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Robert Rauschenberg

See also: Pop Art


"The power of numerology is nowhere clearer than in the way we persist in giving a decade an identity, as if history could be a series of linked carriages, each distinguished by its passengers and paraphernalia. Or in the fairly constant time lag we require before a decade becomes an object of nostalgia; that takes at least a decade, too. The forties admired the twenties, the fifties the thirties, and the seventies make hay with the fifties. Such is the usual metabolism of fashion, which diligently rescues the past to offer us an image of the "new," fashion's version of the future.

"Fashion's future is, of course, supposed to titillate but not to frighten, to reassure but not to let attention go to sleep. Fashion teeters along this thin line, with its contradictions - absurdities, if you will - covered with the thinnest of surfaces, style. Style, the gloss on an age's self-image, barely manages to give a sense of continuity or meaning - and all you need of meaning is just enough to get by. This may not do much for our sense of history, but it contributes to something more superficial and elusive, our sense of period.

"Even before the sixties were out, people knew, as they had in the twenties that they had lived through something unusual. When the seventies came in, the fifties were, predictably, restirred, but the sixties became something of an instant period. They had everything that periods require for mythological success: a force feeding of possibilities that seemed to announce a new age, a growing connoisseurship of media and drugs, Rock Utopianism, pantheons of celebrity-heroes, a glamorous sense of license and excess, irresponsibility as a demanding pose and revolution as a creative plaything, a state of mindlessness sustained by ignoring brutal contradictions or parodying them, a high surface polish. No one knew that somewhere in the background Middle America was standing by with an extinguisher full of moral foam.

"Rauschenberg's and Warhol's identification with the sixties - they are its most typical figures - is the key to their art. Both are, increasingly, period artists - which is what eventually happens to everyone anyway. But it happened quicker to them since they lacked the strategic distance from the moment that most of their colleagues were careful to maintain. From less strenuous times, their trip on the sixties' Zeitgeist seems a bit irresponsible. It will, however, seem less so in the future. As with all powerful and influential figures whose achievement is blurred by celebrity, the period they helped define now confines them. In effecting an escape their art must make a liaison with something they both rejected, history-history, of course, being the checklist scored at the exit of the sixties supermarket. How many cans of formal contribution? Social relevance? Any political content? Green stamps for future influence? Warhol has done much better here because he has, before this historical checker, pleaded innocence: He didn't know about history, never heard of it. His "naif" posture cleared his art of all "art-history" references. His exact neutrality, which now looks like inspired timing, encouraged Mary Josephson's reading of him as a "medium" - all things passing through him, and altered in the process, while he remained unchanged.

"Rauschenberg's neutrality was of a different order and his identification with the moment far less flawless. At the height of his powers in the early sixties, his marvelous effervescence dispensed with any historical delays as he rode his wave. Yet his ebullient commitment to art as a short-term venture never quite disposed of the fact that he was an educated artist, confirmed by a number of gestures which staked out his territory. This made him vulnerable. He made no secret of his feeling that both criticism and museums were irrelevant to art; but the smart critical money doesn't like being left out of codifying an artist's contribution, especially if that contribution undercuts criticism itself. Warhol understood this perfectly. Rauschenberg did not, and his reputation has suffered because he failed to "curate" his inspired folly into the historical dialogue.

"Rauschenberg's career tells us more about the New York art community in the sixties than that of any other artist. For the art community did not care then - nor does it now - for sunny figures whose innocent imperialism lies open. Rauschenberg's careless plenitude was distrusted as ambition, his generosity earned him not the affection of others, but inclusion in their self-hate. His flirtations with the media - accepted in Warhol's case because his art was so obviously based on them, and anyway you couldn't expect Andy to know any better - were condemned for a number of familiar reasons. First of all, Rauschenberg actually seemed interested in them. Lichtenstein, for instance, was also interested in some aspects of the popular media, but his attitude was benignly anthropological, mildly amused - in other words, intellectually respectable. Celebrity, when it came, was something to be suffered rather than courted. But Rauschenberg's ecumenical attitude toward the means of art - he would include whatever happened to be around - extended to media, people, everything.

"He opened art to entry by a motley crew: engineers, socialites, All-About-Eve assistants, politicians, trade unionists, dancers, instant collectors, Utopians, scientists, foundation swingers, art groupies, and heaven knows what else; all rubbed shoulders with less success than the incongruous elements in his art. This rich mixture seemed to confirm the desire populists always have: that the boundaries of art are breaking down, as if the resulting stew could be gulped all at once. They forget that the boundaries are reformulated as quickly as they are broken down, and that this does not involve any progress. Though all this gained Rauschenberg a trendy rabble of followers, it did not endear him to the hardcore New York art community.

