By HAP MANSFIELD
“I feel as though the world is a friendly boy walking along in the sun.”
The artist, Robert Rauschenberg, explained “Monogram,” a “combine” (his term for a combination of sculpture and painting) to a confused art patron in this way; “To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly.
“So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”
Rauschenberg saw “things” differently than other people. He used this remarkable vision to create curious pieces of artwork that are often rankling. All the much-beloved Impressionist works of Monet, all the now-treasured works of Van Gogh, all the cubistic beauty of Cezanne once had the same irritating effect. You might say, “Yes, but all those artworks are gorgeous in their colors and subjects.” This is somewhat true, but those artists weren’t painting to make what you think of as beauty. They were showing you how they saw the world, using what were, at the time, revolutionary techniques. This just happened to eventually synch up with some people’s ideas of beauty and art. The first lesson of appreciating someone’s art can be summed up in one sentence: “It ain’t for everybody.” Nor should it be.
Rauschenberg, when asked to contribute to a show featuring portraits of gallery owner Iris Clert, sent a telegram as his piece, which simply said, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” Exactly. Feel free to disagree. That’s part of the process.
Texas has one of almost everything, and anybody in our state will tell you, it’s probably bigger and better than the one you have. Artists are no exception. Rauschenberg, one of the most influential and towering figures in Twentieth Century Art (along with his associates, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack and Willem De Kooning) was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925.
His grandfather was a German-born doctor who married a Cherokee woman. His father, Ernest, worked at a local utility company and was a fundamentalist Christian. His mother, Dora, was a former telephone operator. Dora and Ernest Rauschenberg wanted young Milton (he changed his name to Robert as an adult) to be a minister. Milton liked to draw.
Dora Rauschenberg was a collage artist in her own domestic way—she actually once wrangled up a skirt using the material from the back of her brother’s burial suit. She also pieced together fabric to make shirts for her son. Rauschenberg said that when he graduated from high school, what he really wanted for a gift was a store-bought shirt.
Milton (AKA Robert), instead of selecting the ministry, chose to study pharmacology at the University of Texas in Austin. He was drafted into World War II, interrupting his studies. He served as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps in San Diego.
It was during this time that Rauschenberg had an epiphany while at Huntington Art Gallery in California. He saw the brush strokes and textures, he saw the paint, he saw the canvas and he realized that regular old mortals make art with regular old stuff. This fact was amazing to a Texas boy who had never seen any real paintings in Port Arthur. He often said this was the turning point for him to become an artist.
He went to the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill, then went to Paris to study at the Academie Julian. There, he met his future wife, painter Susan Weil. She was planning to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He saved up to do likewise in order to study under Joseph Albers, who, at the time, was head of fine arts there.
I don’t know what Rauschenberg’s German grandpa was like or how strict his fundamentalist parents were, but nothing could have prepared him for Albers. Rauschenberg said that Albers’ criticism was so harsh that he rarely asked for it. In Albers’ infamous book, Interaction of Color, he doesn’t actually yell at you through the pages, but he might as well. One certainly gets the impression that he was a very precise and stern taskmaster. His book implies that whatever you think you see is probably wrong. Unfortunately, hard as that is to face for an artist, he is probably right.
Albers teaches a way of seeing color and color interaction that borders on the impossible. He orders you to use colors you dislike so that you will pay attention to their tones, lose your prejudice, and see them anew. He expects you to start seeing shades of the same color with a delicacy of perception that hurts the head. I’m always glad I have Albers in book form. I’d more than likely have learned a lot in his class, but I just know I’d hate him while he was teaching me. He was more than just a little anal.
While Rauschenberg’s later works and fame repulsed Albers, Rauschenberg remained upbeat and even-tempered about his teacher, saying that he was still learning from things Albers had taught. Admittedly, after re-reading Albers’ book while I was writing this, I was again struck by his genius. I see much of Albers in Rauschenberg’s work, especially in his “white” and “black” periods.
Rauschenberg’s works are loaded with the influences of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp as well as reflecting the vibes of his contemporaries and friends, Pollack, De Kooning, Cy Twombly and Johns. He’s a “combine” of all this with one more gift — his remarkably strange perception of “things.” Rauschenberg said, “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.” Rauschenberg is acknowledged as one of the forerunners of the pop art movement with his mastery in the art of screen printing.
Possibly his most famous piece, “Bed,” exemplifies this acute gift. A quilt and a pillow, both covered with paint splashes and drips, are mounted to a frame and hung on the wall.
He saw the bed as a projection of something personal, human and somewhat disturbing. The apocryphal tale has it that Rauschenberg got up one day, couldn’t afford any canvas and painted (with toothpaste and fingernail polish) the bedclothes in which he’d slept the previous night. I, personally, think this is a load of Texas cow pies. It’s a great story, though, and serves as a metaphor for how inventive he was. John Cage once stayed at Rauschenberg’s place and phoned him to complain about the bedbugs in the mattress. I think that’s what all those black splotches may be representing in this piece. It’s possible.
Rauschenberg made a lot of friends and contacts in New York while attending the Arts Students League there and this really helped his career, which was long and illustrious. He even won a Grammy for the cover of The Talking Heads’ “Speaking In Tongues” album cover. You probably don’t own this one. Only 5,000 were made. The cover most people own has a painting by David Byrne on it. They’re both pretty cool covers.
I think Rauschenberg’s prints from the 1980s ad 90’s show a marked and mature happiness with color. A couple of my favorites are poster-shop regulars, “Wild Strawberry Eclipse” and “Malaysian Flower Cave.” He worked, with assistants, until his death Monday from heart failure. He was 82.
I don’t know how an artist could walk the path of Rauschenberg now. As our world becomes more open to folk art, crafters and the like, “Art” has become even more of an exclusive club, admitting only pedigreed members with the right contacts and the right schools. It may have always been this way to some degree, but in the worlds of art and, for that matter, poetry, it has become so tightly bound as to turn slightly insipid. Rauschenberg’s vision has both saved and cursed us with this, much like the Beat poets did to poetry. Everything can be used to make art but not all art is equal. Or is it? Everybody can write (or scream) a poem, but not all poetry is equal. Or, again, is it? You have to decide on this. Rauschenberg said, “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”
Let’s leave all this with an amusing Rauschenberg story that demonstrates his openness to all possibilities. There was a critic in Italy who said some of his smaller works in a gallery in Rome were so awful they should be thrown into the Arno River. Rauschenberg was intrigued with the possibilities. So he took a few and threw them in. He sent the critic a note saying that he’d taken the advice. The Arno has, therefore, one of the rarest collections of Rauschenbergs ever assembled.