New York

New York

“Robert Rauschenberg: Combines”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
December 20, 2005–April 2, 2006

Curated by Paul Schimmel

When Robert Rauschenberg is finally recognized as the Walt Whitman of late-twentieth-century America, the Combines will be his Leaves of Grass. They will stand, like Whitman’s masterpiece, as a moment synthesized, an all-inclusive, promiscuous embrace of America in its first, riotous, postindustrial bang. So we should never forget that the Combines came into the world as rowdy, impudent rough trade, and if they no longer seem as mute and brute as they once did, it’s only because we have invented words to defend ourselves. Today, we speak casually of art and life interpenetrated, of nature and culture compounded. Now, we have a vocabulary to deal with the assault of global media, niche marketing, designed obsolescence, celebrity assassination, and nonlinear image politics. But we didn’t then. Then, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Combines just looked like America. They were big, profligate, messy, ebullient, and impersonal—chillingly sane and arrogantly careless. People tended to regard them as they regarded America in that decade: with a combination of awe, envy, and disdain.

Even so, the Combines were so irrevocably there that the question of whether they were “good” or “bad” seemed irrelevant. You could hate them as regressive fictions, as many fledgling Minimalists did. You could disdain them as tawdry ephemera, as the New York School establishment chose to do. But you couldn’t quibble with them, because, good or bad, the Combines felt right. In a single fiat, Rauschenberg appropriated the “personal virtues” of Abstract Expressionist painting—its energy, structure, and convulsive extravagance—and, stepping nimbly aside, reattributed these virtues to the ambient culture. In doing so, he created a new image politics and a metaphor of artistic continuation between American art of the fading ’50s and that of the burgeoning ’60s. Most critically, however, the Combines, in their chaotic synthesis, supplied a toolbox and template for nearly everything that happened after 1968.

“Installation,” “appropriation,” “recontextualization,” “multimedia,” “simulation,” “neo-expressionism,” and a multitude of other maneuvers trace their first permission to the Combines—as does an enormous landfill of provincial whimsy and academic collage created by artists who thought that Rauschenberg had invented a style. He hadn’t. He had a vision of the future and a strategy for adapting to it. Now, forty years later, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is mounting a show of sixty-five Combines Rauschenberg made between 1954 and 1964. Before this moment, I suspect, their pervasive influence has been reason enough not to show them. And this is fine, actually, because now, with the fever receding, we may see them plain in their sweet, prescient antiquity. Not just avant la lettre, but before the whole alphabet.

Travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 14–Sept. 4, 2006; Centre Pompidou, Paris, Oct. 4, 2006–Jan. 8, 2007; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Feb. 4–Apr. 29, 2007.