the obligatory smile, suddenly assumed, before the eyes of the follower (amateur) of art, all of their tragic meaning.”28

Another European enthusiast, Andrew Forge, perceived a connection between the topical and the cosmological in the silkscreen paintings, celebrating Barge—the most monumental of them—as “encyclopedic. Like an atlas it holds out a promise of an entire world.”29 This perception was not, however, widely shared among domestic amateurs of art. While the “text” of Kennedy-era America lacked any agreed-upon structure or key to sustain the allegories that had flowed so readily from the Divine Comedy, there was no basis for ruling them out of existence altogether. Yet this was precisely the critical consensus that greeted Rauschenberg at the next plateau of success. “There are no secret messages in Rauschenberg,” declared Alan Solomon in a 1963 essay, “no program of social or political discontent transmitted in code, no hidden rhetorical commentary on the larger meaning of Life or Art, no private symbolism available only to the initiate.” By his choice of words Solomon meant to make such notions sound absurd, but it is a rare work by the artist that does not have at least one of these traits, and many have all of them. Nevertheless, and despite the glaring counterexample of the Dante drawings, Solomon concluded that “the elements chosen never admit the possibility of logical interpretation or elucidation, either in themselves or in relation to the things with which they have been combined.”30

These remarks loomed large in the critical landscape because Solomon was largely responsible for orchestrating Rauschenberg’s ascension to wide international fame. As director of the Jewish Museum in New York, he guided that institution into a major commitment to secular contemporary art, and the above remarks come from his catalogue for the first Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition—following which the Whitechapel Gallery in London staged another in 1964. In the wake of that success, Solomon organized the American entries to the Venice Biennale of that year, where Rauschenberg gained the grand prize in a flare of publicity and amid considerable resentment by Europeans over perceived American manipulation of the jury.

While Jouffroy’s remarks, drawn from an extended and sophisticated appreciation, are enough to indicate that many Europeans were more than open to the work, Rauschenberg’s cause was not helped by bland assertions of superiority founded on the promise that the work was free of all dangerous particularities.31 Norbert Lynton, as he meditatively worked his way toward a considered assessment of the London retrospective, found that “Rauschenberg, through no fault of his own, appears to be more than usually ringed about with writers who have left their critical and analytical faculties behind in their excitement.” (In his final view, expressed with characteristic refinement, the most surface—bound of the work fared best.32)

The causes of Lynton’s lament were only to increase. The mid ’60s indeed represent something of a watershed in the public reception of Rauschenberg’s work, with nearly all further discussion henceforth taking place under the dominant sign of celebrity and fine critical distinctions becoming rarer than ever. What was more, commentary shifted into a largely retrospective mode—for which Rauschenberg himself was partly responsible. The events at Venice had driven a wedge between the artist and his collaborator, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whose company he had been touring Europe. The outcome of that breach was that Rauschenberg channeled most of his energies over the rest of the decade into staging performances of his own and pursuing technological experiments.33 Though serious critical attention naturally follows fame, there was little current work in the galleries to write about.

This period inaugurated a kind of negative rule in Rauschenberg reception, such that the higher the critical ambition, the earlier the work privileged by the critic.34 It also tended to freeze responses into two hardened attitudes: that the choice of objects and motifs lacked cognitive order and that the significance of the art consisted only in the fact and manner of their accumulation. Perhaps the most trenchant assessment of this state came from two British writers, Roger Cranshaw and Adrian Lewis, in 1981:

One of the most difficult things for a living artist to cope with is to become an object of hagiography in some quarters, vicious critical dismissal in others.... Perhaps, unwittingly, critics have punished Rauschenberg for his vaunted precociousness. Openness has long been noted to be the fundamental feature of Rauschenberg’s work and character. It is obvious, then, that feedback in the sense of sensual and intellectual involvement with the works, implying above all the need for dialogue, was seen by the artist as an absolute aesthetic necessity. This dialogue has always been denied Rauschenberg.35

