Rauschenberg said “There is no reason not to consider the world as a gigantic painting.” The process of cropping artfully from the “gigantic painting” and then clustering the actuality and materials of the real world in and onto his art was his central project.
From the start, Rauschenberg’s art involved a variety of attacks on our conventional assumptions about paintings (as well as other modes of description). We assume that, as descriptive statements, paintings constitute windows through which we look into an ideal world—a fictional space separate from our own and usually considered nobler than ours because it has been set in order (by God, nature, Platonic tradition or by an artist)—but Rauschenberg assumes none of this. Sometimes his attacks on an idealized order are hilarious and rudely direct: for example, his signature work, "Monogram" (1955-59), a taxidermic goat girded by an automobile tire and mounted on a “pasture” seeded with urban trash. Sometimes his attacks have been elegant, subtle, and courteously indirect—the "Hoarfrost" series (1974-75), a collection of breeze-responsive wall-hangings, was made by transferring common, mass media images onto grounds of boudoir satin, that were in turn veiled by sheer silk or gauze, to shield viewers slightly from the conglomerated newsprint of everyday life even as they strain to read it.
Leo Steinberg quotes Jasper Johns as saying that Rauschenberg was the artist who invented the most since Picasso in the twentieth century. Like Picasso, Rauschenberg was enormously intelligent yet reluctant to be considered an intellectual and, like Picasso, he became famous for the changes his work wrought about definitions of art, and he became a celebrity early in his career. Like Picasso, Rauschenberg had an abundant, exuberant talent and an appetite for working every day, and he was tremendously prolific in a great range of media: painting, sculpture, collage, printmaking, set and costume design, and the construction of theater pieces. If, unlike Picasso, Rauschenberg spent little of his public career drawing likenesses with a pencil, he was active as a photographer from the start.
The important link between them is collage, the medium Picasso and Braque invented in 1912. Rauschenberg reinvented collage, changing it from a medium that presses quotidian materials into serving illusion to something very different: a process that undermines illusion and the idea that a work of art has a unitary meaning.
In Cubist collage, the found elements are typically scissored to shape—in effect to draw—some other thing being represented. A piece of newspaper, for example, takes on the silhouette of a bottle, the lines of black type on white paper acting as real and parodic tonal values—modelling—which provide the depicted cylinder with at least a sign of roundness. That is, quotidian materials are substantially transformed to serve the idealized space of painting, a space which purports to represent a world separate from the one in which the viewer is standing. As Rauschenberg put it, the residual illusionism of Picasso’s collage “was still filling an empty space.” In addition, a Cubist collage normally reads as a singular, whole image: the bottle of Vieux Marc, the absinthe glass, and the daily newspaper are woven on one fictive table top to form one coherent subject, a still-life.
Rauschenberg’s collages usually do the opposite. They contain many different subjects, drawn from art, nature, industry, urban life, sport, transportation, and from aspects of cultures that Rauschenberg has visited in his travels around the world. Each is constructed from discrete units, aligned in what I call a syncopated grid. Each of the units is readable in its own right. Whether the units consist of found materials fixed to or layered within the surface (as with the Red paintings of 1953-54 and subsequent works of the later 1950s that the artist named Combine paintings) or of silkscreened images made from photographs (as in paintings of the 1960s and 1980s) the individual parts tend not to be cropped, at least not so much as to violate their legibility as independent shapes or images. As Rauschenberg said repeatedly, he considered the found objects and paint colors he worked with as “materials rather than metaphors. Nothing I used was intended to be anything else or to transcend itself.”
Wordplay with titles is usually present. Regarding the monumental Combine painting "Rebus" (1955), Rauschenberg did not use the riddle word to propose that a final and correct decoding could be accomplished; rather he wished to suggest that the act of interpretation be undertaken. To the proposition that the word rebus might itself be revoiced to mean re-bus, that is, “get on the bus again for another interpretative ride,” he said approvingly, “Hey, that’s not bad.” He has often said that if a work is perfectly understood, it is dead. Or titles may have multiple references. The title of the Combine "Wall Street" (1961) no doubt refers to Rauschenberg’s downtown Manhattan neighborhood at the time. The predominantly black and white coloration, the gritty police barrier, and the firehose in this work clearly derive from the urban environment. However, as the firehose crosses the top of the painting and ends in a coil on the floor the viewer stands upon, the title also puns on the structure of this work, which goes, after all, from the wall to the street.
