The collected works of Robert Rauschenberg
At a new exhibition, painter David Salle introduces writer John H Richardson to the work of an artist whose collages and “combines”—built from junk he gathered in the streets—changed the face of contemporary art.
Salle crashed through the doors of the art world in the ’80s, trailing adjectives like shocking and provocative. In The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm said his paintings were “like an ugly mood.” In Art in America, Peter Schjeldahl called him a “tour guide in Hell .” Today, he’ s my guide through the new Robert Rauschenberg retrospective—showing through September 17—at the Museum of Modern Art.
Salle’s been studying Rauschenberg’s work since he was a teenager, and later became his friend. But once we get to the exhibition, he breezes
past much of it, including a room-sized pool of bubbling mud. “Bob planted a lot of trees,” he says. “Not all of them bore fruit.”
We consider a piece called Untitled (Elemental Sculture), basically a small wooden block pierced by nails. Salle wonders if it looks dated. “Or maybe it just looks like the work of a young artist, which is what it is.”
Critics put a high value on artists who mark turning points in art history, so they tend to focus on Rauschenberg’s pivotal role in the transition from expressionism to pop art. Salle’s more interested in the art itself. So we spend most of our time with work from the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, a stretch of glory few artists have equalled. During that time, Salle says, “Bob had the visual equivalent of perfect pitch. It was as if he couldn’t do anything wrong.”
He stops in front of a stuffed goat with a tyre around its waist. This is Monogram, one of Rauschenberg’s most famous “combines.” The radical idea of mixing painted canvases and real objects is often described as Rauschenberg’s biggest contribution to art history, and Monogram is the example critics typically single out. I think it looks ridiculous, but Salle breaks into a smile. “Imagine the artists who walked into the Castelli Gallery in 1959 and saw this for the first time,” he says. “They must’ve just thought, Okay—” “What the [redacted]?” I suggest. “No. They must have thought, Okay, I give up.”
I look closer and notice that the goat is standing on a painting—a very good one. I ask if Rauschenberg was saying that nature and industry trample art, or that art is the foundation of all things.
But this is another approach Salle avoids. He rarely talks about philosophy or sociology or the allegorical meaning of artworks. What matters to him is the artist’s character, and the struggle “to distil the history of art through his personality.” To see that, you look at the decisions he made. “Every artist is a chooser,” Salle says, “and out of those choices a distinctive personality at some point emerges.
“If you choose something,” Salle continues, “you then have to decide where to put it. Bob was brilliant in that regard. He would walk down the street and pick up an old street sign or cast-off chair, some damaged piece of reality that had been run over, literally and figuratively. It was always exactly the right thing, and he always put it in exactly the right place. Because he had such a strong sense of pictorial architecture, he made the discarded thing eloquent: ‘I was beautiful all along, just waiting for someone to notice.’ ”
Where did that idea come from? The critics cite Marcel Duchamp, but Salle brushes that off, too. It’s more helpful to know that Rauschenberg grew up in a fundamentalist family in Texas, went to Paris to study art, and had love affairs with men as well as women. He was a combiner in every sense. “His belief in the rightness of that, how it connected to his own sense of freedom, allowed him to enlarge his art to the point where he was able to create the illusion of delivering big chunks of life itself. Most artists aspire to that, especially in those days, but Bob eclipsed them all.”
We stand in front of a large painting called Rebus, a collage of news photos, comic strips, and a Botticelli reproduction, with patches of gestural paint. Across the centre there’s a long line of paint samples, the kind hardware stores give you to take home.
Salle remembers it hanging in the dining room of a friend’s apartment, where it seemed part of the sophisticated decor. “It didn’t fight with anything in the room,” he says. Back then, he wondered whether the painting’s many elements cohered into a drama. Today, he sees it differently. “Bob really knew how to let forms and masses invade and affect each other,” he says. “That energises the surface and makes the structure serve something larger. It gives you a sense of lift.”
He points out how the “compositional axis” of the paint chips holds the elements of the painting together, connecting the top to the bottom. He calls this “the lyricism of the altered grid, the intervened grid.”
The interstitial spaces where the images and objects meet are important, too, he says. “It’s not enough to note that he combines a Botticelli with a cartoon. You have to see how he gets from the Botticelli to the cartoon, how he sets up the context for the juxtapositions. He manoeuvred his way through the painting with a big house-painting brush and a can of black paint like a novelist.” And Rauschenberg “was supremely self-confident—not arrogant, not when I knew him—but he knew the gambles he was taking and relished taking them.”
Salle leads me to Winter Pool, a combine of two vertical canvases bisected by a wooden ladder. When he tells me it’s a perfect work, one of his favourites, I start thinking. A ladder is both a grid and a tool for reaching high places, right? But Salle stays focused on the “how,” pointing to the contrast between the reality of the ladder and the “illusionistic spatial quality of the paint surface,” and the way that makes you “shift back and forth between the poetry and the actual thing.” He goes on: “You don’t question it; you just go with it. That’s Bob’s art.”
This back-and-forth motion is a constant issue in his own work, Salle admits, so maybe he’s taking it a little too personally. But isn’t this exactly what he teaches? To feel with your senses before processing with your mind, to listen for the dialect of each artist, and then—most of all—to take the whole thing personally. Because if you don’t take art personally, what’s the point?
I ask if he remembers how he felt the first time he saw Winter Pool. “Happy,” he tells me. “Happy?” “Yes. Gleeful,” Salle says. That’s why he loved Rauschenberg’s work as a teenager and why he loves it still. “Not that it’s untroubled or simpleminded, but it’s so generous. It lightens your step.”
Monogram (1955–59) For a decade and a half, Salle says, Rauschenberg had “the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.”
Words by John H Richardson