Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008).
Passings: Robert Rauschenberg and the Joy of Making
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada)
I feel as though the world is a friendly boy walking along in the sun (Robert Rauschenberg).
1. Rauschenberg (1964)Photograph: Hans Namuth
Painting relates to both life and art… Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two (Rauschenberg in Miller, 1959:58).
Abstract Expressionism was still a kind of avant-garde. Avant-gardes are subversive, and abstract Expressionism was still a form of gestural subversion of painting and representation. After that, we’re no longer talking about the avant-garde. It’s still possible to come up with something new, but this is merely ‘posthumous representation’. It’s beyond the destruction of representation. What’s more, this creates a very confused world, because all forms are possible. In this sense it may be true that beyond the avant-garde you simply have kitsch. (Baudrillard in Genosko, 2001:144)
Baudrillard expresses the daunting dilemma which faced any artist of Rauschenberg’s generation. We can express this predicament, from the point of view of the aware artist as: “how do I make art that is meaningful after the end of the avant-garde?” Artists were helped enormously in ignoring this problem by curators, critics and the art world more generally which has, for the most part, refused to accept that the avant-garde has ended. Yet, with half a century of hindsight, it seems clear now that we have faced wave after wave of “posthumous representation”. Robert Rauschenberg, who died in May 2008, was aware of the problem and went on to become the most important, interesting, and joyful artist of his time.
Rauschenberg not only witnessed but embraced the end of the avant-garde. As a young artist he marked its grave with his White, Red and Black paintings of the early 1950s. Despite the quandary Baudrillard identifies, the challenge, as Rauschenberg understood it, was to process paint, found objects, and assemblage in a way that merged painting, drawing and sculpture into master works of contemporary art [especially his combines of the 1950s and 1960s]. What most miss, and Rauschenberg understood it from the inside out – was that after Duchamp, and after the end of the avant-garde, art making could be a joyous experience. If you miss the joy in Rauschenberg – his elation in artistic process – then you miss the most important thing we have to learn from him.
2. Rauschenberg, Bed (1955) Private Collection, New York
Rauschenberg’s joy in process, combined with Duchampian ideas, led to many interesting early hybrid works such as Bed (1955). Bed exists precisely because of Rauschenberg’s deep seated need to make art even when all he had to use for materials was some left over paint and his own bedding. It was a need he would feel to the end of his life. Whether or not his work would be considered avant-garde Rauschenberg was impelled by needs and desires none of us who make art ever fully understand – to revel in the process of making art works. In making his Red,
3. Rauschenberg, Red Painting (1954)Broad Collection, Los Angeles
White and Black paintings Rauschenberg was not, as is often asserted, poking fun at Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning – he was simply acknowledging that the
4. Rauschenberg. White Painting (1951)
Collection of the artist
age of artistic subversion was over. Rauschenberg did what he was impelled to do – he made art. The fact that the art world and a significant portion of the public embraced
5. Rauschenberg. Black Painting (1951).Collection of the artist.
the final result of his processing of media was, for him, a happy coincidence and one that gave him a comfortable life in which to express his creative impulses as he saw fit. From the early 1950’s it was not fame which drove Rauschenberg – the most famous of contemporary artists – but the need to make his own art in his own way. He is the most rare case of an artist who rose to the top of the art world while never fully embracing it. He waged a life-long battle with the art world over the role of collectors who bought the work of young artists merely to resell it in the market for much more than they paid for it (with none of these speculative proceeds going to the artist). Rauschenberg’s interactions with the art world were always on his terms.
He was, from the beginning, an excellent self promoter (as all successful contemporary artists must be). In 1951 he got his first show (at the prestigious Betty Parsons Gallery on 57th Street in New York) by “going to see her in the Winter with a bunch of paintings under my arm” (cited in Tomkins, 1964:52). When asked by Parsons if he wanted criticism he said “no”. She replied that he could not have a show until May (he had not asked for one). The exhibition: “Bob Rauschenberg: Paintings” ran from May 14 - June 2, 1951. Prior to the show Life magazine (April 9, 1951) featured some of his works. Parsons later described her first meeting with the artist: “I was fascinated by his work. Oils, mostly, and predominantly white. I could see right away that he was on his own tangent…” (Ibid). Rauschenberg possessed the personality, commitment, and insight to match his evolving views of the encounter with process. All in all he was a formidable combination of talent, good looks, and charm.