Calling this denial “lethal” for the quality of his later output, Cranshaw and Lewis lament that no “body of critics was prepared to consider seriously Rauschenberg’s semiological ability, his capacity, that is, to manipulate and transmute the signs and meanings that were available to him.”36 Instead of “explaining qualitative distinctions within the artist’s oeuvre to date in terms of its creative tensions,” critics incessantly celebrated unspecific attributes like Americanness or boyish playfulness; with fame, Cage’s or Johns’ giving permission became meaningless license.37 Even where critical ambitions aimed higher, the results were just as repetitive: in their words, “An implicitly expandable and non-hierarchical grid-like organization of the picture plane is seen to imply a totally uncritical openness to the environment such that the picture-plane is described as an essentially ‘egalitarian’ surface of randomly appropriated forms.”

While Cranshaw and Lewis’ argument carries force, it surely puts the case too starkly, and there are some curious omissions in its citations: Ashton for one, which would have qualified its conclusions, as would have Leo Steinberg’s return to the topic of Rauschenberg in 1972, perhaps the single most influential piece of writing on the artist. The article that conferred this authority appeared in Artforum that year under the disarmingly neutral title “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” though it became much more widely known when reprinted as the title essay in Steinberg’s book Other Criteria.38 Rauschenberg stands at the culmination of the argument, and those who recalled Steinberg’s dismissive remarks of 1955 would have recognized both the persistence of his earlier attitude and a qualified mea culpa: “In retrospect,” he allows, “the most clownish of Rauschenberg’s youthful pranks take on a kind of stylistic consistency.”39 On the subject of the artist’s thematic choices, his account went no further than Solomon’s anodyne notion of laissez-faire: “Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself—dump, reservoir, switching center, ... a surface to which anything reachable-thinkable would adhere.”40 But this thoroughgoing breakdown of thematic determination was the necessary prerequisite for a recovery of determination in the realm of formal constraint, indeed in what amounted to a deft transposition of Clement Greenberg’s and Michael Fried’s iron historical logic of the picture plane: implicit for Steinberg in all of Rauschenberg’s work was the operation of a horizontal “flatbed picture plane.” This was to say that even a panel hung vertically would bear witness to a conceptually horizontal attitude in its engendering, and the artist’s decisions could be judged in retrospect to have been governed by it: “If some collage element, such as a pasted down photograph, threatened to evoke a topical illusion of depth, the surface was casually stained or smeared with paint to recall its irreducible flatness.”41

It was a neat dialectical trick, at a time when Modernist thinking still appeared powerful, to have turned its language (“irreducible flatness”) and whole style of thought toward the approbation of an artist utterly outside its canon. Alert, however, to the possibility that he might be offering a formal distinction without a genuine difference, Steinberg raised the stakes by arguing that this ninety-degree turn had fundamentally altered the relation of painting to the world: in place of a visionary window on nature as promised by traditional painting were prefabricated artifacts of culture arrayed on an obdurately physical surface: “the horizontality of the bed relates to ‘making’ as the vertical of the Renaissance picture plane related to seeing.”42

While its argument may be overingenious, Steinberg’s intervention concluded by generously acknowledging the way in which Rauschenberg had succeeded in unsettling the aesthetic certainties in which his generation of urbane observers had been formed. For younger American critics impatient with Modernist notions of transcendence (Fried’s “presentness is grace”43) and with its reiteration of painting’s ancient pedigree, he provided a key point of departure. Two years after the appearance of Other Criteria, Rosalind Krauss offered her own reckoning with the artist’s earlier work under the rubric of “The Materialized Image.” In that essay, she voices her indebtedness to Steinberg and then, with some delicacy, states her ambition “to inflect it in a slightly different way.”44

