Each With Our Own Rauschenberg

Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The proliferation of memorials and remembrances of Robert Rauschenberg has begun. Michael Kimmelman’s obit in the New York Times and Michael McNay’s piece in the Guardian are both well wrought, describing this man who lived an extraordinary life and left an enormous and unforgettable body of work.

But I can’t not take a moment to contemplate the influence of Bob Raushenberg on my artistic development. It would be harmful to my personal sense of justice to not acknowledge who he was for me as an artist.

For most of us who came of age in the 60s, Rauschenberg was the harbinger, the bold marauder. His paintings and prints were visceral, muscular, retinally rich and completing seductive. But it was the relentless swing of his hand that kept knocking us out. Paintings became blends—2D, 3D, photographs, found art, montage, printmaking, technological explorations. His eye went everywhere and his hand followed. He did dance, performance, environments, collaborations. The resourcefulness, the inventiveness, the invitation to keep looking and find new ways of seeing was unending. He was a fire hose of creativity, and that energy lasted for a lifetime.

From Kimmelman’s review:

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture.

Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.

For me as a young art student, Rauschenberg was the paragon of Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence. I tracked his output with a tenacity for years. Over time my passion for his work changed. As often happens with authors who deeply inform a writer’s early phase, my connection with his work shifted as my own work evolved. I continued to pay attention to his ongoing explorations, but the intensity of my youthful exhuberance for anything Rauschenberg waned. But the memory of a sharp awakening to visual experience that he brought to me and many of my cohorts is for all time.

And what a great line from a 74 year old Rauschenberg: “Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

Oh yeah.

2 Replies to “Each With Our Own Rauschenberg”

  1. Thanks for this post, Deborah. Rauschenberg really woke up my eyes and made me see art in a different, more physical way. I think that the very wide-rangingness of his experimentation eventually led to a lack of discrimination and a weakening of his powerful work. I’m glad that he’s being recognized for the new territory he staked out and for his masterful hand.

  2. I agree with that assessment Nancy. But his death really brought back that early passion, which I had kind of forgotten. It is hard to describe to younger people since so much of what he started is now de rigeur. But at the time, it was stunningly fresh and new.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: