Artwork: Rauschenberg in his Pearl Street studio, New York, March 1958. Works, left to right: Charlene (1954), Untitled (c. 1954), and a partial rear view of the second state of Monogram (1955–59, second state 1956–58). Photographer: Dan Budnik. Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. © Dan Budnik, all rights reserved
Born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, Rauschenberg adopted the name “Bob.” But word has it that the art world, so enamored with his revolutionary approach and groundbreaking aesthetic, refused to address him so casually and simply re-named him “Robert.”
This anecdote perfectly encapsulates the chasm between Rauschenberg’s work and how it was received. The artist, sometimes called a “Neo Dadaist,” was inherently subversive. He observed, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)”
This gap was one first illuminated in the work of Marcel Duchamp, who introduced a urinal to the art world and called it “Fountain,” literally taking the piss out of the self-important bourgeois notions of art. In 1961, Rauschenberg made his move when he was invited to submit a portrait of Iris Clert, that was to be included in an exhibition at her Paris gallery. In a truly unbothered move, he sent a telegram stating, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”
The art world was enamored and entranced by Rauschenberg’s willingness to call them out. In the gap, he defined his own style and approach to art making that challenged all norms from taste to technique. He was simply a true original, an innovator, a risk taker, and a free thinker who stayed true to the cutting edge throughout his life.
Now, in celebration of a career that spanned six decades, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, a full retrospective of the artist’s work. Opening May 21 and running though September 17, 2017, the exhibition showcases more than 250 works across painting, sculpture, drawing, prints, photography, sound works, and performance footage.
With each work, the shock of the new becomes more complete, as Rauschenberg breaks down your resistance to the unthinkable. In a world where Nabisco Shredded Wheat cardboard cartons are sliced open, taped together, and mounted on the wall, Rauchenberg’s famous taxidermied angora goat, which sits in the middle of Monogram, doesn’t seem odd at all.
Marcel Duchamp rightfully observed, “The individual, man as a man, man as a brain, if you like, interests me more than what he makes, because I’ve noticed that most artists only repeat themselves.” Yet, this does not apply to Rauschenberg. Simply put, nothing is redundant, but rather a continuously exponential curve of growth that pushes the boundaries until you agree to his terms.
Anything is possible, and why not? What is art with rules except a system of thought control? Rauschenberg goes in the other direction. His work asks questions that need not be solved, exploring the mysteries of life through one of our finest modes of meditation.
Rauschenberg’s work is much like the nature of life itself: an ever-changing kaleidoscope of sheer sensory experience. As the artist is quotes as saying in the introduction to the catalogue for The Black and White Paintings at Larry Gagosian Gallery, New York, in 1986, “Every minute everything is different everywhere. It is all flowing.. .The duty or beauty of a painting is that there is no reason to do it nor any reason not to. It can be done as a direct act or contact with the moment and that is the moment you are awake and moving. It all passes and is never true literally as the present again leaving more work to be done.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.