The inflection turns out to be somewhat more than slight, in that for her the surface of Rauschenberg’s paintings become the scene of an inside-out transformation of public and private meanings, indeed of the visible and invisible. She takes for granted the familiar notion that a leveling occurs among the objects or borrowed images that find their way onto his surfaces, but then wonders why “this feat of levelling does not seem particularly odd.” The question was a good one, as it calls attention to the way that previous uses of collage—in a Picasso papier collé, for example—invariably succeed in ensnaring the foreign object within a web of illusion (Steinberg’s window), unlike Rauschenberg’s, which remained stubbornly material and therefore uniform. Their “astonishing quality of plausibility” in that condition, she agrees, “is certainly not to be explained by any kind of formal logic . . . or any kind of obvious narrative connection.” Instead, it derives from the analogy between the uniform density of Rauschenberg’s arrangements and the equivalent nature of memory: “as one remembers experience,” she maintains, “each memory image seems to function for recall in a way that is independent of whether it happened or not, or what degree of denseness it had when we experienced it. The image of a scene from a movie may be equally vivid for memory as the face of an absent friend.”

In this correspondence lies a rationale for the prolonged viewing that Rauschenberg had always asserted as a key aim of his art: the essential simultaneity of effect in visual art (taken for granted since the eighteenth-century aesthetics of Lessing) is mapped onto the field of memory, “where things may be synchronously stored but temporally reexperienced.” She immediately notes that this formula may resemble an old notion of artistic intention whereby the artist is seen to project into the public work an inward and invisible state of mind. But the work escapes the visionary to the degree that:

Rauschenberg proposes several crucial reversals to the previous canon of painting. The first is that the nature of the passage of the object from real space to the space of the picture is not about absorbing the object into a different kind of present time from that of the real space of the observer (one that transcends it), but is rather about transferring the object into the simultaneity of past time. The second is that past time, like memory, should be reconceived: from something . . . that is private to something that is collective insofar as it arises from the shared communality of culture.

For any artist of the first importance, the chief requirement of criticism is to match the generalizing implications of the work with its idiosyncratic and unrepeatable character (for lesser artists one route or the other will generally suffice). Krauss recognized that the matching had been unsuccessful in Rauschenberg’s case and, further, that repairing the deficiency required a new turn of mind. After more than two decades, the level of inquiry that she mapped in a few incisive paragraphs remains largely unexplored: instead, the two sides of the equation have become increasingly distanced from one another. The unique and private side of the artist unfolds in both extended biographies and in earnest attempts to coax iconographical consistencies out of the broad body of his work. The comprehensive retrospective organized by Walter Hopps in 1976 for the American bicentennial—Rauschenberg’s first since the early ’60s—had a revelatory impact on a new generation of writers, most of them well trained in the protocols of art history.45 While these contributions cannot be in any way discounted (the foregoing remarks have certainly been indebted to them), they largely leave to one side why their findings matter in the wider realm of artistic possibility: the centrality of the work remains more assumed than argued. On the opposite side of the ledger, another critical tendency, theoretically minded in the extreme, seized on Steinberg’s prescient characterization of this “all-purpose picture plane” as the advent of “post-Modernist painting.”46 For its exponents, the value of Rauschenberg’s work lay in its capacity to speak to the condition of art, in its having variously exposed the hollow fetish of painting as promoted by the fine-art museum or unmasked the idealist myth of autonomy and self-sufficiency in the art object.47 But one has to ask whether a project so understood could actually sustain a long life in art and generate the rich particularities of Rauschenberg’s actual output?

This split applies to most of the best commentary as much as it does to the rest. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, for example, has called attention to Rauschenberg’s programmatic challenge—in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism—to “traditional concepts of authorial authenticity and sublime expressivity . . . in the seemingly devalidating and repetitious Factum I and Factum II.”48 John Cage also had occasion to note these two canvases in which both the collage elements and the apparent spontaneity of the painting strokes, slashes, and drips are repeated in two separate combine canvases. In contrast to Buchloh, for whom parodic sameness overwhelmed any promise of revelatory detail, Cage observed, “Everything is so much the same, one becomes acutely aware of the differences, and quickly.” For him involuntary individuality wins out against the most strenuous effort to cancel its effects.49 There is simply no deciding between these two forms of understanding, which maintain their incompatible accuracies in two separate spheres. Rauschenberg is famous for saying that he tried to act in the gap that separates art and life. It may or may not be true—or even possible—that he succeeded. But he most certainly had to act within the gap that separates these two equal and opposite forms of recognition.


