Robert Rauschenberg died last week. That makes it, I suppose, the end of an era. There’s no question that Rauschenberg changed art — the way it’s practiced, the way it is received, the things you can do and still call it art. Contemporary art is Rauschenbergian. Even Warhol, the other father of contemporary art, owes the man a massive debt.
The simplest way to explain what Rauschenberg did is to say that he made the canvas three-dimensional and worldly. Or to put it another way, he thought of the canvas as something you could walk inside and inhabit. There’s a famous quote that has come to define Rauschenberg’s practice. It goes, “I operate in the gap between art and life.”
There’s a piece by Robert Rauschenberg that now lives at the MoMA. It’s called “Bed” (1955). It isn’t exactly a painting and it isn’t exactly a bed. There are bed elements — an actual sheet, a pillow, a quilt. Rumor has it that these bed elements were once the very things that Rauschenberg slept on. But there are painting elements as well. First of all, it is framed and up on the wall. Secondly, there’s the paint, smeared and splattered mostly around the top half of the work.
Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, makes an insightful point about these early works (Rauschenberg called them Combines). He notes that Rauschenberg felt a need to arrange a bunch of objects and then to throw paint over them. It is as if he is still under the thrall of paint, convinced that it is the paint itself that is making the difference between art and not-art. But he’s also trying to cure himself, and by extension the art world dominated by painterly Modernism, of this addiction. Slowly he realized that he didn’t need the paint at all. He became indifferent to its authority. Even when he came back to paint and painting throughout his career, he did so as a free man.
In the end, I don’t think Rauschenberg’s work can be understood outside the context of the High Modernism from which it emerged. Rauschenberg was operating in a milieu dominated by the formal problems of space, line, color, surface. And even if the Abstract Expressionists believed that they were expressing deep and intense feelings with their work, they took it for granted that those feelings, when expressed in art, ought to be purified of every particular. It was feeling as such, not this or that feeling.
Rauschenberg’s “Bed” is startling because of its actual bedness. The quilt is a real quilt, it has been slept with, it still has the residue of specific nights, specific experiences. It has meaning not because it tells us something about beds as such. It doesn’t reduce the bed to its abstract rectangular form or deconstruct it into a series of angles. Instead, it wants to be that very bed that it is, to tell us something about one bed that existed in a unique place and time. We should also mention that “Bed” is funny. It’s amusing that “Bed” is, in some basic way, just a bed. It is the reverse joke of Magritte’s painting of a pipe that declares “this is not a pipe.”
Rauschenberg’s innovation was to grab actual pieces of the real world in order to keep hold of the particularity, and the meaning inherent within that particularity, that he felt was missing from so much of the art of his time. By grabbing chunks of the real world he was borrowing the associations, thoughts, memories, and references that would inevitably come along with them. He once said, “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.” And then he tossed those elements of the real world around and mixed them up and played with them. That is the freedom of the aesthetic “gap” between art and life that he was messing about in. He simply wasn’t interested in whether the arrangement of things is pleasing or beautiful in terms of the balance between form and material. He was interested in the way that the meaning which clings to objects of the world gets shifted and transformed when they are taken up into the aesthetic dimension.
The central intuition behind Rauschenberg’s art is thus that the world is interesting enough just as we find it. Getting too far away from that doesn’t get you deeper insight or deeper truth, it just takes you farther away. Meaning, for Rauschenberg, was always contained in the things closest to us, literally, the stuff around you in your room. But he couldn’t leave all the things, the bric-a-brac of daily existence, well enough alone either. Thus the “gap” between art and life. He wanted to bring the objects of the world closer to art in order to make them weird and fascinating, and he wanted to bring art closer to the things of the world in order to make it more real. It is utterly pointless to debate whether Rauschenberg’s accomplishment was a “good” or “bad” thing for art. More essentially, it was a necessary thing. It leapt over the cul-de-sac of High Modernism and pointed ahead to something new. Art followed him because he provided real answers. Alas, those answers, like Rauschenberg, are finite and will give way to different problems and still different answers. I’m sure Bob wouldn’t have had it any other way. • 21 May 2008