New York's Brightest Lights

Rauschenberg 'Combines' at the Metropolitan

"Monogram," from 1955-59, is among the Robert Rauchenberg assemblages featured in the exhibition. (Moderna Museet, Stockholm)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

"Robert Rauschenberg: Combines" is a major show at the great Metropolitan Museum of Art, tightly focused on some of the most influential work of the 20th century. So it may seem strange that the issues it has been raising among art lovers aren't so much artistic, or even aesthetic, as about what mix of good and bad an audience deserves to see.

Many people seem to agree that the 67 "Combines" and related works in the exhibition, created in the decade between 1954 and 1964, are in the end too much of a good thing.

Rauschenberg's radical assemblages of stuff -- falling somewhere between found-object sculpture, painting and collage -- are obviously landmarks in the history of art. (Though there are clear dada precedents, especially in the "Merz" projects of Kurt Schwitters, that the curators seem to play down.)

Study any single Combine and its virtues become evident. Each preserves an interesting tension between traditionally separate media while also breaking down their boundaries. There's also vigorous play between the kinds of objects chosen -- a stuffed eagle and goat, ancient shoes, Coke bottles -- with their varied histories and meanings, and how they affect the look of the entire work of art. (It's worth remembering that the Combines were made in the heyday of abstract art; their opposition to abstraction, without buying into a reactionary realism, was part of what they were about.)

But once you've seen dozens and dozens -- and dozens -- of these assemblages, a certain Combine fatigue starts to set in.

It's hard to see what might make one work that much better than another, or what would have been lost if, say, Rauschenberg had chosen to use a merino sheep instead of his Angora goat. That is, the Combines start to seem to be about a single, radical artistic gesture, repeated again and again, rather than the detailed excellence of any one work. It's as though Marcel Duchamp had chosen to repeat his urinal "Fountain" month after month for a decade, using a different make of toilet every time.

Which seems to give a crucial insight into Rauschenberg's artistic modus operandi that would have been glossed over in any more selective show, such as the highlights-only career retrospective held nine years ago at the Guggenheim.

Thanks to the Met show, Rauschenberg comes off as a broad-brush innovator, rather than the kind of detail man whose objects reward study one by one. And this is information the public ought to have about one of this country's artistic heroes, even if it doesn't give as fine an image of each work as we might once have had.

Thinkers and critics I respect have argued that artists should be judged only by the best things they've turned out, and that bad art should simply go unshown. I respect that position, but also disagree. If Rauschenberg is really great, then he should stand up to the closest public scrutiny: Both good and bad work ought to speak to his greatness. After all, curators get a warts-and-all view of an artist when they start to research a show -- can't the art-loving public be trusted with it, too?

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