1. In Barbara Rose, Rauschenberg: An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg by Barbara Rose, New York: Vintage, 1987, p. 44.

2. Robert Rauschenberg, “An Artist Explains,” Print (Jan.–Feb., 1959), p. 31.

3. John Cage, “On Robert Rausehenberg, Artist, and His Work,” in Silence, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p. 102.

4. Rose, An Interview, p. 34.

5. Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, accession no. 87–037; quoted in Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/Art and Life, New York: Abrams, 1990, p. 78.

6. Rose, An Interview, p. 46.

7. Leo Steinberg, “Contemporary Group at Stable Gallery,” Arts (Jan. 1956), pp. 46–47.

8. Quoted in Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York: Abrams, 1977, p. 33.

9. See Calvin Tompkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York: Penguin, 1980; Charles Harrison and Fred Orton, “Jasper Johns: Meaning What You See,” Art History 7 (March 1984), pp. 77–101; Jonathan Katz, “The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivrion, eds., Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, London: Thames and Hudson, 1993, pp. 189–208; Lillian Tone, “Chronology,” in Kirk Vamedoe, ed., Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1996, pp. 122–69.

10. See discussion in Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns, London: Reaktion Books, 1994, p. 110.

11. Rose, An Interview, p. 49.

12. See Brian O’Doherty, “Rauschenberg and the Vernacular Glance,” Art in America 61 (Sept.–Oct. 1973), pp. 82–87.

13. Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollack,” ArtNews 57 (Oct. 1958), pp. 56–57. As a litany of these “new materials,” Kaprow essayed “paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered.”

14. See Katz, “The Art of the Code.” Laura Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil: Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno and the Commercial Homoerotic Imagery of the 1950s America,” forthcoming in Genders 26 (1997), has identified a pattern of coded references in the Dante series that link it directly to the homoerotic thematics of the 1959 combines. She extends this analysis to Rauschenberg’s fundamental treatment of the human image:

Neither fully present nor wholly absent, the transferred photographs hover on the verge of completion.... The narrative of Dante’s Inferno itself may he understood at its most basic level as the tale of a lover willing to risk the very horrors of hell in order to attain his divine beloved. Seen in the context of such a dangerous quest for love, Rauschenherg’s ubiquitous dismembered male bodies seem to point to the perils that accompany certain types of desire.

15. Rose, An Interview, p. 61.

16. See Kenneth Bendiner, “Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon,” Arts 56 (June 1982.), pp. 57–59.

17. Hilton Kramer, “Month in Review,” Arts 33 (Feb. 1959), pp. 48–50.

18.Jasper Johns, Letter to the Editor, Arts 33 (March 1959), p. 7.

19. Arts 33 (May 1958), p. 9. Kramer replied privately to Steinberg: “It pains me to read your Letter to the Editor, and it pains me to publish it.”

20. See Sidra Stich, Yves Klein, London: South Bank Centre, 1994, pp. 235–36, 275–76.

21. One important occasion for that sort of reflection was provided by the 1989 exhibition organized by Claude Gintz, “L’Art Conceptuel, une perspective,” Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. For a brief but acute description of the conceptual interplay between Rauschenberg, Klein, and Manzoni, see Yve-Alain Bois, “Bas materialisme,” in Bois and Rosalind Krauss, eds. L’Informe, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1996, pp. 54–55.

21. Norbert Lynton, “London Letter,” Art International 7 (April 1964) p. 77.

22. Dore Ashton, “57th Street: Robert Rausehenberg,” Art Digest 27 (Sept. 1953), p. 21.

23. My phrasing here is borrowed from Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil.”

24. Ashton, “Rauschenberg’s Illustrations from Dante’s Inferno,” mETRO 2 (1961), p. 58.

26. One of these was included in each boxed set of reproductions of the Dante drawings published by Harry Adams in 1965.

27. Ashton, “The Collaboration Wheel: A Comment on Robert Rauschenberg’s Comment on Dante,” Arts and Architecture 80 (Dec. 1963), p. 11.

