PRINT February 2004


Robert Rauschenberg

BEYOND THEIR FOCUS on the same artist, two new books on Robert Rauschenberg would seem to have almost nothing in common. Robert S. Mattison’s Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries positions the artist’s life, intentions, and studio practice as the keys to understanding his work. Its highly accessible text and generous color illustrations suggest the book’s suitability for coffee-table display. Branden W. Joseph’s Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde sets the artist’s early work within a dense context of Bergsonian philosophy, poststructuralist thought, and recent art-historical debate. The book’s abstruse prose, extensive footnotes, and sober, black-and-white reproductions recommend it to an audience of scholars and specialists.

Although Mattison teaches art history at the university level and the publisher of his book is a leading academic press, Breaking Boundaries is not a scholarly work. In place of sustained analysis or archival research, the book delivers simple observations about selected motifs. We are told, for example, that “automobile tires represent for Rauschenberg movement and change in the modern world” while “birds are . . . symbolic of flight.” My favorite such moment occurs in Mattison’s discussion of Monogram, 1955–59, a famous Combine, or freestanding mixed-media work, featuring a stuffed goat circled by a tire and affixed to a wooden platform. Following a rather detailed discourse on the characteristics of the Angora goat (“its long silky hair is the source for fine mohair wool”), Mattison notes that “one other feature inherent in goats is their sure-footedness.” Readers are presumably meant to appreciate how the sure-footedness of the goat may be amplified, as in Monogram, through the effects of taxidermy.

On the far side of the interpretive spectrum from Mattison, Joseph approaches Rauschenberg’s early work through the critical lens of modernism in Europe and the United States. The “neo-avant-garde” in Joseph’s subtitle signals his interest in revisiting the influential paradigm proposed by Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde and subsequently contested and revised by scholars such as Hal Foster and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. According to Bürger, vanguard art of the postwar period took up the formal techniques of preceding avant-gardes (e.g., Dada, Constructivism, the Bauhaus) while dispensing with their radical politics and social critique. In so doing, the neo-avant-garde embraced the dominant values and market forces of capitalism. As Joseph sees it, Rauschenberg’s work deserves to be cleared of the “Bürgeresque” charge that it “merely reflects, rather than questions, the irrationality of society under late capitalism.” Far from submitting to what Joseph calls the “instrumental signification and stultifying pseudo-differentiation of commodity production,” Rauschenberg’s work pries open the “appropriated, commercial realm to subrepresentational forces of multiplicity and temporal difference.” As these brief citations from Random Order suggest, Joseph is not the most felicitous of prose stylists. His writing, loaded down with phrases like “stultifying pseudo-differentiation,” tends to obscure the very ideas he wishes to convey. This is a shame because Joseph’s core argument is a compelling one, namely, that Rauschenberg’s early paintings, Combines, and performances resist the logic of market capitalism. The author does not, however, push this argument far enough. While repeatedly invoking terms such as “the irrationality of society under late capitalism,” Joseph does not dig beneath the surface of these words to grapple with specific social constraints or economic conditions. We learn nothing, for example, about the marketing of Rauschenberg’s own, enormously successful enterprise as an artist. Throughout Random Order, Joseph remains so securely within the confines of his own theoretical neighborhood that readers visiting his book from elsewhere may find it difficult to get their bearings.

For all their differences in intellectual ambition, intended audience, and word choice, Breaking Boundaries and Random Order share one virtually identical concern: Both authors are distressed by what they call “iconographic” approaches that reduce Rauschenberg’s multiform compositions to the mere illustration of a recognizable theme. Putting aside the fact that Mattison’s writing exemplifies this very tendency, I find it intriguing that two such otherwise disparate books should dismiss iconography, the study of subject matter and symbolic meaning introduced by Erwin Panofsky. What are the stakes at our current critical moment of this dismissal, and why should Rauschenberg’s work in particular call it forth?

Joseph is concerned with the “policing use of iconography to bring all unknown aspects of representation back into the known,” that is, with the flattening of visual and material form into the security of narrative coherence and symbolic meaning. As it turns out, however, certain narratives and symbols are more troubling than others. Here is Joseph’s first and most complete formulation of the problem in Random Order:

The status of Rauschenberg’s work as high art has brought forth increasingly intense attempts to read it through the most traditional paradigms of signification, including that of iconography. Such readings have gained in prominence as the artist’s work has come to be seen as expressing coded messages about his sexual orientation. Although, as Rosalind Krauss has observed, “the convinced iconographer is almost impossible to dissuade,” nearly three decades of such analyses (which at their most reductive condense a work’s evident heterogeneity into a single sentence or illustration of a mythic event) have yielded only partial and unsatisfactory results. Indeed, those relatively few of Rauschenberg’s pieces that seem to invite such readings are far outweighed by the majority that do not.

In the course of this passage, the rejection of an interpretive approach (iconography) slides into a rejection of a particular issue (homosexuality) as a valid concern for writers on Rauschenberg. Following Krauss, Joseph charges that the “convinced iconographer” all but ignores the complex formal and structural operations in which Rauschenberg’s art is engaged so as to insist on a coherent message about sexual orientation.

