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.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Art -

David

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

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