I followed by a
forty-year-and-counting campaign for the hearts and minds of the largest
possible audience. Perceptions of him evolved quickly, from the Oedipal assassin of his
Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol have been much more frequently invoked in the mantras conceptualizing subsequent generations of artists, which is understandable given how manic and promiscuous Rauschenberg has been with his gifts. The reciprocal influences and dialectics connecting him with Johns and Twombly are well known, but the latter pair have been far more withholding of their favors, and the collective heart has grown fonder as a result. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg’s high profile, if not his practice, certainly made a big impression on Warhol. The two of them are the most compulsively prolific artists of recent times who haven’t lived in transient hotels or mental hospitals. Yet Warhol stayed more on message, and while there seems to be an exhibition of his work on view at any time somewhere on the planet with no apparent damage to his aura, the volume of Rauschenberg’s output appears to have diluted its intensity. The Guggenheim’s disappointing 1997 retrospective reinforced this notion with its illusionary sprawl. Rauschenberg’s work benefits from consideration of specific series, and the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of the Combines provides the first such treatment since the Whitney’s revelatory, if weirdly underappreciated, “Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64” of 1990 Now we can revisit the period of his greatest influence and deepest trailblazing, while also glimpsing within his artistic DNA the hyperactivity that would later have such confusing repercussions.
One often hears the art of
an earlier period praised for looking like it was “made yesterday,” but on
entering the show at the Met another thought came unbidden: These things look
like they were made a long time ago. To walk through the exhibition is to
travel down a collective memory lane to a time of enormous change in both art
and the culture at large. Rauschenberg made the first Combines not long after
the beginning of television, when the imagination of the art world was still
very much in the thrall of the
Rauschenberg’s general approach in the Combines-the composting of fabric, pictures, and objects of private and common interest into a fertile mulch of dense pictorialism--was neither unprecedented nor wholly unique. Precursors can be found in several collage episodes of earlier modernism as well as in nineteenth- century American trompe l’oeil painting, just as there were affinities with con-
career took off with a chapter of shock and awe temporary developments in
Yet while much was made at the time and since of the Combines’ hostility to painting and their implications for practices external to it, seeing a quorum of them at the Met makes it clear that they were much more significant as a way for painting to have expanded and survived. They roamed freely but did not really leave a territory of flat rectilinearity in their construction, which was often manifest as a stretched canvas or panel with prosthetic extensions, or in jerry- built contraptions alluding to shelves, cabinets, windows, or fragments of wall. Rauschenberg’s baseline relationship to planarity is paradoxically most evident in the freestanding Combines, notably Odalisk, 1955/58, Untitled, ca. 1955, or Monogram, any of which could be seen either as paintings trying to be sculptures or as sculptures trying to be paintings. While they require a shifting and rotating point of view to be wholly perceived, they unfold in space largely as sequential pictorial episodes.
It is frustrating and perhaps not desirable to deal with these objects as ready sites for iconographic decoding, the usefulness of which has been extensively debated in the literature on the artist. The Combines are the most nonverbal form of communication imaginable while being replete with nameable things. The works come fully loaded with topical, historical, and no doubt personal references that can seem to invite narrative connections, but as in dreams, no single reading can hold final authority. It is much more rewarding to bask in their multi-bandwidth emanations. The trivial and philosophical, the refined and the insensitive, the intimate and the banally public all coexist in the clutter of their surfaces.
As attempts to transcend normal notions of selfhood, the Combines explore deeply the defining conditions of personality. They are the products of a solitary and somewhat isolated consciousness working improvisationally with the matter and emotions directly at hand, a projection of Rauschenberg’s mind and body onto the intimate and alienated world of the studio. In a sense they are all one thing, the aftermath left by the sensitive and acquisitive tidal wave of the artist’s awareness as it crashed into reality and then receded. This force of nature had certain tics and dispositions that define the “style” of the Combines and determine some thematic threads. The approach to composition is grid- based, like the physical structures, and relates more to late Hans Hoffman than to the frequently mentioned de Kooning. But Rauschenberg’s “push-pull,” unlike Hoffman’s, was an attempt to include all levels of the inner and outer life within the “gestures” of the works, expanding that term to an almost universal category.
