PRINT March 2006

Carroll Dunham

Robert Rauschenberg’s career took off with a chapter of shock and awe followed by a forty-year-and-counting campaign for the hearts and minds of the largest possible audience. Perceptions of him evolved quickly, from the Oedipal assassin of his New York School elders to the Golden Lion of Venice and poster boy for a new kind of art-world success. After an extraordinarily productive decade, by 1965 he had begun to steer his work away from painting toward more technologically and socially engaged forms of art, and while the fruits of his increasingly collaborative labors may have left the jury of his peers uneasily out, any attempt to understand painting’s recent past and cultural role inevitably traces back to Rauschenberg—a kind of “artist zero” in the margins of whose early activities the later projects of many others were implied.

Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol have been much more frequently invoked in the mantras contextualizing subsequent generations of artists, which is understandable given how manic and promiscuous Rauschenberg has been with his gifts. The reciprocal influences and dialectics connecting him with Johns and Twombly are well known, but the latter pair have been far more withholding of their favors, and the collective heart has grown fonder as a result. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg’s high profile, if not his practice, certainly made a big impression on Warhol. The two of them are the most compulsively prolific artists of recent times who haven’t lived in transient hotels or mental hospitals. Yet Warhol stayed more on message, and while there seems to be an exhibition of his work on view at any time somewhere on the planet with no apparent damage to his aura, the volume of Rauschenberg’s output appears to have diluted its intensity. The Guggenheim’s disappointing 1997 retrospective reinforced this notion with its inclusionary sprawl. Rauschenberg’s work benefits from consideration of specific series, and the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of the Combines provides the first such treatment since the Whitney’s revelatory, if weirdly underappreciated, “Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64” of 1990. Now we can revisit the period of his greatest influence and deepest trailblazing, while also glimpsing within his artistic DNA the hyperactivity that would later have such confusing repercussions.

One often hears the art of an earlier period praised for looking like it was “made yesterday,” but on entering the show at the Met another thought came unbidden: These things look like they were made a long time ago. To walk through the exhibition is to travel down a collective memory lane to a time of enormous change in both art and the culture at large. Rauschenberg made the first Combines not long after the beginning of television, when the imagination of the art world was still very much in the thrall of the New York School, whose members he clearly venerated and also strove to surpass. The Combines’ extreme messiness and improvisatory construction probably gave them an aged quality even then, but the artist’s emphatically nonarchival approach to materials assured a literal aging and fading that impart an autumnal glow reverberating strangely with the anarchic aggressiveness of the individual works. Desire, memory, and loss are implied and embraced in the Combines. The provisional associations and physical decay form a lattice supporting a central content of ceaseless and regret-free transition.

Rauschenberg’s general approach in the Combines—the composting of fabric, pictures, and objects of private and common interest into a fertile mulch of dense pictorialism—was neither unprecedented nor wholly unique. Precursors can be found in several collage episodes of earlier modernism as well as in nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil painting, just as there were affinities with con temporary developments in Italy and France. What was unprecedented in his work was the fusion of an intimist sensibility (not unrelated to Joseph Cornell’s) with the mythological ambition of postwar abstraction and an almost circuslike sense of spectacle. The earliest Combines retain the palette of his preceding “Red Paintings” and can resemble disused, blood-drenched bulletin boards, but Rauschenberg quickly shifted to a more public scale and atmospherics. With Collection, 1954, and Satellite, 1955, a methodology and format were established that claimed parity with the most advanced abstract painting while absorbing and reflecting elements of the culture that were completely unaccounted for within the program of the New York School. Rauschenberg was like an exposed nerve picking up still-latent signals from the culture and unleashing his high-affect, attention-deficit-disordered consciousness against the painting patrimony of the time. For the next eight years there followed a more or less continuously self-generating avalanche of work with the requisite highs and lows of such a brinksmanly practice. The term masterpiece is so problematic as to be nearly useless, but if any artworks of our recent past merit that designation then Rebus, 1955, Interior, 1956, and Monogram, 1955–59, are certainly among them.

Yet while much was made at the time and since of the Combines’ hostility to painting and their implications for practices external to it, seeing a quorum of them at the Met makes it clear that they were much more significant as a way for painting to have expanded and survived. They roamed freely but did not really leave a territory of flat rectilinearity in their construction, which was often manifest as a stretched canvas or panel with prosthetic extensions, or in jerry-built contraptions alluding to shelves, cabinets, windows, or fragments of wall. Rauschenberg’s baseline relationship to planarity is paradoxically most evident in the freestanding Combines, notably Odalisk, 1955/58, Untitled, ca. 1955, or Monogram, any of which could be seen either as paintings trying to be sculptures or as sculptures trying to be paintings. While they require a shifting and rotating point of view to be wholly perceived, they unfold in space largely as sequential pictorial episodes.

It is frustrating and perhaps not desirable to deal with these objects as ready sites for iconographic decoding, the usefulness of which has been extensively debated in the literature on the artist. The Combines are the most nonverbal form of communication imaginable while being replete with nameable things. The works come fully loaded with topical, historical, and no doubt personal references that can seem to invite narrative connections, but as in dreams, no single reading can hold final authority. It is much more rewarding to bask in their multi-bandwidth emanations. The trivial and philosophical, the refined and the insensitive, the intimate and the banally public all coexist in the clutter of their surfaces.