During the 1950s and 60s, artists revered Pollock but they copied de Kooning. When they stopped copying de Kooning, they started copying Rauschenberg. It’s hard to peg down genius, but Bob was one. We first met as students at Black Mountain College in the fall of 1950. Work crews were being assembled to take care of maintenance of the facilities at the school. Bob, Cy Twombly and I were designated to work together and assigned to creosote buildings. I clearly looked disgruntled at the prospect. I was 18. Bob and Cy were both in their mid 20s and very handsome. They approached me, one on either side, each putting an arm around me. Bob leaned over with his infectious laugh and smile and whispered in my ear, “We have a car.” That was all it took. We drove to Ashville, fooled around all day, and when we got back Bob made brown paintings with newspaper and the creosote. I wonder if they still survive.
Bob always had that kind of attitude toward precedent and it is part of what made him so great. He wasn’t much of a reader – I don’t know if I ever saw him read a book. His attitude towards art history partly came through Duchamp whom he knew and whose widow, Tina, was a life-long friend. Classical art had little allure for him. So he was never too bogged down with the past and was always very rebellious and free in the decisions he made in his work. There was something so straight forward about him—in his life, his work, his sexuality. You felt his full presence in everything that he did. He was ambitious too and out to change the stodginess of the art world seemingly by just being himself.
When the Combines first emerged in the art world, they received terrible reviews. The New York Times slaughtered him. Everyone was looking for something known and no one saw what was in front of them. I went to his first exhibition at the Charles Eagan Gallery with an architect who couldn’t understand why anyone would look at something that was so terribly made. Everyone hated them. However, little by little, people began to see in them a way out of the orthodoxies that then dominated the art world. An overly scrupulous group of de Kooning followers had allowed Abstract Expressionism to become uninventive and Phillip Pearlstein and Alex Katz hadn’t yet succeeded in reinvigorating representation. Then along came Bob and, making it look easy, started assembling the things he saw around him, one next to another, always including aspects of nature, and setting it all off with a whole new approach to painting. Everyone in those days was talking about movement and color, a lot of very formal considerations. Rauschenberg took a striated, colored umbrella, attached a motor to turn it, stuck it in a collaged mass of paint, wood and photographs and called it “Charlene” (1954). That was what he had to say about color theory and formal art making.
But what makes “Charlene” great, just like all his best work, is that it is personal. Bob’s work is diaristic. He was not doing Pop Art, as many later said he was; he was collecting and making his life into an art object. Charlene was a friend, a dancer with Merce Cunningham. Images of his father, his former wife, Susan Weil, and his son Christopher reappear throughout his work and the objects and images he employed were used with love as the stuff of his daily existence. He was generous in that way and his need to make things was completely infectious. When other artists saw what he did, Bob’s work inspired them. They wanted to do it themselves. At least fifty percent of the work I see in Chelsea today has been influenced by Bob. His collages were in dialogue with art history, too. That seems to contradict what I said earlier, but Bob didn’t study art history, he lived it.
These days, I sometimes feel that art is becoming as radio is now. When I was a child, all you had to do was turn the radio on to hear something interesting and wonderful. There was great drama, well—written and acted, great humor and inspiring music. Radio was a magical means of mental transportation. Slowly, it was taken over as a commercial medium and now you really have to search to find something worthwhile. It is bland. Bob was against this in art. He wanted to stir things up and to make trouble and he did. He used his wonderful mind to this end. I remember sitting in Bob’s kitchen after work one evening having a drink with him and Brice Marden. I had been reading Borges on memory, and we began discussing how memory works. “I like to use my memory for the future,” said Bob, “because I already know what happened in the past.” To all of our good fortune, Bob’s endless inventiveness extended to all aspects of his life with those around him. This is the passing of a giant. To paraphrase de Kooning on Gorky: Bob, bless your dear, sweet heart. We will always miss you.
Nan Rosenthal is Senior Consultant, Dept. of Nineteenth Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art. David White is Robert Rauschenberg's curator of the last 30 years.