Game Theory

Robert Rauschenberg, the art world’s master joker.

“Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective”
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Museum SoHo, and Guggenheim Museum at Ace Gallery, New York City
Through Jan. 7, 1998

To see an enlargement of each Rauschenberg piece, click on the image.

I don’t have any statistics handy for purposes of comparison, but if this isn’t the largest retrospective exhibition ever mounted, it is certainly the biggest I’ve ever seen. The uptown Guggenheim is almost entirely filled by the first part, with only one of the five or six side galleries devoted to items from the permanent collection. Part 2 takes up two floors at the SoHo annex; and the adjunct at the Ace Gallery, while a single work, consists of 189 parts and measures roughly 1,000 feet in length. If the task of viewing all this isn’t a sufficient workout, there are also two concurrent Rauschenberg gallery shows, a series of frescoes and an exhibit of photographs, at the Pace Wildenstein MacGill complex on 57th Street.

Rauschenberg is an amazingly prolific and formally venturesome artist who, over the past 50 years, has nearly always risked aesthetic trespass, producing work deliberately just one degree or two from being merely ugly, banal, kitschy, gimmicky, showy, facile or, of course, excessive. Those possibilities were what he was pitting himself against while his contemporaries in the 1950s, for example, were battling the picture plane. When he has won, he has won spectacularly. He hasn’t, however, always won. He did have an astonishing 25 years or so, though. At least the first three-quarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral and its sideways annexes–traveling up–display one dazzling triumph of eye over reflex after another, some of them iconic by now, others seldom shown and vitally fresh.

Although some very good work predates it, you might say that the show symbolically begins with his Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. (Click on each thumbnail to see an enlargement.) It is exactly that: a few smudged traces of pencil on an elaborately matted and framed piece of paper. This work has always been cited as a classic killing-the-father act or a declaration of independence from the dogma of Abstract Expressionism. It is both those things, but it is also a declaration of independence from drawing. He did a bit of it early on, but soon realized that he had two stronger suits, junk assemblage and photography.

He is a virtuoso of both. He might actually be considered a great neglected photographer, although this neglect is only a consequence of the fame of his combine paintings and prints (“combine paintings” is Rauschenberg’s own term for works that include both oil and objects on canvas). The photographs in the museum show are primarily tough, direct found-object still-lifes, clearly descended from Walker Evans and related to Robert Frank. His interest in both depicting and displaying found objects also links him to Evans, who, toward the end of his life, was taking home and hanging up the bullet-riddled stop signs he found on the road rather than just taking their pictures. Rauschenberg, however, was compelled to alter such objects, attaching them to canvas, smearing them with paint, and combining them with all manner of other substances. The wall captions in this show are much more entertaining than those things usually are, viz.: Odalisk (1955-58), a combine that includes “oil, watercolor, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, photographs, printed reproductions, miniature blueprint, metal, newspaper, glass, dried grass, and steel wool, with pillow, wood post, electric lights, and Plymouth Rock rooster, on wood structure mounted on four casters.”

You can imagine the fun Rauschenberg must have had finding random detritus on the streets, dragging it up to the loft, and then figuring out the most perversely elegant ways to put it together. There are a few studio pictures in the vast catalog, but none, unfortunately, shows the rat’s nest of tennis balls, old newspapers, stuffed birds, cheesy bedspreads, and construction debris that must have filled the place in the 1950s. Lately a great deal has been made of Rauschenberg’s discretion regarding his sex life, with critics zeroing in on Bed (1955), a combine that includes a paint- and pencil-enhanced pillow, quilt, and sheet; as well as Canyon (1959), which features, among other things, a mirror, a pillow in a noose, and a stuffed bald eagle in full wingspread. Those works are presumably meant to be Realist and Symbolist (respectively) allusions to his homosexual identity, and Rauschenberg is chided for not publicly affirming the same. And such allusions they may well be, although you do wonder how those critics would then interpret the iconic Monogram (1955-59), with its stuffed angora goat wearing a car tire around its midriff.

The quest for meaning, a professor’s game, looks pretty pale amid the panache and humor of Rauschenberg’s assemblages and combines. They involve Dada nose-thumbing, Expressionist brio, an American appreciation of pure funk, a flâneur’s eye for chance and juxtaposition in the streets, a sensualist’s feeling for the most outré kinds of texture, and a scopophiliac’s unquenchable thirst for images, all kinds, right now, from industrial logos to comic strips to postage stamps to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. (He also, incidentally, has quite an ear, capable of doing more with a one-word title–Rebus, Currency, Interview, Barge, Express–than most writers.) Meaning has actually tended to be a pitfall for him, as is shown by his topical posters, only one of which is displayed here, a dully literal item for Earth Day 1970.

The lower level of the Guggenheim SoHo displays the tinkering side of Rauschenberg’s nature, the works he made in collaboration with engineers–the star item there is unquestionably Mud Muse (1968-71), a vat of bentonite (an artificial clay) that bubbles and gurgles and spits, like a pool of quicksand in a Tarzan movie, triggered by a sound-activated compressed-air system. This kind of stuff is engaging and, occasionally, more than that. Upstairs, and on the very highest tiers of the uptown branch, is where the trouble starts. Over the last 20 years or so, Rauschenberg has repeated himself, a lot. This may be par for the course of most artistic careers; the distinction here is that he has repeated himself in ever more exalted and expensive media (reflective metals, Japanese ceramics, fresco), which just gild the funk, sapping its life. When employing his habitual paper and canvas and burlap bags he has tended to go for discordantly smooth finishes. The Ace Gallery installation, a work in progress that will eventually reach a quarter mile in length, is a recapitulation of themes that winds up being reductive in its very gigantism. Meanwhile, the best of the later work is the very simplest, made from discarded gas-station signs. Maybe he should just limit himself to materials that cost no more than five bucks a pound.