While there has certainly been excessive “theme chasing” in the Rauschenberg literature, these pursuits are by no means limited to homoerotic themes (recall birds and flight), nor do they represent the most ambitious work to date on the question of same-sex desire. Such work approaches homosexuality not simply as a matter of pictorial motif or biographical experience but as a broader field of historical constraint and possibility, of visibility and concealment. In a series of essays, the art historian Jonathan D. Katz has argued that the necessarily covert status of gay male culture in the 1950s and early ’60s inflected Rauschenberg’s contemporaneous art. Katz links homosexuality both to the materials Rauschenberg included in particular paintings and Combines—a personal letter, a photograph of Judy Garland, a pair of men’s trousers—and to the formal logic of the works themselves, to their visual layering, quasi abstraction, and partial erasures or blockages of meaning. Although Joseph’s bibliography includes some eleven essays by Katz, the latter’s scholarship is nevertheless characterized as belonging to a “partial and unsatisfactory” body of work.

Like Joseph, Mattison laments what he sees as an unwelcome insistence on homosexuality in recent writings on Rauschenberg. But where Joseph at least accurately cites these writings, Mattison simply caricatures them:

Recently there has been much discussion in the Rauschenberg literature of homosexual themes in art. These interpretations have remained highly speculative and often problematic. In the view of one author, the majority of Rauschenberg’s circular configurations are anal. In another highly speculative text, Rauschenberg’s Dante’s Inferno drawings have as their major source gay bath houses. In fact, Rauschenberg’s views on sexuality as expressed in his art are more traditional and more circumspect than these authors suggest. Rauschenberg was not involved with the camp gay community that surrounded Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Sexually, he was more reserved and private.

Warhol’s social world in the 1960s was far more heterogeneous than Mattison’s description of a “camp gay community” would suggest. And Rauschenberg was, in point of fact, one of many repeat visitors to Warhol’s Factory. Mattison compounds these inaccuracies by distorting the scholarship he means to discredit. While alluding to several different interpretations “of homosexual themes” in Rauschenberg’s work, Mattison footnotes only one source, a 1993 Ph.D. dissertation that is hardly representative of recent publications on the artist. On the interpretive level, Mattison confuses the question of sexual expression in Rauschenberg’s art with the sexual experiences of the artist (both of which are characterized as discreet and dignified). This confusion ultimately leads Mattison to a space of such utter noncriticality that he can do little more than issue a paean to the universalizing power of love: “Rauschenberg views sexuality as part of the creative drive and rejoices in all of its richness and variety. He is an advocate of heterosexual and homosexual love, of love that is both profound and humorous.” This passage bespeaks a problem that runs throughout Breaking Boundaries: Rauschenberg is presented only from those angles that Mattison deems most flattering and congenial. The flattery tends to make both the artist and his work seem as canned and inoffensive as “love that is both profound and humorous.”

Much is made in Breaking Boundaries of the author’s special, behind-the-scenes access to his famous subject. According to the jacket copy, “Robert Rauschenberg has allowed Robert Mattison into his studio to observe the artist at work and this resulting book examines selected projects in depth so that the meaning of his art, his working procedures, and the reasons behind his various artistic choices may be better understood.” Given such a buildup, we might expect that the author had visited Rauschenberg’s studio repeatedly or over an extended period of time. As we learn on page 6, however, Mattison’s account is based on three days spent with the artist in his Captiva Island studio in 1993. Rarely has an art historian (or his publisher) got more mileage out of less face time with an artist.

Random Order makes no such claim of proximity or privileged access to Rauschenberg. Joseph derives authority not from the artist but from the array of philosophers and critical theorists—Deleuze, Derrida, Debord, and more—called on to frame and explain the artist’s work. Even as he summons these theoretical big guns, Joseph rarely takes the time to look closely at individual works of art. The book’s cover, a gorgeous detail of the 1955 Combine painting Hymnal, provides a case in point. Among its sundry elements, Hymnal includes a paisley shawl, a trussed-up fragment of the Manhattan telephone directory, an FBI handbill of a most wanted man, a white sign with a black arrow printed on it, a photograph of two shirtless boys, a wooden board onto which graffiti has been inscribed, several swatches of fabric, and variously colored abstract brushstrokes and drips of paint. The work enacts a series of relays between vision and veiling, legibility and obstruction, publicity and privacy, surface and material depth. Although reproduced three times in part or full in Random Order, Hymnal is never discussed by Joseph. This simultaneity of visual presence and textual absence signals that what we see in the current literature on Rauschenberg is not always what we get.

Taking Joseph’s elision as a counterinvitation, I would like to look once more at Hymnal. I would like to consider its far-flung materials (nylon, paint, paisley shawl) and fragments of recognizable imagery (the out- law, the arrow) without construing them as the master keys through which the work may be unlocked or fully explained. And I would like to suggest that a homoerotic charge might be carried by the partially obscured photograph of the shirtless boys without adducing homoeroticism as the organizing secret or subtext through which the work’s meaning may be captured. There is no secret meaning trapped inside Hymnal, or lying just beneath its surface, or covered by veils of illusion that the viewer may simply remove or read through. Those surfaces, overlays, and veils are the meaning and matter of this work no less than the symbols, scenes, and external references they carry or cover over. Far from flattening art into a set of coherent narratives or easily recognizable themes, iconography at its most ambitious returns us, again and again, to the density and difficulty of visual form.

Richard Meyer is associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Southern California.