My Friend Robert Rauschenberg

Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Robert Rauschenberg: Retroactive I, 1963

Nobody is born with a love of art, and some of us can remember moments when that love was born, and later ones when it was increased or reinforced by a vivid, intense experience. I know I can remember some of them, as piercing as first love. And for me, one of them involved the American artist Robert Rauschenberg.

I was brought up in Australia and I did not leave there until 1964, when I was twenty-five. I knew nothing about American art. I had only seen Rauschenberg’s work in reproduction. The first real Rauschenbergs that I ever saw were in the Venice Biennale that year—I was bowled over by them.

But the curious thing is that, as I remember it, the real moment of bonding came later that summer, from something smaller and more evanescent. Bob Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham had, as is well known, collaborated on a series of dance pieces which had their English premiere after Venice, if memory serves, and in London.

I went to see them with my friend the English curator Bryan Robertson. And it was like no dance I had ever seen. I knew nothing about modern dance; I had just come out of an affair with a woman who was a principal swan for the touring company of the Royal Ballet. I depended on her opinions, which were categorical, and her tastes ran to Ravel, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky but definitely not John Cage.

But the penny dropped, for me, after the interval, when we were watching a piece called Winterbranch, a wonderfully moody, dramatic, and stark affair, the movements of the bodies and the patterns of light pared down to what seemed the absolute minimum, and presenting a choreography that seemed as new, in its way, as the movements of The Rite of Spring fifty years before must have seemed to a Paris audience used to the arrangements of Petipa. It wasn’t shocking; it was mysterious and beautiful; one felt no resentment, only a different kind of joy, and a curiosity that was new to me.

In the middle of this, a chair came floating through the air, casting (or, you might say, drawing) its elongated and distorted black shadow on the backcloth. It symbolized nothing. It told no story. The dancers did not react to it, or, apparently, notice it. It was just there, magical in its banality, reminding us—in the thirty seconds of its calm passage through the proscenium—of how utterly amazing the simplest things in the world can be.

In that moment my bias towards Bob Rauschenberg was formed, and it has stayed with me for nearly forty years. I am a fan. Simple as that, or almost. I do not particularly care about anything Jasper Johns has done in the last quarter-century. I do not give a damn about conceptual art. The only American-born sculptor alive today who seems to me to have attained real sublimity is Richard Serra. But Rauschenberg—well, he goes up and down. His output is very large, almost incontinent, and the failures of his work are legion. But the talent is vast enough to fill the output. I hope I’m not dumb enough to think he can do no wrong. But what he does right matters so much more than what he does wrong. He is, I think, the genius of American art since the death of Pollock, and I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the higher achievements of his art to most of Pollock anyway.

I know this is a heretical view, and to some critics, an odious and wrongheaded one. But there are some Americans who have a kind of vested interest in denying the nature of American genius: its profusion and its contradictoriness, its openness to common desire and popular culture. They want America to be classier than it is. There was no shortage of people who thought Walt Whitman was a language-drunk blabbermouth with vulgarly epic pretensions. People hate Rauschenberg on the same grounds. But I love Whitman, or at least his work; and I love Rauschenberg too, both the man and the work; and without those two great men our experience of poetry, art, and of America itself would be miserably impoverished.

Normally I don’t dream about artists. But Bob Rauschenberg is the exception. On May 28, 1999, I had a catastrophic auto accident on the Great North Highway about eighty-five miles south of the town of Broome, in the coastal desert of Western Australia. It broke nearly every bone on the right side of my body, and a few on the left; and I was trapped in my car, soaked in gas, terrified of fire, drifting in and out of consciousness, for about four hours. When the fire brigade and the cops finally cut me out of the wreckage and loaded me into the ambulance, I fainted and remained in a coma in the intensive-care unit of Royal Perth Hospital for nearly five weeks. People think that when you’re in a coma you experience nothing. I thought so. It’s not true. Instead I had a series of incredibly vivid and complex narrative hallucinations that went on for weeks—though how the unconscious measures time, I don’t know—and remain with me, not much diminished, to this day. One of them involved Bob Rauschenberg: not the man, but the work.

