An art historian friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate on Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. They both came to prominence within the art world at nearly the same time and each was responsible for initiating a shift that we now see as a transition from Modernism to Postmodernism.
While my friend does not dispute how important Rauschenberg was, he thinks that, when the art history books are compiled a century from now, Johns will be the artist who defines the changes of the late 1950s and Rauschenberg will likely end up as a side note, and that possibly because Johns and Rauschenberg were at one time romantically linked. I think there is room for both and that they really had different things to offer to the history of art.
While Rauschenberg is best known for his "combine paintings" from the 50s and 60s, his experimental art making processes foreshadowed many of the divergent paths, styles, and media that would take shape in the coming decades. Spurred on by the composer John Cage, Rauschenberg was one of the first artists to seriously investigate performance art as a valid form of expression. Since this was nearly the same time as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings comparisons are often drawn between the two.
Kaprow (who died in 2006) is always linked to Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. His statement—that one could either continue on with Pollock’s gestural and seemingly ritualistic drip technique or move toward a more performative type of work, making art from the materials and actions of everyday life—marked a seismic shift in what we came to know art as. Rauschenberg, taking his cues from Cage, relied on chance elements in his work. One his most famous statements is about operating in the gap between art and life. His work, not matter what the medium or format, was successful in achieving this.
What Rauschenberg and Johns shared was an understanding of what Marcel Duchamp had been up to nearly four decades earlier. The designation of everyday objects, placed in a new context, as art transformed the contemporary notion of what art could be. Rauschenberg is actually a more proper heir to Duchamp and the other Dadaists because he took their concepts to the next level. The Dadaists had produced absurd theater pieces that contained music, poetry, drama, dance and visual elements. With Cage’s assistance, Rauschenberg was able to broaden his own view of what those artforms were and had the possibility of becoming. He broke down barriers between the differing forms. It was if Rauschenberg was also heir to Richard Wagner’s operatic concept of the Gesmantkunstwerk—total work of art. All of the arts came together so that the whole was much more compelling than each of the various components.
Still, it is the combine paintings that provide the most important leap. Too many underestimate just how significant of a shift took place when Rauschenberg removed the taxidermied angora goat and canvas of Monogram from the wall and then placed them on the floor (see the images above for each state of this piece). When the divide between painting and sculpture was abolished the categories for art were dismantled. For better or worse, art simply was art.
The juxtapositions of swaths of abstract expressionist paint with newspapers, magazine pages, taxidermied animals, and detritus from the street was only possible post-Cubism and post Duchamp’s Fountain. What made the combines so important was that they took all these objects of life and put them on display together, in relationship to each other. While Rauschenberg did not necessarily give clues as to why and how the elements of a given combine came together, he opened up a new type of interaction for the viewer.
Because of the more purely abstract and non-objective nature of much of the work of prior mid-century artists, a disconnect between the art and the viewer was on the rise. Both Rauschenberg and Johns are sometimes called Pre-Pop artists since they shared in the Pop artists’ goal of bringing representational imagery, or at least actual objects and recognizable symbols, back to the artwork. The viewer might not have liked the work, but she could relate to it on some level.
Art had long since ceased to be solely about the representation of images and objects, the retelling of a certain set of common stories and myths. These were still part of the equation, but art had the power to do something more than what a mere photographic snapshot could. While those who were outsiders to the very insulated New York art world were scratching their heads concerning materials used by Rauschenberg (though one could ask why a stuffed goat is any less suited to becoming art than a ground mineral mixed with linseed oil, marble, or bronze) they were being offered a gift. Work by Rauschenberg is open to multiple interpretations. The viewer connects the dots and finds meaning in the piece herself. The viewer has to finish the process of communication by vigorously interacting with the work.
Viewing a large collection of the combine paintings together, as I had the opportunity to do at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2006, allows one to make even further connections. I had noticed back in 1997, while conducting research on the chance methods of Rauschenberg’s work, that there is an underlying grid system to much of it. What appears as haphazard applications of materials when one views a couple combines eventually shows order. John Cage, who had first influenced Rauschenberg to employ chance methods, also had to apply some types of structure to his musical compositions. You can push the boundaries but not break all the rules at once, otherwise the new "thing" created will not be related to its type (music, art, etc.)
This structural system can be seen going back further into Rauschenberg’s past. His all white, somewhat minimalist painting from the 1950s, 22 the Lily White, shows this grid quite clearly. Even photographs of his childhood bedroom and anecdotes from that period reveal that, early on, he was placing found objects in a grid of boxes and crates—categorizing the world around him.
Robert Rauschenberg understood limitations but did not acquiesce to them. He stands as not only a transitional figure in the evolution of twentieth century art, but as a model for artists of all generations. He helped define what was essential in an artwork and pushed past the traditional structures toward the transcendent elements.