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The Voracious Eye

Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective

An exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, September 19, 1997-January 7, 1998. Catalog of the exhibition by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson.
Guggenheim Museum/Abrams, 629 pp., $45.00 (paper)

What sort of an artist, what sort of a person is Robert Rauschenberg? Walter Hopps, in the catalog he has edited with Susan Davidson, kicks off with a startling comparison: Rauschenberg’s “inventive skills and democratic spirit” recall those of Benjamin Franklin. It turns out that Rauschenberg admires Franklin and once described to Hopps a particularly beautiful experiment of his:

Franklin cut narrow sticks of a uniform size and material and painted each a different color along the visible spectrum, progressing from red to violet. On a clear winter day, he carefully inserted them to an equal depth in a snowbank and then observed their movement as the sun’s heat was absorbed by each stick. The sticks sank in the snow at varying rates, providing an artful demonstration of the physical properties of color.

A farther-fetched comparison strikes me as more apt. Rauschenberg, with his long record of theatrical work of all kinds, resembles Gianlorenzo Bernini, who, as John Evelyn tells us in an often quoted passage, “gave a public opera (for so they call shows of that kind), wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre.”1 Bernini, like Rauschenberg, was a great pusher-back of technical boundaries: in his productions one might see a fire on stage, or a realistic sunrise, or one might be threatened by a flood. He designed carnival cars and firework displays. In this turning of his hand to many different tasks, he resembles his artistic forebears of the Renaissance. But he was the last of his line. What strikes us today as novel in Rauschenberg—that vat of voice-activated bubbling drillers’ mud, that frieze of chairs which would only fully light up at the sound of the magic word “Om”—would have been comprehensible to Bernini as displays of ingenuity, like those musical fountains or devilish garden water-spurts.

When Bernini traveled abroad he was accompanied—just like Rausch-enberg—by a retinue. His arrival in France was treated as a diplomatic event of the greatest importance. One thinks of Rauschenberg with his ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) project, which he announced before ambassadors at the United Nations, and which gratuitously and voluntarily established him as an official artist to be met (in such countries as have them) by official artists and by dignitaries of state. Bernini, who prided himself on the friendship of popes, was graciously allowed to be on familiar terms with Louis XIV. It was his greatness as an artist that entitled him to such familiarity. When Queen Christina of Sweden, on arrival in Rome in 1654,

desired to honor him by going to see him at work in his house, he received her in the same rough and soiled dress he usually wore when working the marble and which, being an artist’s dress, he held to be the most appropriate in which to receive that great lady. Her Majesty, who, with sublime understanding instantly perceived this beautiful finesse, enlarged on his concetto not only in thought but in actually touching his dress with her own hand as a sign of her admiration for his art.2

Rauschenberg, dining in Cuba at the Palace of the Revolution, got on so well with Castro that Castro invited the artist and his entourage to spend the weekend at his personal guest house. Rauschenberg’s immediate response was to invite Castro to his home on Captiva Island, Florida. How Castro laughed! “This is the first time in twenty-nine years I have been invited to the United States,” he said. “But if I were to vacation on your island in Florida, what would I do there? Are there not tires and refrigerators and automobiles on the bottom of the ocean?” “No,” said Rauschenberg, “there are fish and I will cook for you.”3

It seems like the retelling of an ancient story—and so it is. The monarch, when he meets the great artist, must treat him like a peer, and expect to be so treated in return. Charles V picks up the brush that Titian has dropped. Queen Christina instantly understands the compliment that is being paid to her, and touches the dusty smock. Castro, if he invites Rauschenberg home, should expect the compliment to be returned. Or at least (since both participants know that the conversation is entirely unrealistic) he should acknowledge the beauty of the concetto.

Rauschenberg’s sense of his own worth (both as an artist and, indeed, as a cook) seems, from all accounts, to be something quite other than self-importance, and one is at a loss to guess where it comes from. Nothing in the early biography quite prepares one for it. Hampered during his early education by undiagnosed dyslexia, Rauschenberg was the nonachieving son of an intimidating, disappointed father. Of all the stories told about him (many of which are evidently tinged with his own benign brand of self-mythologizing), none stays with one so dreadfully as the account that has him returning home in 1945 to Port Arthur, Texas, at the end of his naval service, only to find that his family had moved house without bothering to tell him. Rauschenberg was not returning from the theater of war, but he had had a rough and mentally taxing job in a psychiatric unit. Now here he was confronting a houseful of strangers, and too embarrassed to turn to his other relatives to find out where his family had gone.