In my nightmare I was trapped in a junk run by Asian slavers, stacked like a piece of cordwood in a hold full of people who were only just alive, like myself, and desperate to escape. Somehow I did get out and found myself on an airplane—an old PBY Catalina flying boat, of the sort that my brother used to fly in the Pacific in World War II. It was very beaten up. The engines ran but it could hardly get into the air. But it was full of collages and junk sculptures by Bob Rauschenberg; and the fabric covering of its wings and fuselage was torn and tattered, but it was covered by silk-screen images by Bob. It was like a huge, somberly colored bat, or a Balinese kite, and it was clear to me that the machine’s ability to save me from my pursuers and tormentors depended on those designs, that they were some kind of fuel for its flight.

Rauschenberg’s references to other media aren’t just tricks. They’re an integral part of the way he connects the language of his images to that of a wider world. Collagists had always done this, ever since the invention of collage. Braque and Picasso brought newspaper clippings and headlines into their images, though these had to be scaled to the actual size of the printed page—you couldn’t effectively do a cubist collage six feet high, it would need too many elements.

The same was true of Kurt Schwitters, with his bus tickets and cigarette wrappers and bits of wood or rusty iron. But around 1962, Rauschenberg began to use not things but the images of things. He gathered photos and enlarged them into silk screens, so that they could be printed directly on the canvas. This had two main effects. First, it enormously increased his image bank, because just about everything in the world, from mountains to beetles, from spermatozoa to Thor-Agena rockets, has been photographed. And second, by reusing silk-screened images from one painting to the next, it let him use repetition and counterpoint across a series of works in a way that wasn’t possible, or not easily possible, if he had been using things themselves. In doing this, he was adapting to the great central fact of American communication, its takeover by the imagery of television.

At about the time that Rauschenberg was born, the German critic Walter Benjamin perceived how mass media were displacing literature. He wondered how any child born and raised in the howling blizzard of signals from radio, film, and so forth could find his way back into “the exacting silence of a book.” Benjamin died in 1940, on the eve of broadcast television, but what he feared from other mass media became a thousand times realer and truer in front of our tyrannous babysitter and companion in loneliness, the Box. The Box has done more to alter the direct, discursive relationship of images to the real world, on which the art of painting used to depend, than any other invention in our century. This isn’t a matter of good or bad programming. Almost all American TV is shit tailored to morons. It is a vast exercise in condescension by quite smart people to millions of others whom they assume to be much dumber than they actually are.

But what Rauschenberg got onto is the peculiar role of TV, in so many millions of American homes, as a form of electronic wallpaper. It is more intimate than film. It is casual. It has no ceremonial aspect, like going to the movies. You just switch it on and it leaks its stuff into the room. You can control it to some extent, by changing the channel. In Rauschenberg’s day, when TV was influencing him most clearly, the menu of channels was much smaller than it is today, but then it looked large. So hundreds of millions of people spend time every day flipping from one channel to the next, editing their own real-time montages based on chance while looking for the news program or game show that takes their fancy.

Robert Rauschenberg.jpg
Sabine Weiss/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Robert Rauschenberg, 1964

They don’t think of these montages as imagery in themselves. They’re just a by-product of changing channels. But they see them all the same; and what they see and take for granted is a stream of images that make no narrative sense but whose juxtapositions get surrealist in their incongruity. Love, death, soap, the swing of a batter, the coils and knots of spaghetti, the empty chitchat of a talk-show host. Through TV, and in a chaotic but unavoidable way, we make our own montages while watching the montages of others. So one of the dreams of the Russian constructivist filmmakers and the German dadaists finally came true with TV. Whole societies learned to experience the world through their eyes—to see—in terms of swift unstable montage. Ours is the cult of the electronic fragment, just as neoclassicism two hundred years ago was the cult of the marble fragment.

