Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG (1925-2008)

Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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