6. Rauschenberg (1953) Photograph: Allan Grant
7. Rauschenberg (1973) Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni
And so Rauschenberg became an artist of many media in a confused art world in which one could only remain true to one thing – the process of making. Given Rauschenberg’s strong creative drive and love of making it is fitting that his career would last for more than half a century – never losing the intense joy in process. It is also a pleasant fact that one of the most beloved artists of the past century made art first and foremost for himself. This is perhaps, along with the striking works he left us, the most satisfying aspect of his engagement with art. We can hope that he was not the last of his kind.
II. Art After The Avant-Garde
8. Rauschenberg, Soles [Thought Box] (1953) Collection of Jasper Johns
Like the poet who uses the same dictionary as the rest of us to more clever ends – Rauschenberg used the same world of objects we share to make his art in ways most of us would have never imagined without him. He served notice
9. Rauschenberg, Detail of Automobile Tire Print (1953)Collection of the artist.
early on that almost everything could be used as artistic media from the mark left behind by a tire print to an agglutination of dirt and mold in his Dirt Painting (a nod to Duchamp’s Dust Breeding). While never properly a practitioner of Pop Art – he did thrive on found objects including newspapers and magazine illustrations which
10. Rauschenberg, Dirt Painting (For John Cage) (c1953) Collection of the artist.
appear in his early combine paintings. While Warhol and Pop were concerned with deeper levels or irony and with working against aesthetics, there is a strong
11. Rauschenberg, Untitled (Combine Painting, 1953)Collection of Jasper Johns
tendency in Rauschenberg, by contrast, to re-aestheticize the found object [while not seeking to make it beautiful] (see Baudrillard, 2005:46).
For Rauschenberg, making art after the avant-garde meant taking seriously insights gleaned from Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Arthur Dove, and Kurt Schwitters – picking through the detritus of modernity and finding interesting things to say with it. Beauty was never Rauschenberg’s concern – to make something interesting was far more important to him. In this Rauschenberg participates in a core development in twentieth-century art – the movement away from beauty
12. Duchamp, With Hidden Noise (1916)Philadelphia Museum of Art
13. Schwitters, October (1918)Mazzotta collection, Milan
toward interest. The challenge for a Neo-Dadaist like Rauschenberg, especially where the lines with Pop became blurred, was to make something remarkable out of the banal. Among his more appealing, but not necessarily beautiful, works of the 1950s we can count Monogram and Canyon.
14. Rauschenberg. Monogram (1955-59) Modern Museet, Stockholm
15. Rauschenberg. Canyon (1959) Private Collection
As we enter the 1960’s Rauschenberg constantly treads a fine line between Neo-Dada and Pop, but never in my view, crossed over into the latter. His works deploy widely known figures and events in a provocative manner. It wasn’t so much that his paintings of the early 1960’s were radical but they developed his understanding of artistic life after the avant-garde in a way that was difficult to ignore. In 1964 paintings like Retroactive I or Persimmon were indeed very interesting (as they remain today). In them he reworks Duchamp’s challenge to our definition of art. What he lacked in originality he more than made up for in creative assembly and juxtaposition. All the while Rauschenberg was reopening possibilities for representational imagery which action painting and abstract expressionism had generally closed off. Works like Retroactive I and Persimmon gave his contemporaries a sense that their time was important enough to be part of art and that figuration was not dead.
16. Rauschenberg, Persimmon (1964) Private Collection, New York
17. Rauschenberg, Retroactive I (1964) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
Indeed, as Robert Hughes put it so well: “he showed Americans that all of life could be open to art” (Hughes, 1997:518). In 1964 the jury at the 32nd Venice Biennale could not look away either and he was awarded the Grand Prize for painting. Rauschenberg’s commitment to process and his innovative approach to blurring existing media allowed him to make his own strong contribution to the “confused world” of “posthumous representation” at the highest levels.
As an artist of many media driven by the joy of making, it is not surprising to find Rauschenberg participating in contemporary dance in the 1960s. Choreography and dance are enormously contemplative and process driven enterprises which held a special appeal to Rauschenberg. Participating as a dancer in a work such as Steve Paxton’s U would Like To Make A Phone Call or as both choreographer and performer in Pelican, provided Rauschenberg with the opportunity to work from “within”
18. With Steve Paxton (choreographer), U Would Like to Make A Phone Call(1964)
19. Rauschenberg, Pelican (1965) Photograph: Steven Moore
an art work in a medium with many new possibilities. It is not surprising that some kinetic art works followed these years – see Solstice and Mud Muse (below).
By 1965 Rauschenberg was considered (in the West) to be among the most significant artists of the post war generation. When the Paris weekly Arts asked 100 French intellectuals to identify the ten greatest artists under fifty, Rauschenberg joined Tinguely, Soulages, Mathieu, Klein, Hundertwasser, Bernard Buffet, Paul Guiramand, François Arnal, and César as the only American on the final list (Hopps and Davidson, 1997:566).
