Robert Rauschenberg was a showman, a trickster, a shaman, and a charmer. In the retrospective that recently closed at Tate Modern in London and will be arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this May, museumgoers are confronted with many different things: the imprint of an automobile tire; a couple of rocks tied with pieces of rope or string; paintings that are all white, all black, or all red; a sheet and pillow spattered with paint; a drawing by Willem de Kooning that Rauschenberg erased; deconstructed corrugated cardboard boxes; bright silken banners; a blinking light; a taxidermied Angora goat; mixed-media works mounted on wheels so as to be easily moved around; and paintings packed with photographic images. Rauschenberg’s career is the fool’s errand of twentieth-century American art. That his errand earned him the highest honor at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the Grand Prize for Painting, and major exhibitions and retrospectives at the Stedelijk, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now Tate Modern and MoMA amounts to nothing more than confirmation of what fools we mortals be.
There is little mystery as to why Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 at the age of eighty-two, was a success from the very beginning of his career in the 1950s. Gallerygoers and museumgoers have had a taste for avant-garde escapades and hijinks at least since New Yorkers went to gawk at what many regarded as the follies of modern art in 1913, when the Armory Show opened in Manhattan. Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase caused an uproar there, was friendly with Rauschenberg by 1960, when Rauschenberg was cultivating a rather Duchampian reputation as an easygoing, seductive enfant terrible. Rauschenberg became adept at keeping admirers and detractors alike on their toes with his swaggering insouciance and Delphic-Dadaist remarks. He was in sync with a time when Dadaism was moving into the mainstream and more and more artists were interested in what the critic Harold Rosenberg dubbed the “de-definition of art.” “Nothing is left of art,” Rosenberg wrote, “but the fiction of the artist.”
When it came to de-defining art, Rauschenberg’s attitude was that if painting wouldn’t do the trick, he would do something else. Whatever he did or didn’t do, he would remain an artist. While still a student in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, that redoubtable laboratory for experimentation in the arts, he was photographed in a dance performance with Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn, who was teaching at the school. That image of the young, dashing, bare-chested bohemian—head held high…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.