Television was both real and not real. Its color was artificial: bright, creepy electron color, not the color of paint or nature. Abstract color. Its artificiality increased the feeling that TV messages came in small packages. You didn’t scan the screen the way you scan a painting, because the image was always chopping and changing. And the fate of all those zillions of messages and images, in their casual brightness, was to be equalized, to pour forth in an overwhelming glut. Like radiation, which in fact they are, they were everywhere.

Rauschenberg’s work in the early Sixties was based partly on that. But other kinds of journalism—of managed, filtered, everyday, instant-interpretation discourse—were engaged in it too. I think of his silk-screen paintings from the early Sixties as the front pages of otherwise unpublished newspapers. He no longer had to search the city for things—the stuffed goat, the bucket, the piece of yellow wood that was once part of a police-line barrier. Instead he could scavenge images, not things. The very act of collaging is a city act—the compacting, side by side, of a swarm of different images which, like people in a city, have little or no common history: the essence of the act of collaging is that the things should have no prior relationship to one another; all they have in common is their presence in the same work of art, just as what all city dwellers have in common is their presence in the same city.

The very format of Rauschenberg’s silk-screen paintings, because they are made of rectangular block images, recalls the column and photo layout of newspapers. The newspaper is a place where habits of perception are formed, it is an image of the structure of the city—the grid, the tower. It is a metaphor of the formation of our psychic lives. The front-page format is flat. It declares. It shouts at us. It is spatially completely unlike landscape, with things arranged in perspective. And in it, the trivial and the heroic rest side by side. That was why silk-screen transfer of photos so fascinated Rauschenberg when he started doing it in 1962. There is still some dispute about who did it first—him or Andy Warhol—but it hardly matters today.

“I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines,” Bob recalled, “by the refuse, by the excess of the world. I thought that if I could paint or make an honest work, it should incorporate all these elements. . . . Collage is a way of getting a piece of information that’s impersonal. I’ve always tried to work impersonally.” He wanted to give static images the accumulative flicker of a color TV set. The bawling pressure of its images—rocket, eagle, crowd, street signs, oranges, box, insect, crowds—creates an open-ended inventory of modern life, a series without a final term, the lyrical outpourings of a mind satiated by what was quick, daily, and real. Its subject is glut.

Let me give you an example of how this layering works. One of the silk-screen paintings with which Rauschenberg won the main prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale, an event which marked the entrance of new American art onto a world stage dominated up till then by Europeans, is called Retroactive I. It’s a cross section of excavations of meaning, of the way media images refer to one another and thereby enrich themselves. Three-column format, left, center, and right. At the bottom right, a red rectangle contains a grainy silk-screen enlargement of a photo Rauschenberg found in Life magazine. It is a carefully set-up parody, using a live model and a strobe flash, of a famous early modern image: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Because Duchamp based his painting on a multiple-exposure photograph of a naked woman walking downstairs, this is a version of a photo which is a version of a painting which was a version of a photo. Three layers and seventy years of technological time, right there.

And four layers, actually, if you count in the fact that Rauschenberg’s version reminds you at once of the shamed figures of Adam and Eve, who have sinned and fallen from grace, being expelled from the Garden of Eden in Masaccio’s frescoes in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. And this in turn does something to the big blue portrait of John Kennedy next to it. Kennedy had just died. The imposing size of the portrait and the emphatically pointing finger—pointed straight at Adam and Eve—make him godlike: and in fact Kennedy was right at the center of a mawkish cult by then, drenched in every sort of undeserved hype and posthumous hero worship. Rauschenberg’s image of him, exhibited in Venice, fulfills the skeptical prophecy that had been made just a century before by the French writer Edmond de Goncourt:

The day will come when all the modern nations will adore a sort of American god, about whom much will have been written in the popular press; and images of this god will be set up in the churches, not as the imagination of each individual painter may fancy him, but fixed, once and for all, by photography. On that day civilization will have reached its peak, and there will be steam-propelled gondolas in Venice.

Drawn from Robert Hughes’s unfinished memoir, to be published for the first time in The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes, which will be released by Penguin Random House on November 17.