New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Leo Castelli Gallery

Robert Rauschenberg’s six “Publicons”—“public icons”—are box-sculptures hung on the wall and meant to be manipulated, not just looked at. Each piece begins as an inscrutable, blank white cabinet which unfolds, usually in several directions and very colorfully. The inside of each, where most of the work is, is a collage of patterned fabrics and utilitarian objects typical of Rauschenberg. Also typically, these items—an oar, a bicycle wheel, makeup mirrors on extendable brackets—appear in odd contexts or unusual colors, and hence become objects of irony.

The central device with which the “Publicons” work is the difference between their blank and unyielding exteriors and their exuberant contents. Since they are modeled on icon cases, a hint of the sacred still adheres to them, reinforced by their individual titles—Station 1, Station II, etc. Thus one approaches and opens them a little cautiously, to find a crazy Pop/Surreal confusion inside. They are, in fact, as much jack-in-the-box as icon: Station I, when opened, reveals a canoe paddle covered with gold leaf, with a glowing blue light for a navel—it is as if the piece has stuck its tongue out at one for treating it respectfully.

I think a good part of what the “Publicons” are about is this mockery of their own audience of culture-lovers. As icons, what they contain is, of course, the pure esthetics, pure art of abstract objects they contain. And this absurdity is emphasized by the fact that, unlike old icon cases which protected and instilled reverence for sacred images by emphasizing their preciousness, Rauschenberg’s “icons for the public” actually allow their owner to turn their contents off whenever he wants. One can literally shut the art up in the closet when one tires of it, or when it would be inappropriate for one’s company. Thus at the very same time that Rauschenberg has enshrined something, he has given it all the respect one would usually accord a television program.

There is something rather facile about all this, at least for Rauschenberg. Though the “Publicons” are quite sophisticated works—if anything they are overloaded with allusion (a bicycle wheel, striped collages that look like flags)—they are mainly a repackaging of several of Rauschenberg’s and modernism’s standard motifs. Indeed, what makes the “Publicons” distinctive, interesting and energetic is the novel kind of package they demonstrate. And although it is probably new in recent art, this central idea of theirs is simple and blunt: a package one can manipulate at will, but always in the same way and to the same effect—open and closed. As such, the “Publicons” have little of the subtlety we know from Joseph Cornell can be had with boxes. One wonders whether their satire doubles right back on them. The dumbness they impute to the art they contain—their analogy between art and controllable entertainment like TV—is not so much satirical as fatuous.

Leo Rubinfien