Rauschenberg’s answer to the problem of the end of the avant-garde was to simply find joy, each day, in making art. The end of joy for Rauschenberg could only be brought about by two things – the end of process and the artist’s death. I think it is fair to say that no artist in history understood and experienced the joy of processing media in interesting ways any more than did Rauschenberg. His embrace of the end of the avant-garde and his determination to make his art for himself first and foremost has also played an enormous role in returning a playful and joyous approach to art for the thousands of artists who have been inspired in some way by his work. Rauschenberg was constantly restless in his search for media, sought to avoid repeating himself, while intensely engaged with a vast array of materials. As in his years in dance, he often worked collaboratively with a broad variety of artists and performers. It is an open question as to which artist influenced human perception more in the past century: Picasso or Rauschenberg. The fact that we can seriously entertain Rauschenberg in the equation itself speaks volume to his influence not only on the arts but on media and on aesthetics in general in our time. Picasso looks different after Rauschenberg. The next great artist will be the one who makes works that also allow us see Rauschenberg in a profoundly new way.
Solstice (1968) draws on his years as a dancer in that the “viewer” of the work of art must physically engage with it in a viewing performance. The work is
20. Rauschenberg, Solstice (1968) Osaka, National Museum of Art
21. Rauschenberg, Mud Muse (1971) Moderna Museet, Stockholm
activated when you step on the platform and enter into its environment. As the participant walks through it, the work changes and we become cut off from the outside world, engaged with a world of bright colour as s/he works around and through the assorted images. Solstice also drew on some of Rauschenberg’s oldest ideas – the kind of which went into his first combines – expressed in remarkably a new way. Mud Muse also harkened back to his Dirt Painting but again in a new technological age. In it 1000 gallons of well-driller’s mud is made to bubble by an air compressor which responds to a tape recording of sounds. Both Mud Muse and Solstice are performance pieces – in one the museum goer who is put to work, in the other it is the work of art that performs. Both also combine Rauschenberg’s life-long interest in working with unusual media and his curiosity involving the potential of technology for making art.
Throughout his long love affair with making Rauschenberg either considered, or put to actual use, just about everything imaginable. He was a firm believer that art would be more like the world if it were made from the world. Works like Proof of Darkness demonstrate the subtlety of his intellect in making poignant works with the most simple everyday materials. He possessed the gift of knowing which items to select from the inventory of the world he looted, along with a personal vision,
22. Rauschenberg, Proof of Darkness (1981) Collection of the Artist
with a power comparable to Joseph Beuys.
The greatest challenge a process driven artist (especially one with such
23. Rauschenberg, Luxer (Urban Bourbon) (1988) Collection of the artist.
24. Rauschenberg, Score XVI (Off Kilter Keys) (1993) Collection of the artist.
significant means in his later years) faces, is making interesting art, with diverse new media, over a prolonged period of time. Responding to this challenge constantly led Rauschenberg into new materials such as his paintings on aluminium. Works like Luxer and Score VXI (Off Kilter Keys) embody so much of Rauschenberg’s excitement with combining new processes (working on aluminium) with his early developments in using silkscreen technology.
25. Rauschenberg, 2 Furlong Piece (1999) Photograph: Nicholas Whitman
Rauschenberg’s end of millennium 2 Furlong Piece (the quarter Mile) was a work which served as a kind of retrospective on his entire career. The huge piece is a visual chronicle of an artistic life steeped in the joyful combining of a variety of materials to make art. Its enormous scale alone speaks to the immense joy Rauschenberg took on making a work which mirrors the enormity of his oeuvre. Rauschenberg was one of the most prolific artists in history making one new work, on average, every three days over the course of almost six decades.
26. Rauschenberg with A Quake in Paradise (1994) Photographer Unknown.
His commitment to process frequently spilled over into his life outside the studio but never more poignantly than at the funeral of Frederick Kiesler in December of 1965. Rauschenberg was invited to give the eulogy at the funeral but when it was his turn to speak he was not in the church. As people looked around for him he entered rolling an old automobile tire quietly down the aisle until he reached the front. He then sat down beside the coffin and painted the tire blue, yellow, green, and red. When he finished he leaned the symbolic wreath near the coffin and silently withdrew from the scene.