Rauschenberg clearly loved including taxidermied animals and fragments of clothing in these constructions, both of which possess a history with literal connections to biological processes and the rhythms of daily reality. The paint-spattered hat at the corner of the bleak no-place of Interior, the necktie crushed into the surface of the crudely authoritative Wager, 1957-59, or the sock drifting in the emotional crash zone of Untitled all impart to these paintings the afterglow of lived life. One doesn’t necessarily know where the oftmentioned “gap between art and life” is located but it can’t be far from the dead bald eagle preparing to hightail it out of the painterly abyss of Canyon, 1959.
The feathered denizens of works as diverse as Satellite and Inlet, 1959, inflect the Combines with strange back stories as well as reverberations of literal death. To see a dead animal inhabiting a painting triggers unprecedentedly complex angles of exegetical contemplation, touching on animal husbandry, individual and group extinction, and the question of the boundary between culture and nature.
There is a powerful halo of scatology around the Combines that is most apparent early on, becoming progressively repressed and redirected with time.
The early examples are very “dirty” and the later ones relatively “clean.” During the time he made Collection and related paintings, the impecunious artist was acquiring remaindered cans of commercial paint with illegible labels. The resultant randomness of the colors merges with the undirected, almost simian quality of the painted passages to create an effect of truly shifty aggression at the service of no descriptive or gestural agenda. The frequently applied label of “Abstract Expressionist.” to describe these ersatz fecal smears misses the point rather widely. The anal libido is channeled in strange tragicomic directions.
Although much has been made of the painted and scribbled violation of Bed, 1955, Rauschenberg rarely encountered a dead bird (or goat) whose face he didn’t want to decorate with dribbles and dabs of viscous paint, in gestures that feel simultaneously tender and insulting toward their recipients. Monogram includes passages of this sort as well as a nasty tennis ball that sits behind the goat as if it had emerged quite recently from the animal’s ass. Although this work has often been read as a parable of sex, the forlorn, tire-encircled goat stranded in the middle of a messy brown panel also suggests embarrassment not unlike that of a dog whose house-training has lapsed. Sexual content in the Combines is a matter of interpretation, present obliquely or as metaphor, but the scatological is often explicit subject matter. The palette of certain works is a dirty mix of black and brown, and two in particular bring this chromatic shit storm across the threshold of sublimation into direct awareness with their physical elements. Talisman, 1958, has a small aperture within which hangs a mason jar containing what looks for all the world like a bowel movement. Kickback, 1959, has embedded in its field of smeared paint part of a pair of filthy trousers that might be evidence of a total loss of sphincter control, a collapse of the most basic boundaries of the individual.
In our present situation,
as we bury ourselves in garbage and slide toward irreversible climate change,
any residual glibness one sees in the Combines is replaced by a creepy sense of
prescience and a feeling that they might be analogous to both journalism and
poetry. Almost all of them were made during the Eisenhower administration, when
the consensus view of the
Porter went on to say that “Rauschenberg’s work has more personality than anything like it. Its weakness is that it tends to approach the chic.” This is a sharp observation to have been made years before elegance and good taste in art came to be defined by the likes of Twombly or Warhol, especially so coming from another artist who was basically sympathetic to what Rauschenberg was up to. (More reactionary observers also accused Rauschenberg of being light- weight and merely fashionable but these impressions can be dismissed in hindsight as the obligatory sour grapes built into the basic plotting of avant-gardism.) One feels that Porter was identifying a big problem in its incipient form. What’s clear is that whatever problem Rauschenberg’s superficial side may have become for the rest of us, it wasn’t too much of a problem for him. Once he figured out the general approach of the Combines, he made a lot of them, and a complicated by-product of this exhibition’s exhaustiveness is the confrontation with his reliance on pure style to achieve coherence in many of these works. The jarring specificity and sense of adventure of the great Combines is not mitigated by but must be understood in contrast with the insouciant artiness of many of the smaller works and the discomfiting sense that the entire enterprise could coalesce into one big dandified haze. Yet it was necessary for Rauschenberg to do all of this in order to do any of it, and ultimately one person’s masterpiece might well be another person’s provocative mess. The slightly embarrassing feeling of scattered attention, of someone working too hard, all too evident in the Guggenheim retrospective, is really the flip side of the unwillingness to self-censor and the defiance of any normative sense of the appropriate that allowed Rauschenberg to self-actualize. However vexing the problem of understanding his entire contribution may remain, the Combines merged the energies of their maker and their moment into mirrors reflecting the collective and windows onto exotic inner precincts, and their reverberations will be with us for a long time.
CARROLL DUNHAM IS A NEW YORK-BASED ARTISTE.