One is hardly surprised to learn that, having managed to locate his new home, Rauschenberg did not stay there long; nor is it odd to find him, in due course, changing his first name from Milton to Bob, and thereafter to Robert. Nineteen forty-five must have been a kind of Year Zero for him, when everything had to be begun afresh. And he was a classic beneficiary of the GI Bill, proceeding by leaps and bounds from the Kansas City Art Institute, to Paris, to Black Mountain—greedy for any education on offer.

And quick to benefit, when one thinks that the first of his works to be acquired by a public institution were photographs dating from 1949 and 1951, bought by Edward Steichen in 1952 for the Museum of Modern Art. The earlier of these is a rich study in blackness, showing the interior of an old horse-drawn carriage. In common with most of his early photographs, the image is squarish—he used a Rolleicord and didn’t like to crop. As he said in a later interview,

Photography is like diamond cutting. If you miss you miss. There is no difference with painting. If you don’t cut you have to accept the whole image. You wait until life is in the frame, then you have the permission to click. I like the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full.

In the early photograph which Steichen chose, the blackness has almost filled the frame.

Another early success came with the blueprints which Rauschenberg made with his then wife, Susan Weil, in which a nude model was laid on the large sheet of paper, and sunlamps played over the body, creating lyrical and unpredictable effects of shadow and contour. It seems surprising that any of these immediately pleasing works should have survived in such fresh condition. Not only have they survived. The process of their creation was recorded by Life magazine in April 1951 (“Although the Rauschenbergs make blueprints for fun, they hope to turn them into screen and wallpaper designs”). Steichen exhibited one at MoMA, in a show called Abstraction in Photography, and Bonwit Teller featured them in a window display. The process might be considered as an art form, or as frankly commercial.

It belongs to a series of investigations of different types of work on paper, like the “urban frottages” on which Jasper Johns collaborated, or Rauschenberg’s This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (in which the woodblock was successively gouged away), or a project recalled by Robert Creeley, in which butcher paper was laid on the floor of the art school entrance, to be marked by the students’ footprints. The Automobile Tire Print of 1953 was made on a scroll of twenty sheets of paper mounted on fabric. John Cage drove his Model A Ford along the scroll, while Rauschenberg inked the tire as it proceeded. Rauschenberg: “He did a beautiful job, but I consider it my print.” Cage: “But which one of us drove the car?”

Already in these early works, many common future patterns are set: the delight in collaboration, the use of cheap materials (the blueprint sheets were bought on sale, being the ends of rolls), the incorporation of some extra dimension such as time. “Cy + Roman Steps,” a series of five photographs in which the body but not the face of Cy Twombly advances into view on the Spanish Steps, seems both an account of “the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full” and an amused variation on the wrongly posed tourist photograph. Seen at the Guggenheim in their chosen scale of 20 by 16 inches, the photographs contrast the Roman patina of the steps with the very American (particularly for the period when this style was not yet international) jeans-and-shirtsleeve order of the advancing figure, on whose midriff the camera ends up concentrating.

Rauschenberg has fun—he always seems to be having fun, and this quality is what was originally held against him. This is why, however early he might have attracted attention as a photographer, or in the commercial art of window-dressing, he had to wait much longer for success, or serious esteem, as a painter. It is not that the ambition wasn’t there from the start. On the contrary, the more the evidence is piled up in front of us, the stronger the ambition seems to be. This is something that is easy to miss in Calvin Tomkins’s 1980 biography, 4 which in turn takes part of its tone from Rauschenberg’s own way of depicting himself as a sort of holy fool. On the one hand, he must go through life not knowing what he is doing. On the other hand, somehow, he must know very well indeed what he is doing, or he wouldn’t have achieved what he has.

For an idea of the way Rauschenberg’s painting life began, one can turn not to the Guggenheim catalog but to Walter Hopps’s 1991 Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, which did a thorough job of reconstructing and documenting the first phase of his mature work.5 In the navy, he had made portraits of his friends, and it was English portraiture which had first inspired him to take painting seriously. Hopps reproduces a convincing Self Portrait from around 1948, which he likens in style to the work of Marsden Hartley. But anything of that kind seems to have stopped after Rauschenberg’s arrival at Black Mountain College and his studying painting and drawing, not so happily, with Josef Albers.

  1. 1

    Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, edited by William Bray (London: Henry Colburn, 1850), Volume 1, p. 122.

  2. 2

    Baldinucci, cited in Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn (Norton, 1963), p. 270.

  3. 3

    See Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/ Art and Life (Abrams, 1990), p. 37.

  4. 4

    Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Doubleday, 1980).

  5. 5

    The Menil Collection/Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991.

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