New York

Robert Rauschenberg

Knoedler & Company

With his “Night Shades” series, Robert Rauschenberg emerges as the Goya of American art. Indeed, the series makes clear once and for all the Rauschenberg is a great introspective artist, using American materials for his own dark visionary purpose. In a sense, the “Night Shades” are the ripe fruit of a vision of violent doom germinating in his early, equally apocalyptic series of works based on Dante's Inferno. In that stunning group of works, a touchstone for his oeuvre, he compacted American-type images into an excruciatingly concentrated hallucinatory density. Each work is like a cornucopia bulging with visual tidbits it cannot disgorge. The accident of their relationship, in which they blur together in bewildered intimacy, as though denying the fact that they have nothing inwardly to do with one another, bespeaks the repressed anguish and self-estrangement of the American mind. In the “Night Shades,” the same morbid sense of mannerist agony prevails, but the images are now spread out with seemingly casual grandeur, as though in an infinite yet peculiarly attenuated space–a bankrupt space that is the relic of the old dream of sublime American expansiveness. There has always been a sense of the diabolic misery of American life under the surface frenzy of Raushcenberg's works, bespeaking the manic intensity that is the typical veneer of American society, masking its feeling of emptiness and abandonment. In the “Night Shades,” this misery has been monumentalized in giant figures and an all-pervasive gloom.

Thus the bulldog in Dog-On (Night Shade), 1991, looms out of the psychic gloom like a ghost in one of Goya's Quinta del Sordo, 1820–22, works. (The wit of the title does nothing to soften the threatening monstrousness of the creature.) Or is it the American version of Goya's Panic, 1806? Again and again Rauschenberg sets an isolated object in a desolate landscape, often loosely concatenating the individual elements in a staccato narrative, with more pieces missing than present. (As he has developed, he has separated his objects out of the stream of appearances more and more, as though granting them a grim dignity.) Holiday Ruse (Night Shade), 1991, is a stunning example. In the center panel, a superegoistic, prophetlike male figure appears above an American maenad, symbolizing one kind of conflict evident in these works. Indeed, Rauschenberg has always implicitly been a moralist, passing judgement on the American scene even as he seemed to revel in it. Now, the worldly drama seems to have stopped in its tracks, its entertaining figures turned into pillars of salt.

The darkness of Raushcenberg's night––which looks as though it will never lift––converts matter-of-fact photographic images into expressive inner representations and emblematic memories. Indeed, the seemingly “inwardly” lit aluminum support functions as a surface on which a screen memory of the collective American unconscious appears to be projected from within. The personal character of the works––there is a recurrent iconography in Rauschenberg's oeuvre, suggesting that certain scenes are fraught with private import––is implicitly acknowledged by the image of school bus with the word “personal” signifying its destination, not unlike Tennessee Williams’ streetcar named Desire.

The sense of solitude in the “Night Shades” is three-dimensionalized in the new “Glut” sculptures that accompany them. Soaring Dribble Glut, 1992, with its blinking lights, is the wreck of the all-American sign, pointing upward but going nowhere. It is the abandoned, debilitated, generally grayish look of the solo constructions that suggests that the American dream has played itself out. Rauschenberg's art has always dealt with the tension between the sense of America as a land of plenty––of excess––and a wasteland. In these works, the sense of waste seems to have won out. The glut no longer signals the plenty into which America can retreat after the damage is done, like Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, 1925, but rather the ecological and human damage itself. Each glut construction is the corpse of an ideal betrayed by the vulgar materialism on which it was built.

––Donald Kuspit