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Robert Rauschenberg, Alchemist of the Mundane

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the 82-year-old American master who died Monday, made some of the most influential art of the past 50 years. But not all of his influence comes from the objects that he is best known for.

Those most famous creations would be his "Combines" -- giant collages of found objects that hover somewhere between painting and sculpture. Rauschenberg began to make those in 1954, and they soon came to stand as his signature works.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum in New York hosted a big show of Combines alone that won rapturous reviews. It included the celebrated tire-wearing stuffed goat of "Monogram." Another important Combine called "Reservoir," a mash-up of working clocks and paint and wheels, is on view right now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Such pieces are plenty influential. They're at the root of the past 20 years of installation art. Today's roomfuls of scattered stuff -- almost all the recent "Unmonumental" show at the New Museum in New York, for instance -- could barely have existed without Rauschenberg.

In the early 1970s, the great art historian and critic Leo Steinberg said Rauschenberg had "let the world in again." (That famous phrase became the title of the show of Rauschenberg prints that recently closed at the National Gallery.) After decades of an art world dominated by dour abstraction, "letting the world in" must have seemed a huge accomplishment. What could be less abstract, and more joyful, than work that used objects pulled directly from reality as both its art supplies and its subject matter?

Looking back from the 21st century, however, Rauschenberg's 3-D collages don't look quite as great as they once did, at least to this critic. They can seem a touch inchoate and bombastic -- like overblown, Americanized versions of earlier European assemblages that had a tighter focus and less portentous tone. Where most critics have seen the Combines as overwhelmingly impressive and important, today they strike some of us as a bit too self-important.

The truly great Rauschenbergs that really get me excited, and that may have the most leverage on our cutting edge, were made before the Combines came to be. You could show them as new work in a Chelsea gallery and they'd still seem radical. After seeing them, you almost have to wonder if the Combines weren't really a retreat to something less disruptive (and maybe more salable).

"I am for Art," Rauschenberg once said, "but for Art that has nothing to do with Art." Since the Combines are plenty arty, to get to the work for which those words really ring true, you have to go back almost to Rauschenberg's beginnings as an artist in the very early 1950s, when he was still in his 20s.

In those early years, Rauschenberg made one suite of paintings whose rough, collaged surfaces were entirely covered in gold leaf. They tested a notion, in force since the Italian Renaissance, that great art couldn't be about the precious matter it was made of, but had to be about the value added by the mind and hand of its maker. In this case, of course, a use of precious matter also ends up seeming rigorously cerebral -- even as it produces absolutely gorgeous, sensual results.

Rauschenberg reversed the procedure in a series made with dirt, which had undiluted baseness as its central conceit.

Working with his close friend John Cage, the pioneering modern composer, Rauschenberg made "Automobile Tire Print." That was a 22-foot length of paper onto which Cage drove his Model A Ford while Rauschenberg covered one of the car's tires in black paint. The picture's single tire track is about a realism that doesn't come from looking at a thing, but from the trace an object leaves when it carries out its trademark function.

Rauschenberg's series of "White Paintings" -- pictures that were all-white, all the time, everywhere -- inspired Cage to make one of the most famous works of modern music, titled "4'33". It consisted of that many minutes and seconds of someone not playing an instrument in front of a live audience. Both Rauschenberg's whiteness and Cage's silence were seen in their day as purely radical gestures -- as avant-garde agitations without content beyond that. But both artists said the works were meant to be more Zen than zany: Rauschenberg's white pictures were meant to be receptacles for all the complex light and shade that struck them from the world outside; Cage's silence was a foil for the ambient sounds of concert hall and audience, a noiselessness that amplified the noise around it. Both works increased our awareness of surrounding realities rather than distracting from them, as many other works of art have done.

But maybe my favorite Rauschenberg is the one that's least about sensations of any kind. Instead, it's about finding out what happens when you cancel strong sensation out. In 1953, the artist cajoled the veteran painter Willem de Kooning into giving him a drawing, done in the great, noisy, sensation-filled style that was that artist's trademark. And then Rauschenberg simply went about erasing it. It was the younger generation, turning history into a blank slate -- but needing that history for its erasure to have meaning. "When I just erased my own drawings, it wasn't art yet," Rauschenberg said. But once he erased certified greatness, he found himself really getting somewhere.

And the amazing thing about the gesture in "Erased de Kooning Drawing" is that, in its progress toward nothingness, its has as much impact as all the something-filled scribbling and splashing of de Kooning's expressionism.

It would be nice to think that Rauschenberg, up against his final erasure from this world, remembered what he once said about that piece: "It's not a negation. It's a celebration."

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