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…

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