As attempts to transcend normal notions of selfhood, the Combines explore deeply the defining conditions of personality. They are the products of a solitary and somewhat isolated consciousness working improvisationally with the matter and emotions directly at hand, a projection of Rauschenberg’s mind and body onto the intimate and alienated world of the studio. In a sense they are all one thing, the aftermath left by the sensitive and acquisitive tidal wave of the artist’s awareness as it crashed into reality and then receded. This force of nature had certain tics and dispositions that define the “style” of the Combines and determine some thematic threads. The approach to composition is grid-based, like the physical structures, and relates more to late Hans Hoffman than to the frequently mentioned de Kooning. But Rauschenberg’s “push-pull,” unlike Hoffman’s, was an attempt to include all levels of the inner and outer life within the “gestures” of the works, expanding that term to an almost universal category.

Rauschenberg clearly loved including taxidermied animals and fragments of clothing in these constructions, both of which possess a history with literal connections to biological processes and the rhythms of daily reality. The paint-spattered hat at the corner of the bleak no-place of Interior, the necktie crushed into the surface of the crudely authoritative Wager, 1957–59, or the sock drifting in the emotional crash zone of Untitled all impart to these paintings the afterglow of lived life. One doesn’t necessarily know where the oft-mentioned “gap between art and life” is located but it can’t be far from the dead bald eagle preparing to hightail it out of the painterly abyss of Canyon, 1959. The feathered denizens of works as diverse as Satellite and Inlet, 1959, inflect the Combines with strange backstories as well as reverberations of literal death. To see a dead animal inhabiting a painting triggers unprecedentedly complex angles of exegetical contemplation, touching on animal husbandry, individual and group extinction, and the question of the boundary between culture and nature.

There is a powerful halo of scatology around the Combines that is most apparent early on, becoming progressively repressed and redirected with time. The early examples are very “dirty” and the later ones relatively “clean.” During the time he made Collection and related paintings, the impecunious artist was acquiring remaindered cans of commercial paint with illegible labels. The resultant randomness of the colors merges with the undirected, almost simian quality of the painted passages to create an effect of truly shitty aggression at the service of no descriptive or gestural agenda. The frequently applied label of “Abstract Expressionist” to describe these ersatz fecal smears misses the point rather widely. The anal libido is channeled in strange tragicomic directions. Although much has been made of the painted and scribbled violation of Bed, 1955, Rauschenberg rarely encountered a dead bird (or goat) whose face he didn’t want to decorate with dribbles and dabs of viscous paint, in gestures that feel simultaneously tender and insulting toward their recipients. Monogram includes passages of this sort as well as a nasty tennis ball that sits behind the goat as if it had emerged quite recently from the animal’s ass. Although this work has often been read as a parable of sex, the forlorn, tire-encircled goat stranded in the middle of a messy brown panel also suggests embarrassment not unlike that of a dog whose house-training has lapsed. Sexual content in the Combines is a matter of interpretation, present obliquely or as metaphor, but the scatological is often explicit subject matter. The palette of certain works is a dirty mix of black and brown, and two in particular bring this chromatic shit storm across the threshold of sublimation into direct awareness with their physical elements. Talisman, 1958, has a small aperture within which hangs a mason jar containing what looks for all the world like a bowel movement. Kickback, 1959, has embedded in its field of smeared paint part of a pair of filthy trousers that might be evidence of a total loss of sphincter control, a collapse of the most basic boundaries of the individual.

In our present situation, as we bury ourselves in garbage and slide toward irreversible climate change, any residual glibness one sees in the Combines is replaced by a creepy sense of prescience and a feeling that they might be analogous to both journalism and poetry. Almost all of them were made during the Eisenhower administration, when the consensus view of the United States as a heroic and positive force in the world went largely unchallenged. Although the vector of their evolution took Rauschenberg toward a deeper mining of the exploding mediasphere and a dematerialization of the physical syntax of his art, the Combines embody a then-not-obvious truth about the self-consuming economic and social system that was their support. As Fairfield Porter already observed in 1960, Rauschenberg “calls attention to the success of industrialism opposite the way the Bauhaus did, which saw industrialism as it wished to be seen.”

Porter went on to say that “Rauschenberg’s work has more personality than anything like it. Its weakness is that it tends to approach the chic.” This is a sharp observation to have been made years before elegance and good taste in art came to be defined by the likes of Twombly or Warhol, especially so coming from another artist who was basically sympathetic to what Rauschenberg was up to. (More reactionary observers also accused Rauschenberg of being lightweight and merely fashionable but these impressions can be dismissed in hindsight as the obligatory sour grapes built into the basic plotline of avant-gardism.) One feels that Porter was identifying a big problem in its incipient form. What’s clear is that whatever problem Rauschenberg’s superficial side may have become for the rest of us, it wasn’t too much of a problem for him. Once he figured out the general approach of the Combines, he made a lot of them, and a complicated by-product of this exhibition’s exhaustiveness is the confrontation with his reliance on pure style to achieve coherence in many of these works. The jarring specificity and sense of adventure of the great Combines is not mitigated by but must be understood in contrast with the insouciant artiness of many of the smaller works and the discomfiting sense that the entire enterprise could coalesce into one big dandified haze. Yet it was necessary for Rauschenberg to do all of this in order to do any of it, and ultimately one person’s masterpiece might well be another person’s provocative mess. The slightly embarrassing feeling of scattered attention, of someone working too hard, all too evident in the Guggenheim retrospective, is really the flip side of the unwillingness to self-censor and the defiance of any normative sense of the appropriate that allowed Rauschenberg to self-actualize. However vexing the problem of understanding his entire contribution may remain, the Combines merged the energies of their maker and their moment into mirrors reflecting the collective and windows onto exotic inner precincts, and their reverberations will be with us for a long time.

Carroll Dunham is a New York–based artist.