"For this trafficking with the outside disturbed the hierarchies of importance in the closed artist-dealer-critic-collector circle, hierarchies maintained by high moral seriousness. Power is in turn threatened. Rauschenberg ran across all this with a suicidal blitheness. The politics of exclusion is the major weapon of an elite which constantly reassures itself by turning away from the gross values of the masses. Rauschenberg carried the day when fashion forced the art community to go along with him - until that moment in 1964 when he won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale. This popular success released the furies and marked the end of Rauschenberg's career as a dominant and untouchable figure. The preceding year Rauschenberg had pioneered in another quasi-lethal success: the museum retrospective for the artist not yet forty.

"At the time this was adjudged a phenomenon, but it was simply the first of a series of retrospective exhibitions that, inexorably through the sixties, summarized potentially major careers and disposed of them. Such ostensible tributes, in the weird climate of the sixties, were symptoms of a crisis that for a while remained comfortably masked: the entrance of museums into competition with and for the media; the emergence of the curator as shaper of taste rather than its codifier; the abortion of the artist's contribution out of the historical process in which, at mid-career, it was still engaged, into the frozen compounds of premature myth.

Traditionally, the retrospective comes at the close of a substantial career or, like Cézanne's in 1907 - the first of the great modernist retrospectives - immediately after the artist's death. It examines the moment's historical priorities as much as it pays tribute to recent or current eminence. In attempting to establish continuities with the past and offer guidelines for the future, retrospectives are fundamentally conservative, and they have implicit in them a rather simple theory of history. By presenting the full range of an artist's work, they show the early artist constructing his view of the past by ghost-painting it, and so equipping himself for the present. He adds to the past by developing his own independence from it, which in turn - according to the retrospective's scenario - offers points of departure for new artists. All this involves some idea of progress, that the successful artist leaves art more "advanced" than he found it. He may leave it with more or fewer options, but mythology, as we have seen, demands the rhetoric of the "advance." Rauschenberg's 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York short-circuited this process in ways that can now be clearly read.

"A glad personality combined with irrepressible bursts of eccentric creativity made Rauschenberg an influential curiosity. Setting up this somewhat legendary and unfocused figure for examination was a coup on the part of the Jewish Museum's curator, Alan Solomon. With a few shrewd gestures, Rauschenberg had accepted the task of breaking away from the heroic generation of the late forties and early fifties. Indeed, most of that generation saw him as an errant son, who, though he lowered the emotional pressure intolerably, preserved enough connections with the older art to make him acceptable. At the same time, his amiability diverted much of the hostility shown to any deviation. The amiability, however, was exaggerated by his critics into a lack of that seriousness so essential for major success in New York.

"So Solomon presented for accounting an artist who summarized many Abstract Expressionist concerns, rehearsed them with frequent parody, "quoted" them extensively, and pointed new ways of escaping them by reducing absolutism to paradox, by bringing high art into everyday discourse. This gave an impetus to the slightly younger Pop artists who secularized art completely and who were otherwise untouched by his art but not his attitudes. They institutionalized Rauschenberg's irony, which he tended to leave open and "innocent" - a matter of coincidence as much as intention - by eliminating process and presenting a facade of subject matter. Subject matter, which Rauschenberg had clearly shown was not incompatible with aesthetic discourse, was the Pop artist's mask. When the subject matter was the everyday object, the irony was built into the surface. It was not just the object that became subject matter but the use of commercial design as subject matter. The fact that the design was contemporary was one of the things that made Pop revolutionary.

"Pop's idealized avoidance of any sign of usage - the newness of everything - eliminated any identity such mass material always gains in its human transactions; after all, the impersonality of mass culture is a bit of a hoax. But Pop's subjects were always pre-purchase, before, never after. Behind this mask of newness was a neutral zone into which one could project, according to one's sophistication, speculations that could be nuanced and replicated to an unprecedented degree. For Pop was the first occasion - after the hierarchies of modernist painting had been established, with abstraction firmly at the top - which donated to subject matter the richness and ambiguity of abstract painting. This, to my mind, was Pop's greatest contribution.

"In hauling subject matter into an area of aesthetic discourse that mimicked the issues abstraction had raised, the artists were clearly as ambitious as any other "fine" artist with designs on history. They were not surfers on the sixties, mod swingers or visual jokers, though they may, in one way or another, have taken advantage of what was there for the taking. The mask of subject matter allowed each one to develop a firm persona and a myth which interacted amusingly with the public reception of his work as it was recycled into the popular media, that is, became just subject matter again. The circulation between high art and public media is still an unexamined theme of the sixties. It would include a history of fashion, a study of mediation and of the Pop artists' myths. Unlike theirs, Rauschenberg's was never firmed up. His myth and his persona are both highly labile..."

- Text from Brian O'Doherty, "American Masters: The Voice and the Myth"

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