I wouldn't say that I knew him, but Robert Rauschenberg feels like a marker of sorts in my life. When I was in college, he seemed like an untouchable giant in art; it was everywhere and it was important. Back in grad school we would always peer up the little alley in NY where he reportedly hung his prints out to dry. It never crossed my mind that I'd ever meet him, but I did. A few years ago, a real estate developer aspiring to be a painter took me to a small opening for him in West Hollywood. I remember cringing when my date asked me to approach Rauschenberg, who was swarmed with admirers, and bring him over to talk with us. I couldn't even fathom that; at the time I was much too shy. But my date finally convinced another artist to make the introduction and then told Rauschenberg that he wanted to be a painter but his friends didn't much like his paintings. Without missing a beat, Rauschenberg told him he should either find new friends or quit painting. Then he excused himself. The whole thing still makes me smile.
This week Ed Goldman, the art critic who recently stopped by tys for an interview, wrote about Robert Rauschenberg in his weekly Art Talk email. I asked his permission to reprint it here because I thought for those of you not familiar with Robert Rauschenberg, it might be a good way to get a feel for his work. For those who know his work well, I still think you'll enjoy this tribute to a great life in art. Enjoy!
Rauschenberg: Forever Curious; courtesy of Art Talk with Edward Goldman.
Among the artists whose art I like and admire, there are a few whom I feel as if I've known personally. Rembrandt would be one of them. With dozens upon dozens of self-portraits, we are able to follow him from youth to old age. Also we know his mother and father, son, wife and mistress all painted in a deeply personal way that reveals his feelings about them.
As far as I know, the great American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who died last week at the age of 82, never portrayed himself, his family or friends, and yet, I feel as if I knew him well. Probably it has something to do with the fact that almost everything he had seen, worn, slept in, or touched somehow found its way into his art, thus literally becoming his artwork. Two years ago, the wonderful traveling exhibition of Rauschenberg's early works from the 50's and 60's could be seen here at MOCA. It was during this particular decade that the artist, it seemed, could do no wrong. In a state of sustained fury or could it be a state of grace? Rauschenberg churned out one masterpiece after another, calling them 'Combines,' a combination of painting and sculpture. He threw in stuffed chickens and a goat, old socks and dirty linen, rubber tires and a whole panoply of electric appliances, and then, in a baptism of color applied with coarse brushstrokes, the artist transformed this junkyard detritus into sizzling icons of awe-inspiring power. How anyone could sustain this creativity at such an unbelievable fever pitch for an entire decade is beyond me.
Rauschenberg retained his youthful spirit, and, more to the point, his curiosity which fed the creative engine of his art to the very end of his life. In a 2006 interview with Gisele Galante Broida for Paris Match magazine, she suggests that his 'combines' "may be viewed as a veritable portrait of an artist as a young man searching for his identity," to which he responded, "I was just exercising the curiosities that occurred in my normal life...Sometimes I find myself in the awkward position of giving advice to young artists and universities and things, and the question always comes up: 'What is your final advice?' and I say: 'To keep the curiosity...the curiosity is the most important thing.'"
It's never been a secret that the artist was gay, though in post World War II America, "being openly gay was considered a mental disorder," as Tyler Green writes in his blog. He adds that "In Rauschenberg's work, gay life and love is not hidden in an abstract, oblique reference to be noticed by those in the know; it is central, autobiographical..." It's ironic and a little bit sad that in their obituaries, "Most writers and critics refused to say that Rauschenberg was gay."
Two years ago, during the opening of his exhibition at MOCA, the artist, then eighty years old and not in the best health, delighted the audience with youthful exuberance and quick wit. A long line of people waited for him to sign copies of the exhibition catalogue and the wheelchair-bound artist refused no one. That's the spirit.
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. You can sign up for his weekly email here.