Press Box

Puffing Rauschenberg

The dailies slobber all over the dead artist.

The solemn tributes to Robert Rauschenberg in today’s newspapers prove that you’re more likely to encounter an independent mind operating in the sports pages than the arts section. Hoisting his reputation high and escorting it into paradise, critics from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal write as if toeing the correct line handed down by some cultural commissar.

To the Journal’s Barbara Rose, he’s “the biggest innovator in art after Jackson Pollock.” The Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight regards Rauschenberg (along with collaborator Jasper Johns) as “the most important American artist to emerge into prominence in the 1950s.” The Chicago Tribune’s Alan G. Artner writes that Rauschenberg “was one of the most influential artists in the second half of the 20th Century.” The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman salutes the artist for having “time and again reshaped art in the 20th century” and for giving “new meaning to sculpture.” Even mild dissenter Blake Gopnik of the Post, who no longer likes Rauschenberg’s Combines as much as he once did, acknowledges the man as a “master” and the maker of “some of the most influential art of the past 50 years.”

You’d expect that an artist who deliberately courted controversy might rouse a little debate on the event of his death. But none of his provocations move the daily art-crits in that direction—not his White Painting, not his “black painting,” not his Automobile Tire Print, not his screenprints, not his Mud Muse, and not his “cardboards.” Even the time that he asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing, erased its every line, and displayed it as Erased de Kooning Drawing wins worshipful treatment from the gang. “[A]n act both of destruction and devotion,” reports the New York Times. Evidence of “creative overdrive,” proclaims the Los Angeles Times. An example of “the younger generation, turning history into a blank slate,” finds the Washington Post.

Judging from today’s clips, there was no Ishtar, no Moose Murders, no Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, no Ancient Evenings, and no End of the Century in all of Rauschenberg’s work. His critics discover triumph in his every groan and belch because, as they write, his work was about invention and reinvention and experimentation and possibilities! About inspiring other artists! He was “protean” and imaginative (Los Angeles Times and New York Times). The headline writer for the Post gets caught up in this mood, calling Rauschenberg the “Alchemist of the Mundane,” forgetting that all alchemy is about transforming the mundane into the special.

He was “prolific,” too, (Chicago Times, Los Angeles Times,and New York Times), but given that he produced about 6,000 paintings and sculptures, not counting prints and multiples, he was as much an art factory as an artist. How much of it was crap? The art critics are silent.

Even his oracular sayings receive maximum respect. The Post’s Gopnik quotes the Rauschenbergism, “I am for Art, but for Art that has nothing to do with Art” without pausing to explain what—if anything—it means. The New York Times’ Kimmelman sees no reason to unravel the artist’s quip, “Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.” According to the Tribune’s Artner, Rauschenberg “sought to operate in an aesthetic no-man’s land, which he famously called ‘the gap between art and life.’ ” Now what in the hell does that mean?

The newspaper reviewers are too busy recycling the many entertaining stories from Rauschenberg’s personal history to help readers make sense of his works, leaving it to the New Criterion’s perpetually grouchy Roger Kimball to pen the only critical postmortem I could find:

[H]is work is primarily a highly commercial version of what Marcel Duchamp was doing in the Teens and Twenties with his “ready-mades.” In essence, it is a window-dresser’s version of Dada: Dada (slightly) prettified and turned into a formula—Dada, in short, for the masses.

And not good Dada, either. Rauschenberg’s work was “undoubtedly junk” and characterized by “unremitting trashiness,” Kimball seethes. “Like Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg’s chief genius has been for celebrity. His works are props in a gigantic publicity campaign whose purpose is to foster a species of brand-name recognition.”

I don’t hold the press gang’s reverential treatment of Rauschenberg against the artist. He was only selling. They’re the ones who bought, bought again, and continue to toss coins into his grave.

Addendum, May 15: Jed Perl of the New Republicobviously didn’t get the memo.


I met Rauschenberg in 1979 while working as a handyman at the Venice, Calif., gallery that represented him. He was a nice enough guy but didn’t ask me to collaborate with him as he had de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, or Bell Laboratories engineers. My lasting Rauschenberg memory is of the enormous inventory of his work that the gallery kept in the back room. We had enough of his stuff to stock every living room in the Hollywood Hills. Twice over. Send your Rauschenberg reminisces to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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