Who then was Robert Rauschenberg? He was an extremely creative and successful artist who thrived after embracing the challenge of the end of the avant-garde. He pressed on with less concern for beauty than interest and he made a joyful effort to engage with the process of making art – it seemed to come so naturally to him. “Process” he once said, “is more interesting than completing the stuff”. He constantly forced Duchamp’s question “what is art?” while not getting hung up on the problem of whether or not he was producing anything original beyond using artistic media in ways and combinations rarely if ever seen before. Questions of the continuation of the avant-garde, aesthetics, originality – these were for critics – not for him.
“When thought and language move at the same pace, boredom sets in” (Baudrillard, 1997:12). Rauschenberg’s language was processing and he managed, as well as anyone, to process artistic media in ways that would rarely fall into boredom. In this his driving impulse was that of all truly joyful people whatever their work may be – he enjoyed doing what he did immensely. In the 1950s Rauschenberg must surely have toyed with the idea of killing art – of going over wholesale to popular culture as Warhol would later do. Something in him, and surely he knew that an Andy Warhol was on the horizon, wouldn’t give up on the possibility of art (even without an avant-garde). In contrast to his American counterparts who used Pop images, Rauschenberg was more like European Pop artists. In Europe Pop was more
27. Rauschenberg (1965) Photograph: Ugo Mulas
28. Rauschenberg (1989 )Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni
concerned, especially in the 1950s, with the continuation of art history. This is why the label “Neo-Dada” rests on Rauschenberg’s shoulders much better than that of “Pop-artist”. Rauschenberg simply believed too much in the role of the creator of art, even if the works were not especially original, to give in to Pop. We are today, over 6000 works later, fortunate that he managed stay so long in that gap between life and art. His works must now endure eternity and the ravages that the art world will bring. Anyone who has the task of writing his epitaph would do well to simply say: “he took joy in making”. Even a stroke (2003) merely slowed him down and made him more dependent upon assistants.
After drafting this obituary I came across the Time magazine article (November 29, 1976) on the cover of which Rauschenberg was the first living artist to appear. The cover, designed by Rauschenberg, includes several of his works, views of Captiva Florida where he lived, and a picture of Rauschenberg sporting an enormous smile. Tellingly, in the upper corner appear the words: “The Joy of Art”. The accompanying article (by Robert Hughes, who perhaps understood Rauschenberg better than any other critic), captured so much of the artist’s spirit in its title as well as its text: “The Most Living Artist”. What was true in 1976 was all the more so in recent years.
29. Rauschenberg, Cover, Time Magazine, November 29, 1976
Almost half a century ago Rauschenberg said: “I think I can keep on playing this game indefinitely, and it is a game – everything I do seems to have some of that in it” (Tomkins, 1964:104). And that is the secret of his contentment and his lesson to us: Find something which everyday pulls you from your bed in a state of desire to do what you enjoy doing the most. “The world is a game” wrote Baudrillard (1993:46) and Rauschenberg was, for me, among its most skilled players. Like Baudrillard, he was so because in making his life’s work he recognized only one rule: be joyful. In the confused world of art after the avant-garde this was, I think, a key to both his enormous success in the art world and his self satisfaction.
His art is important to many people for many reasons but it was most important to Rauschenberg himself. After he found art, Rauschenberg’s joy in process and his disrespect for limitations gave him a joyful working life. It is the art of a man who respected both himself and his audience. May each of us find the courage to take such pleasure in doing what we do and in “arriving fresh”, as Trisha Brown said of Rauschenberg, at the “scene of the accident we are about to create” (in Hopps and Davidson, 1997:269).
30. Milton Ernest (Robert) Rauschenberg (October 22, 1925 – May 12, 2008)
Photograph: New York Times
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Gerry Coulter is founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies. An essay “Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction” appears in Euro Art (On-line) Magazine (Spring 2008): http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=13=1&content=156; His paper “Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming” appeared in Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) – also available on-line at: http://www.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/4/358. An essay “A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today” appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008): http://intertheory.org/gcoulter.htm; and a recent paper Article: “A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds”, appears in Subaltern Studies: http://www.subalternstudies.com/?p=476. In 2006 he was awarded Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching – the William and Nancy Turner Prize.
Jean Baudrillard (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (Edited by Mike Gane). London: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard (1997). Cool Memories III (1990-1995). New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art (edited by Sylvere Lotringer). New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT Press.
Gary Genosko (Editor) (2001). The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE.
Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson (Editors) (1997). Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective [exhibition catalogue for the Guggenheim Museum show of September 19, 1997-January 17, 1998] New York: Abrams.
Robert Hughes (1997). American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Knopf.
Dorothy Miller (1959). Sixteen Americans. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
Calvin Tomkins (1964). “Profile: Moving Out”. The New Yorker, February 29, page 52.