When asked how he maintains his creative process, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, 81, says that he trusts in his materials without relying on the comfort of sureness and certainty. “Sometimes,” he continues, “Jack Daniels helps too.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Robert Rauschenberg—Bob, as he calls himself—veered away from his original name, Milton. Few authentic Miltons could have originated in Port Arthur, Texas, a birthplace that Rauschenberg shares with Janis Joplin. Yet, the artist tears himself away from his birthplace as much as he embraces it.
Although he admired the aesthetic efficiency of his mother—a seamstress who, during the Great Depression, arranged paper patterns on cloth so that no scrap was wasted—Rauschenberg doesn’t hesitate to clutter his artwork (“glut,” he calls it) with incongruent objects, such as tires, ties, or stuffed animals. These appear mainly in Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” mixtures of collages, paintings, and sculptures, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art will display until April 2.
The collection is broad. It includes nearly all of Rauschenberg’s significant Combines, and in some ways, the vastness of the collection provides a visitor with the only practical way to understand Rauschenberg’s shifting techniques. But despite its content, the museum gives visitors little explanation of the Combines. Had I judged Rauschenberg based on the collection alone, I would have expected him to be little more than a Pop artist with a fetish for Angora goats, parachutes, and umbrellas.
The Combines, though, should not be viewed alone—or even collectively, for that matter. Unlike Joan Miró, who would spend hours viewing his other paintings before creating new ones, Rauschenberg relied heavily on randomness. Perhaps this is a consequence of his dyslexia, which makes the world appear to him as an “undifferentiated whole,” instead of an organized and comparable set of images.
In his Combines, Rauschenberg tries to portray the randomness of an outside world as he perceives it. The artist makes it very clear that he is not trying to portray himself or bare his emotional soul. Instead, he tries to give visitors a new physical viewpoint, a glimpse into his own metaphorical universe. Art, he claimed, should not be worthy of extended discussion. The Combines at the Met physically prohibit us from judging them as art. Instead, they lend themselves to being judged as portals or views of a museum wall.
“Winter Pool,” featured in the exhibit, distracts us from the “art” in this Combine method by creating a gap in the middle of the canvas, where we find a ladder. The ladder, of course, reminds us of our daily life, but unlike the pieces of Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg’s Combine doesn’t try to emphasize pop culture or mass consumerism. The artist’s motives are simpler: to remove the boundary between art and life. The ladder builds on Rauschenberg’s goal to interact with the visitor. “Winter Pool” is a large painting, and the ladder beckoned me to attempt the daring feat of climbing into the painting (in fact, Rauschenberg had set this up so well that the securities guards, instead of the layers of canvas, were my main obstacle).
Rauschenberg, as I later discovered, is not a fake artist. His insistence on human interaction in art was not limited to a relation between himself and the audience, but instead applied to his collaboration with other artists—most notably, Jasper Johns and John Cage.
When Rauschenberg worked with the composer Cage, Cage noted that they both forgot who created which part of the painting. They had a mild argument over it, but realized that they would never be able to “allocate” or accredit different portions of the painting to each other. Rauschenberg ultimately concluded that the artist himself is insignificant, and perhaps this is why he did not want to “bare his soul” on the canvas. His ideas of collaboration and mutual interaction are so deeply ingrained that they prevent him from recognizing the artistic ego that seems most prevalent in modern art.\
In Rauschenberg’s “Bed,” his most notorious piece, the artist splattered his own bed with a thick layer of paint and then hung it vertically so that an audience could see it directly. Although this piece may seem tame compared to modern forms of art (the Dada-esque “Voice of Fire” collection in Ottawa proudly exhibited urinals), Rauschenberg defied most artistic conventions of the time by openly replacing his canvas with bed sheets. Even to today’s visitors, the Combine gives a feeling of violation, a bed splattered with purple blood. Yet underneath the layers of paint, Rauschenberg never disguises the bed. Some tension emerges between utility and art, and the artist tries to diminish our dependence on the “art” of the bed. We almost regret that this work of art can never be slept in again.
“Monogram” remains distinct from Rauschenberg’s other Combines, because it is not constructed on a two-dimensional canvas (or bed). A semi-painted Angora goat intertwined in a tire, it first comes across as cheap surrealism; however, we soon realize that Rauschenberg is trying to display reality instead of trying to transcend it. The goat and tire do physically remind us of a monogram, and we do not have to force ourselves to view the exhibit with esoteric or artistic insight, which Rauschenberg dismisses as worthless. The artist might even have fallen back on English idioms: the “spare tyre round the middle” that comes with middle age.
Rauschenberg’s Combines are conventional, but not common, but the Metropolitan Museum fails to reveal this. Instead, it simply piles Rauschenberg’s most famous collections in front of a mostly clueless audience. The response that I most remember from the museum is that of two women who giggled as they read museum captions about Rauschenberg’s art. “He has to be gay,” they kept saying. “I wonder how he can still hide it today. It’s not like we wouldn’t accept it.”
Regardless of Rauschenberg’s orientation (he is married), I don’t think that he would have wanted any speculation about his life, or, for that matter, any captions that displayed his name. After all, he doesn’t even take responsibility for his works. “Today is their creator.”