New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Castelli Uptown And Downtown

My reservations regarding Robert Rauschenberg’s Cardbirds and Cardboards must be understood within a larger view which regards these works as his best efforts in nearly a decade. The Cardbirds and Cardboards evidently revert to Rauschenberg’s Expressionist position of 1958–62 when, I think I can fairly say, Rauschenberg was an artist of genius. Like his work of that time, Cardbirds engage the Expressionist collision of street detritus—Rauschenberg refers to cardboard as “a material of waste and softness.” The present fundamentalist-Constructivist solutions take their clue from the rich period of the combine paintings. As Rauschenberg once was able to tie together disparate objects with a casual and virile nonchalance, once again the memory of his street life Constructivism is echoed in the cardboard boxes diffidently tied to the wall-hung cardboard construction. But, that his Expressionist bias can once more be seen does not entirely exculpate him from the number of elements in the Cardbirds about which one is less than enthusiastic.

The Cardbirds themselves, apart from their prototypes (the cardboards), are complexly executed simulacra of the prototypes, a production engaging immense and complex technology, supplied by the Gemini workshops in California. But that the Cardbirds are produced with great pains seems to me quite beside the point, except perhaps as a means of assuring the artist and the company which produced them a lot of money for a long time to come. Purely mercenary considerations are not interesting in themselves except that they reduce to arrogant posturing the humane sentiments of Rauschenberg’s program as expressed in an accompanying catalogue. “For over five years I have deliberately used every opportunity with my work to create a focus on world problems, local atrocities and in some rare instances celebrate men’s accomplishments. I have strained in collecting influences to bring about a more realistic relationship between artist, science, and business, in a world that is risking annihilation for the sake of a buck. It is impossible to have progress without conscience.” I believe in Rauschenberg’s sincerity—and if that’s what a Rauschenberg costs, well, that’s what it costs—but these moving lines are nonetheless oppressive in the face of price tags which range from $8,000 to $25,000 for the prototype. Still the real issue is in the simulacra themselves, a problem Rauschenberg has faced ever since he was taken in by the myth of unifying science and art and which I have argued through on these pages (Artforum, December, 1968) in relation to the reissuings of the lost white paintings. As offset-photo lithographs of a complex production, the Cardbirds are simply not interesting. Nor is the illusion of the original always convincing. Moreover, the larger body of them are linked to a facile destriptiveness, such as when turkey cartons suggest a configuration vaguely turkeylike in character; this is absurdly thin for an artist of Rauschenberg’s stature. The “Print Documentation” of that particular “collage print” (Cardbird III) is arresting as Conceptual material. Eight stages of printing and assembly are given on the work sheet, as well as the names of the technical assistants provided by the Gemini workshops and the various kinds of proofs of the work. In fact, all the Cardbirds are accompanied by these blue sheets of work data, and I am not sure whether this technological information is not, in the end, more beautiful than the prints in question.

One last detail, and this reservation is stated only in the hope of getting the little history of contemporary art down straight from the outset. Rauschenberg has used cardboard before, particularly in the period of combine paintings when stray pieces of cardboard or even small boxes appeared on the surface of the works. But, that cardboard itself should have moved into central position in these works seems to me related to a reversal of comparative prestiges. I cannot fail to note that Dorothea Rockburne, who has emerged in the past year as one of the few strong and unique voices in American art, has used cardboard as a medium central to the expression of her important postulates. The relationship would appear tangential, so different are the premises of each artist’s oeuvre, but Rockburne is someone who has been close to Rauschenberg for many years, and it is possible that Rauschenberg was cued into the exclusive use of cardboard by the great presence that Rockburne’s work holds for us at the moment.

Robert Pincus-Witten