His work is packed with jokes, ideas - and farmyard animals. Adrian Searle pays tribute to the genius of Robert Rauschenberg
Tuesday November 28, 2006
Animal magic... Monogram, 1955-59 by Robert Rauschenberg
During the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg produced some of the best and most influential art of the decade. Visiting Rome in 1952 with Cy Twombly, he hung small, totemic sculptures called Personal Fetishes from the trees in the Pincio Gardens. Subsequently, he threw all the work he had made and shown in Italy into the Arno River. "It saved a packing problem," he said. He may also have been following the advice of an unkind critic.
Rauschenberg went his own way. When abstract expressionism was at its height, the young artist responded by painting a series of uninflected white paintings. Soon he was painting monochromes, then red paintings. In 1953, the artist spent hours at work with an eraser, rubbing out a drawing by Willem de Kooning, leaving only the ghostliest trace of an image on the sheet of empty paper. At the time, these gestures were regarded as baffling or inconsequential, if they were regarded at all. Yet, even as false starts to a career that has spanned more than half a century, they would have been enough to secure Rauschenberg's place.
The same year he erased De Kooning's drawing, Rauschenberg began a way of working that came to be seen as a bridge between abstract expressionism and pop art, between postwar heroics and 1960s cool. The same has been said of Jasper Johns' work. Rauschenberg and Johns were partners during the 50s, trading ideas and colluding in one another's career strategies. Initially, they made their living doing shop window displays for Tiffany's and Bonwit Teller. Both, arguably, produced their best work together, Johns' reserve and Rauschenberg's impetuousness providing a foil for the other.
What Rauschenberg came to call his Combine paintings are the core of his art, and the subject of a major travelling exhibition, currently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In his preface to the show, Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art calls the Combine paintings "some of the most influential, poetic and revolutionary works in the history of American art". One might quibble: other works and artists might have as much of a claim, and 50 or so years on, Rauschenberg's Combines may not appear quite so revolutionary and radical as the works he made immediately prior to them. But these ramshackle hybrids between painting and sculpture, stage prop and three-dimensional scrap-book assemblage, have neither given up all their secrets, nor have they quite settled down as tame museum artefacts. However much conservators worry over them, and academics examine their surfaces and hidden corners - like car mechanics, in search of secret subtexts and hidden codes - they have almost too many possible readings. Their richness is itself perhaps an allegory of the excess of modern life, the postwar consumer boom.
Rauschenberg has always resisted the idea that the Combines have any secrets or narrative, other than the chance encounter of disparate elements. If they have any meaning, it is in their profligacy, their inclusiveness, their physical attempt to wrestle with high culture and low - and with no culture at all. The different elements of the Combines have been described as having no more relation than the different stories that vie for attention on a newspaper page, or the objects that find themselves on the same tabletop.
But serendipity and opportunism are never entirely random. The Combines are full of jokes, camp replays and caricatures of just about every earnest New York School cliche, as well as startling and unforgettable juxtapositions. The poor stuffed Angora goat Rauschenberg somehow acquired migrated from a wall-mounted painting to a panel on the floor, with a car tyre round its midriff and its head slathered in a fright-mask of glutinous oil paint. It was given the unlikely name of Monogram. Both goat and artist would be justified in asking how they got here. Maybe all art is to a degree self-portraiture, against which self-parody is no defence.
In 1957 Rauschenberg painted the same painting twice (Factum I and Factum II), with the same brush-strokes and drips, the same collaged calenders and photos. The doubling of the painting - one of which currently lives in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the other in New York's Moma - is a great comment on the "authenticity" and supposed uniqueness (as an event as much as an object) of paintings. These paintings are themselves filled with doubles: two trees, two photos of Roosevelt, two photos of a fire in a launderette.
The Combines are bursting with ideas, as much as with physical and painted material. A brick dangles on a cord, in front of a found painting of a tropical beach - as if one could smash the view, like a brick through a painted window. This almost Magrittean moment is followed, in the same work, by a softball hanging above a fork, as though it had just been tossed and is about to be caught again. Suspended time and irreversible decay are recurrent themes. A stuffed pheasant stalks a ledge atop another canvas, and a veritable menagerie of stuffed roosters, chickens, an eagle and a heron preen and wilt in other works. Icarus and Ganymede, the randy rooster and America's national bird, all have their place. Symbolism is unavoidable, but Rauschenberg never felt much like taking responsibility for any of it.
Litter from the street is swept into the studio and through the work. Newspaper clippings trodden into the painted mulch, remnants of fabric hanging like banners and poor curtains, reproduction Old Masters, private letters and photographs, Coke bottles, radios, electric fans - waste of all kinds snags our attention as we pass.
The current state of the Combine paintings is itself one of suspended decay, lending the work an almost overwhelming air of melancholy. With time, the paintings tend towards muck: the tatty and yellowing papers, the squalid empty planes stained with dribbles and faint colour. Once, all this looked new and hip.
Rauschenberg's awkward but much-quoted remark - "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two)" - has since been used to justify all kinds of activities that might not look like art-making at all. What is important about Rauschenberg's statement is not so much the bit about the gap betweeen art and life, so much as the observation that neither can be made. In other words, stuff happens. And stuff happens everywhere in these paintings. A rooster crows, a nude poses on a log, a runner pounds the track, paint drips, lights flicker, a radio plays. Rauschenberg's son writes to his absent father, and the artist pastes the letter to a Combine painting, rather than keeping it in a drawer. A sister wins the local beauty contest; a departed lover leaves his scribbled breath on the pillow. It all ends up in the work.
The Combines have been likened to combine harvesters - threshing their way through the world, and through Rauschenberg's life. In a short BBC film made on the occasion of Rauschenberg's exhibition of Combines at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1964, the artist looks terrified and camera shy as he is interviewed. Rauschenberg deflects almost all efforts to make him talk about his paintings. There is a clip of the artist at work, smearing an area of paintwork with a rag. Although the result looks purposeful and vigorous, Rauschenberg appears indifferent as he tracks the wet sludge about the surface. He knew precisely what he was doing, if not exactly what it meant - or if he did, he wasn't saying. Recently, he said: "I remember those works as if I had made them yesterday, and I don't remember what I made yesterday."
With time, the meanings gather. Rauschenberg's Combines occupy the same floor of the Pompidou as a breathtaking retrospective of Yves Klein, three years younger than Rauschenberg, and who died in 1962. For all their openness and inclusiveness, Rauschenberg's Combines turned into a style like any other. By the time Klein died, the Combines were beginning to look exhausted. Klein's work, on the other hand, which was often accused of being kitsch, vulgar and ephemeral, looks as alive now as ever. But it is oddly static and sterile; it looks as though Klein didn't know what to do next either. And while Rauschenberg's Combines point in all sorts of directions, into the future as well as the past, Klein's art is a frozen, perpetually stalled moment.
· Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (33) (0)1 44 78 12 33, until January 15. Centrepompidou.fr