ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG STARTED his life as an artist as a student at Black Mountain College, where he studied fine art under the tuition of former Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albert. The College, which encouraged its students to experiment, to break through the encrustations of status quo thinking, and – tellingly for Rauschenberg – to work with everyday materials, was an extraordinary place. Its alumni include a number of powerhouses who helped wrench art into new and exciting directions: de Kooning, Gropius, Kline, Motherwell, Buckminster Fuller…the poets Charles Olesen and Robert Duncan.
Not unexpectedly, Rauschenberg, wrestling away from what he saw as the painterliness of the likes of Mark Rothko, pushed (his own) art into a whole new physical realm. The artist (who would have seen himself as painter, photographer, set designer, printmaker, sculptor, scientist) constantly experimented with new techniques and new ways to realize his governing ambition: to bring the outside world into art.
As you walk through the Tate Modern’s sprawling retrospective of his work, the puzzling aim becomes clear.
The big breakthrough was in the 50’s – in a genre he called his Combines – when he merged found materials (umbrellas, ladders, old shoes, a functioning light, an old suitcase, etc.), almost disdainfully smeared with broad aggressive strokes of paint, into his vast canvases. The Combines were by no means confined to the canvas, and one of his defining (or, at least, most recognizable) works was a sculpture (object? thing?) shown above, called Monogram.
This is a stuffed Angora goat that he found, and which he has encircled with an old tyre. It’s standing on a slab of wood covered with muted daubs of paint, random letters and planks, like the detritus of a city.
So this is art?
The big deal with the use of a stuffed animal (or a urinal for that matter) lies in an understanding of where the art of art takes place. Rauschenberg said that his art operated in the gap between art and life. Indeed, art exists really in the space between the object (or performance) and the viewer. It is in this abstract space that the layers of empathy or illumination or antinomial identification (art’s magic journey to take us out of ourselves – our norm – and into the sensibility of the artist) take place. This is what the art critic Clement Greenberg refers to as “the aesthetic experience”. It’s where the object’s meaningful-ness (not what it means, or how we interpret it – a dodgy and unhelpful perspective – but rather how it reshapes our perceptions) becomes apparent and transformative. This is what Arthur C. Danto refers to as “the transformation of the ordinary” in that what separates art from non-art is its “aboutness”. Art, unlike, say a spade or a beautifully hand-crafted chair, is about something.
What matters then is not so much what has been referred to as “skilful making” (the craft of art) – the object per se – but that mid point where daubs of paint, or stuffed animals, assume an enigmatic ontological significance. Because the object that we see, and which we refer to as art is really an expression of a kind of insight, an acuteness of observation in which the barnacles of emotional cliché and triteness are scraped off only to be reimagined as an unique, esoteric idea. When last did you see an Angora goat stuffed into an old tire?
It’s an image as personal and as unique as a fingerprint.
For every work of art is an ‘idea’ that we’re invited to share. And this isn’t a murder mystery you have to solve. Sometimes the idea may well remain elusive. It doesn’t matter. Art confronts us with the thrill of being in the presence of something as intangible as the abstractness of an idea…made tangible.
The semiotics of ‘Monogram’ is interesting: This is not simply a stuffed animal glued to an oval frame. It’s not a cow or a cat. It’s a goat. A horned goat at that. As if the discontinuity of layering the actual (a stuffed animal) with the imaginary (the abstract imagining of New York that forms the base) isn’t thought-provoking enough, the use of the goat is Rauschenberg’s wonderfully irreverent, anarchic statement about art in a museum…or life. For after all what you’re looking at here is the act of penetration. Here is the power of the horny, the unashamedly masculine, thrusting itself through the vaginal (or maybe, since he was bisexual, anal) “O”. Here in the middle of the hushed, genteel Tate Modern is the ever-so-respectful intimacy of copulation. And the whole work is cheekily called ‘Monogram’. This is Rauschenberg’s self-portrait. His fingerprint (or maybe his cock).
There are two aspects of his work that fascinate me. The first is his incorporation of found materials into the works…his refusal to isolate art from ‘reality’ as if ‘art’ lived in some plane superior to the real. Of course museums (our secular churches) tend to fetishize art. They suggest that these hangings on the wall are sacred objects to be worshipped; patrons must keep their distance, take no photographs, whisper with bowed reverence.
Rauschenberg encouraged people to add to the art; for if art only really exists (like electrons) once there’s a viewer with whom ‘it’ is conversing, the more physical engagement there is, the richer the experience (and, by extension, the art). This isn’t literally possible of course; too many iconoclasts would seek destruction rather than hold conversations.
And in the example shown here, the object both knows its place – on the wall and, through its embedded mirrors, reflecting its viewer – and also rebels against its place – on the floor with the viewer. At its initial exhibition, Rauschenberg asked people to take from and add items to the box below…a whimsical suggestion that makes tangible the effect of art, the memory and the experience that we all take away (it was closed on my visit…too many people took; none added). And, equally whimsically, or perhaps critically it’s called “Black Market” (for such fraternization with the revered object can only exist in a black market)
But in a sense, the incorporation of the outside (the box, the license plate etc. newly de-familiarized and now rendered useless) into the ontology of the art not only democratizes the ‘hands off’ art object; it shifts the ‘meaning’ and role of art. For art is not there (only) to be admired. It’s there to challenge and engage and offer its viewers a lens through which to view their own realities (that witty placement of mirrors). Is the juxtaposition of an umbrella in a painting an expression of kidnap and capture (viewers browbeaten by the imperiousness of Culture), or an expression of harmony and diversity or a comment on the artist’s need to wrestle reality to fits his/her own perspective…with the sad acceptance that our eyes will always be seduced by the reality, by the known and simple, over the unknown and complicated (which is why name recognition always defeats policy at the polls)?
The second fascinating aspect is that Rauschenberg’s works defy the classical dictates of focus and form. This piece seems to have no central focal point. The artist forces our eyes to rove at will, left to right, up and down, lingering here, darting there, wondering why this arrangement, why not something else. The work will not tolerate a passive viewing…because its ‘idea’, like life itself, is not one-dimensional. The semiotics of the objects tell one story; but what fascinates me is the precision of every object, every seemingly random splash of paint in the energized anarchy of the piece. Greenberg again: “The importance of the sense of the decisions the artist makes is a vital, differentiating factor. Art that is academic is art that has had its decisions made for it”. Everything in the piece ‘fits’ perfectly, and – that miracle of decision-making – despite the segmentation and layers of the piece, it all works as a single holistic whole.
It’s not unlike the unthinking structure of our daily grammar. We’d describe the art as “Rauschenberg’s large, colourful, multilayered paintings” not “Rauschenberg’s colourful, multilayered, large, paintings”. The latter simply feels wrong. A grammarian would give you very specific reasons for this, but we (at least most of us, most of the time) use grammar correctly intuitively. So too do artists…so too does Rauschenberg. And when you the viewer engage with one of his works, you enter into his own grammatical frame of reference. The brilliance of Rauschenberg is that he has not only wrestled ‘reality’ (the umbrella, say) into an expression of his idea, he has also wrestled you into the grammar of his world.
For what is art if not the artist’s acquisition of new ‘words’, whole new grammars with which to discover and articulate whole new undiscovered, never before observed worlds of feeling and consciousness?