change makes life interesting

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg [1925 - 2008]

Two artists with tremendous influence over me as an art graduate student in my 20s were Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. Last night Rauschenberg died at age 82 in Florida. In one very memorable act, the course of art history collided, when in 1953 Rauschenberg went to de Kooning's Greenwich Village studio with a bottle of Jack Daniels (de Kooning was an incorrigible alcoholic) to ask the modern master of painting and drawing, at the peak of his career, if he could erase one of his drawings. de Kooning wasn't very happy with the request but granted the young unknown painter his wish.

Rauschenberg took the de Kooning drawing away that night and began to erase it and when the work was exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York it caused great controversy in the art world. The arguably "best artist in the world" de Kooning was outraged. According to de Kooning's biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the Dutch immigrant New York artist feared pop-art and neo-Dada was supplanting the New York School of Abstract Expressionism and that Rauschenberg had laid down an anti-expressionist manifesto, of sorts, not so much by the act of erasing the drawing but by hanging it in an exhibition of new American artists. In other words, de Kooning expected it all to end after that night and it would not surface in the art world front-and-center.

The significance of Rauschenberg's act wasn't lost on the New York art critics - especially Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg both highly critical of Pop Art and what they termed Kitsch. There was much speculation that Abstract Expressionism had run it course and a new generation of pop-artists using direct images from the popular media and capitalist advertising carried a more relevant message that the painters from the 40s and 50s obscured with action painting and flat gestural drip field obfuscation.

Even though he had one foot firmly in the world of action painting and the other in pop art, Rauschenberg's act of erasure was taken as a statement that "Abstract Expressionism is Dead!" And de Kooning in his darker moments, while fighting his own demons, also began to think Rauschenberg's act of fluxus did signify exactly this sentiment.

Rauschenberg recalled about this time, “Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics. John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”

NY Times article on the life of Robert Rauschenberg.

A recording of the panel discussion, Who is Robert Rasuchenberg?: A Discussion with Mary Lynn Kotz, Christopher Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Darryl Pottorf. Running Time: 42 minutes 45 seconds

Walker Art Center has in its permanent collection 120 prints and two multiples by Rauschenberg including the 1960 painting Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp) currently on display in Gallery 2. The Minneapolis Institute of Art has one combine sculpture and numerous prints including Rauschenberg's largest (72" by 638") but none of his work is currently hanging at MIA.

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