28. Alain Jouffoy, “Robert Rauschenberg,” L’Oeil 113 (May 1964), p. 34, “La société industrielle des États-Unis, pour la premiere fois, se trouvait magistriellement eclairée, comme sur une scene ou les objets symboles de ”l’American Way of Life,“ la morale du sourire obligatoire, prenaient tout a coup pour les yeux de l’amateur de Part leur signification tragique.”

29. Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg, New York: Abrams, 1968, p. 17

30. Alan R. Solomon, Robert Rauschenberg, New York: The Jewish Museum, 1963, n.p.

31.See Laurie J. Monahan, “Cultural Cartographies: American Designs at the 1964 Venice Biennale,” in Serge Guilbaut, ed., Reconstructing Modernism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 199o, pp. 369–415, which essentially assumes Solomon’s analysis to be correct and in keeping with “American designs.”

32. Lynton, “London Letter,” p. 76; he concludes his review (p. 77) with the judgment that the Dante drawings prevailed in their impact over the magnified progeny on canvas: “his ancestors are Botticelli and Blake. The problem is not how to submit to another’s matter but rather how not to diminish the stature of the theme one has chosen, and Rauschenberg’s success here is the measure of his triumph. In order to stand with Dante he developed a new and profoundly original manner of illustration and commentary, and lo, it turns out that much the same manner will serve for monumental paintings.”

33. See Kotz, Rauschenberg, pp. 117–41.

34. See Helen Molesworth, “Before Bed,” October 63 (Winter 1993), pp. 69–82; see also Bois, “Bas materialisme,” pp. 54–55. Interest in Rauschenberg’s very earliest work was stimulated by the landmark exhibition curated by Walter Hopps: see Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Houston: Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991.

35. Roger Crenshaw and Adrian Lewis, “Re-reading Rauschenberg,” Artscribe 29 (June 1981), pp. 44, 50.

36. Ibid, p. 50.

37. Ibid, p. 44.

38. Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” Artforum 10 (March 1972), pp. 37–49; “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 55–92.

39. Other Criteria, p. 85.

40. Ibid., p. 88

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., p. 90.

43. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5 (Summer 1967), p. 23.

44. Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” Artforum 12 (Dec. 1974), pp. 36–43; the following quotations appear on pp. 42–43.

45. See Hopps, ed., Robert Rauschenberg, Washington, DC: National Collection of Fine Arts, 1976. The exhibition was also seen in New York, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Chicago. For a brief history of the event, see Tompkins, Off the Wall, pp. 297–300. The most dramatic of the immediate responses was Charles F. Stuckey, “Reading Rauschenberg,” Art in America 65 (March–April 1977), pp. 74–84, an article that achieved some notoriety for the intricate interpretation of every detail of Rebus as conforming to a hermetic iconographical scheme; his argument is perhaps most usefully read as a kind of thought experiment, as in: What if Rauschenberg had truly conceived his pictures like Mannerist allegories at the court of Rudolf II? What if one could get to the end of them, and what might that be like? Subsequent treatments of the artist in a broadly iconographical vein have been Cranshaw and Lewis, “Re-reading Rauschenberg”; Katz, “The Art of Code”; Auricchio, “Lifting the Veil”; James Leggio, “Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed and the Symbolism of the Body,” Studies in Modem Art 2, New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1992, pp. 79–117; and, notably, Roni Feinstein, “The Silkscreen Paintings,” in Feinstein, ed., Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1991, pp. 19–99.

46. Steinberg, Other Criteria, p. 91.

47. The representative texts appear back to back in the same journal in 1980: Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” October 13 (Summer 1980), pp. 41–57; and Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 13 (Summer 1980), pp. 59–80.

48. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Andy Warhol’s One Dimensional Art: 1956–1966,” in Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art, p. 48.

49. Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg,” p. 102.