Robert Rauschenberg's Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration

Article excerpt

The main thing about [Rauschenberg] is the way he lays out a picture - pure graphic design, with an ab-ex overlay. Facile and decorai ive. - Eugene V. Thaw, 1978

In 1955 Robert Rauschenberg decided to lay down a broad swath of a dark paisiey-printed shawl onto a stretcher, substituting a readyniade ground for the blank canvas before which the artists of die New York school had anxiously stood. With this act, Rauschenberg effectively repositioned the aesthetic decision-making process of the Abstract Expression isLs - so often touted in the literature as the element that secured their membership in the existentialist Zeitgeist of the time - as nothing more than choices one might make when standing before a storefront window. Pictorially, a large portion of Hymnal (Fig. 1) is given over to the lyrical pattern of this dark rust-colored shawl, whose paisley forms sweep across the surface like Abstract Expressionist trails of paint - only its arabesques have been mechanically produced. On top of it, Rauschenberg collaged an array of other equally decorative materials and printed reproductions: a small "wanted by FBI" notice veiled by two sheer bits of nylon laid across it, an arrow, an anonymous photograph of two boys. A square cut into the canvas, prominently placed in the upper center, where a Manhattan phone directory was bolted in place beneath its surface, was his final assault on the heralded flatness of the picture plane. And it was through an engagement with this flatness that Leo Steinberg's 1972 essay "Oüier Criteria" was to suggest die emergence of a triumphant postmodernism.' Postmodern critics later seized on die plethora of imagery infinitely reproduced via Steinberg's "flatbed picture plane" as an assault on modernism proper.

At the time, however. Rauschenberg is work received harsh criticism, often tinged with moral outrage. An exhibition in 1953 with Cy Twombly at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery is a case in point. Ward noted that she "had to remove the guest book during his show because of the obscenities being written into it," and that "many people really diought that it was immoral."3 Indeed, Rauschen berg's entire body of work up until the early 1960s was summarily reviled as the sensibility of a vulgarian whose taste ran to Harper's Bazaar or the "decorative displays which often grace the windows of Bonwit Teller and Bloomingdales," as Hilton Kramer put it. There is "no difference in fact," Kramer went on to say.4 In 1961 Robert Rosenblum scoffed, "The extravagant reorganization of vulgar objects is hardly the most jolting thing about Rauschenberg's work; far more upsetting is the artistic logic which produces such illogical results."5

Shared by both early commentators who saw a degenerate modernism and the later critics following Steinberg's lead who proposed a proto-postmodernism is the assertion that has become a mainstay of the literature on Robert Rauschenberg: the Combines do not cohere; dieir seeming narratives never coalesce; their fragmented parts yield only partial claims to legibility. Such a drastically reduced field of meaning in thie postmodern version of Rauschenberg, in which questions of subjectivity and sexual politics have been occluded in favor of a generalized critique of representation, has given way to a newer wave of scholarship that wrestles fixed signifieds from the Combines' purloined objects and pilfered images. AJudy Garland autograph, for example, or magazine reproductions of muscular marathon runners become newly legible. This has been the case particularly with art historians interested in dealing with the issue of Rauschenberg's sexual orientation through an iconographie reclaiming of his work for a gay art history. The primar) image projected on American painting in the 1950s - one perhaps even desired by critics and artists alike - is as the mydi-making material of a hypermasculine and heroic avant-garde movement/' It has equally been maintained by a number of authors, including Kenneth Silver, Jonathan Katz, and Caroline Jones, that Rausch en berg' s work was part of a larger resistance to and negation of that heroic masculinity. …