NEW YORK — The enormous Robert Rauschenberg exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art reaches a moment of high drama, or perhaps low comedy, with a work called “Mud Muse.” It is a large rectangular vat made of aluminum and glass, 9 feet by 12 feet, open on top, filled with a slurry of clay that bubbles and pops at the command of compressed-air system underneath. It was a collaborative project between Rauschenberg and a team of engineers from the Teledyne company, and it seems to do everything the artist wanted his work to do: exist and evolve in real time, resist definition, elude interpretation and defy the lines between painting and sculpture.
Constructed between 1969 and 1971, “Mud Muse” recalled much earlier works by Rauschenberg, when he pressed a 1951 canvas covered in asphalt into gravel to pick up traces of earth, or put dirt, seeds and grass in a box to produce his 1953 “Growing Painting.” But like the best of his work, it has darkness in it. Is it protean or apocalyptic? A view of the primordial Earth before someone gave it form, or is this the final soup of the world, burping a few last times in the frigid emptiness of space?
We are coming up on almost a decade since Rauschenberg died in 2008 at the age of 82. He is a beloved figure whose vast legacy, if carefully cherry-picked, can provide inspiration to almost any contemporary artist. He had his conceptual twists, his collaborative enterprises, he engaged in performance, media ventures and international outreach, and never entirely forsook making two-dimensional images you can hang on the wall. If American artists are meant to be restless, visionary, boldly transgressive and gleefully high-spirited, then Rauschenberg is the quintessential American artist.
“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” includes more than 250 works and is designed to take account of “the importance of creative dialogue and collaboration” in the artist’s work. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Trisha Brown and a host of others are included in this evolving story of Rauschenberg’s work across multiple media. The curators celebrate his collaborative ventures, designing sets pieces for dances choreographed by Cunningham and Brown, and his lifelong intellectual engagement with close friends and lovers, including Twombly and Johns. But there is a tendency, in art scholarship, to fetishize collaboration, perhaps because tracing how networks operate gives scholars something to do. There is, however, no reason to assume that collaboration is by itself a good thing, and plenty of evidence that it can lead to group think and insularity.
Throughout the six decades of work on view, Rauschenberg returns to a tension he felt since his student days at Black Mountain College, in the late 1940s. He came to the freewheeling and unorthodox school in North Carolina seeking, and resisting, discipline, and he found there a teacher, Josef Albers, who demanded a discipline that Rauschenberg couldn’t or wouldn’t muster. “Albers’s rule is to make order,” said Rauschenberg. “As for me, I consider myself successful only when I do something that resembles the lack of order I sense.”
At its best, Rauschenberg’s work creates a picture or analogy of the disorder he saw in the world; at its worst, it merely lapses into disorder. The line between the two isn’t always obvious, but one senses dead ends in some work and productive recurrences in others. In 1964, while visiting Japan, he was invited to participate in a public televised interview and responded, instead, not with answers to given questions, but with a performance, creating a work called “Gold Standard” live for the audience. It was one of the last of his “Combines,” a form he had created that mashed up sculpture, assemblage and painting into sui generis works that he called “free-standing paintings” that were baffling, intriguing and giddily three-dimensional.
But “Gold Standard” is not a great combine and serves more as a warning to future artists: Assemblage without thought will lead to mere concatenations of trash. And yet, in the same and nearby galleries with “Gold Standard” are a half-dozen works from around the same period in which the material that Rauschenberg brings together holds together, meaningfully engaged, caught in well-designed vectors of tension between the parts. Two fans are in frozen dialogue in the 1961 “Pantomime,” while the 1962 “Ace,” a wall-size work on five panels, juxtaposes and layers fabric, cardboard, wood and paint to suggest a bright, ebullient catalogue of the messy world, from its cosmic smallness in space to its giant, ineluctable particularity when seen close at hand.
The dynamic in Rauschenberg’s work often seems to be between refusal and openness, between hiding and exposure. He was invited to contribute a portrait to a 1961 exhibition organized by the gallerist Iris Clert in Paris; apparently he neglected or forgot the commission, and so responded with a telegram that read: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” This is refusal, and a trivial work perhaps inspired by a superficial awareness of the “word games” ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But just around the corner, beginning in the fall of 1962, were his magnificent silk-screen paintings, which won him the painting prize at the Venice Biennale of 1964. In these works, the visual language of American culture is mixed and remixed in ways reminiscent of the static and snippets of language and orphaned melodies one hears flipping through the AM radio dial in no particular order. For an artist who sought throughout his career to subvert (or refuse) the two-dimensionality of the old painted image, his returns to the traditional, wall-hung canvas image were almost always openly productive and engaging.
Early in Rauschenberg’s career, in 1954, his combines were shown along with other works at a gallery in New York. Among the visitors were Judith Malina and Julian Beck, founders of the experimental Living Theatre. Malina captured their contradictory responses: “What Julian sees as full of vitality I see as full of death. It is a bright doom that hangs over these paintings.” It is a magnificent description, a “bright doom,” and once you’ve heard it, almost impossible to get out of your head as you tour the exhibition. It might also be a description of America at the moment that Rauschenberg rose to prominence. Never was the country more powerful, and never more menaced by the technology upon which its power was dependent.
Two works from this show remain indelible. One of them is among the most famous things Rauschenberg ever created, a combine called “Monogram,” in which a taxidermied Angora goat with brightly colored paint on its face wears a rubber tire around its midriff, in a way that now suggests a very real environmental problem: the entrapment of living creatures in human trash. The other, made some 30 years later in 1986, is called “Urban Katydid” and consists of scratched and twisted metal street signs scattered over a reflective surface. They are both compelling pictures of chaos, of being lost in the world, a creature lost in a forlorn space, and a visual map of lostness condensed into Borgesian irony.
Yesterday’s chaos always seems less threatening than the chaos that confronts us today, if only because we have survived it. For every frustrating dead end in Rauschenberg’s work, there are these moments, in which he seemed to have oracular power, transcending his own particular age of chaos with an uncanny sense of how that chaos would expand, evolve and come down to us today. Decades before we pronounced ourselves terminally addicted to the cheap visual chaos of America, that goat was already wandering among a jumble of useless signs.
“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Sept. 17. For information: www.moma.org.