Robert Rauschenberg

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, November 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Robert Rauschenberg


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Bertrand Russell once defined the ideal form of a work in philosophy: It should begin with propositions no one would question and conclude with propositions no one could accept. There is a certain parallel with the art of Robert Rauschenberg, especially in the period of his greatest inventiveness.

In the fifties, Rauschenberg would begin with objects everyone would recognize and end with objects unlike any encountered. Russell's work was held together by sheer logic, which guaranteed that the paradoxical consequences of commonplace assumptions were irresistible. It is more difficult to identify what held Rauschenberg's so-called "Combines" together as works of art, except a certain associative genius uniquely his. Readers of Russell could follow the steps of his reasoning to see where, if anywhere, he went wrong. One major difference between philosophy and art lies in the fact that there is no comparable way in which one can, objectively, check the results of Rauschenberg's combinatorial intuition-no "decision procedure" of logicians' dreams. Rauschenberg's procedures, as Walter Hopps expresses it, were "improvisational rather than formulaic." His greatness is made evident when one considers that he has countless followers--indeed, the artistic mainstream today is very largely Rauschenbergian--but scarcely any peers.

Jasper Johns, whose relationship with Rauschenberg was deep and transcended mere artistic collaboration, once formulated his creative agenda: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." In that period, Johns was making flags and targets. An example of his agenda at work would perhaps be: "Take a target. Paint it green. Place above it a series of compartments with effigies of different facial and/or bodily parts, functionally like clay pigeons." Rauschenberg's corollary to Johns's laconic recipe might have been: "Take an object. Add something to it. Add something else to it." The genius of each artist lay in going from step to step of these recipes. What do I do to a target, to move to the next stage? What do I add to an automobile tire, and if, in a blaze of intuition, I decide to add a stuffed goat, ringing its neck with the tire, what do I adjoin to this combination to advance the work? In any case, utterly familiar as tires and goats are--so familiar that they could be images in an alphabet book for children (T is for tire, G is for goat)--no one had ever seen a goat wreathed with a tire before, as in Rauschenberg's signature work, Monogram (1955-59). Who could say what it meant? The goat is, to be sure, a sacrificial animal, so it is entirely thinkable that it would be wreathed with laurel when led to the altar. Monogram is an exceedingly evocative and at the same time a very funny work. Who knows what Rauschenberg was thinking? All one knows is that nothing like it had been seen in the entire history of art, and that goat and tire had identities so strong as to counteract any tendency to think of them as other than what they were. The combination reminded the artist of a monogram, with the tire as O. Hence the title. But the power and absurdity of the combination suggest that his gifts of adjunction surpassed entirely his--our--capacity to interpret.

The idea of expanding the vocabulary of art, especially sculpture, to include the most vernacular of materials was much in the air in the era of Combines. Richard Stankiewicz, for example, built sculptures out of fragments from the junkyard--gears, screws, rods and other objects, whose original functions in pieces of forgotten machinery could mainly only be guessed at. John Chamberlain compounded objects out of crushed automobile bodies. Part of the pleasure of Stankiewicz's assemblages lay in the recognition of junk redeemed, given new life in a work of art. One could enumerate the parts and admire the artist's formal intuition in welding them into a coherent whole. But none of Stankiewicz's works transcended their materials and facture, and they were in essential respects much alike. …

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