screwing things up
by Douglas Messerli
Robert Rauschenberg, “Canyon,” the Los County Angeles Museum of Art, Los Angeles
The death of artist Robert Rauschenberg on May 12, 2008 at his home on Captiva Island, Florida occurred just as I was finishing reading Carolyn’s Brown’s insightful book on Cage and Cunningham, Chance and Circumstance. For several weeks before that I had been thrust into these artists’ world, of which Rauschenberg was an important figure, a close friend of both Cage and Cunningham—along with artist Jasper Johns, with whom Rauschenberg lived for eight years—and designer of sets and costumes for several of Cunningham’s dances.
The Browns, Carolyn and then-husband, composer Earle Brown, were also close friends to the four men, and in her book she so brilliantly portrayed Rauschenberg that when news came of his death I suddenly felt as if I had lost a friend, even though I never met the man.
Born in 1925 on the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur, Texas, Milton Ernest Rauschenberg (he changed his name to Robert while attending the Kansas City Art Institute after serving in World War II), grew up in an impoverished, religiously-oriented family. His mother hoped he would become a preacher, but after seeing Gainsborough’s famed “Blue Boy” painting at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, Rauschenberg suddenly realized that art was created by individuals—that works did not simply pre-exist—and he decided on the spot to become an artist.
Critics through the years have catalogued his adventuresome spirit, as he moved quickly from Abstract Expressionism—with close friendships with many of the major figures of that art movement (one of Rauschenberg’s earliest works was a drawing by Willem de Kooning in which Rauschenberg painstakingly erased nearly all of the artist’s lines)—reintegrating recognizable objects into his art and, ultimately, combining found objects he discovered on his daily walks through his neighborhood into his canvases or other floor structures such as his major work, “Monogram,” consisting of a stuffed goat embraced by a tire, placidly seeming to eat various pieces of debris embedded or painted into the surface upon which he stands. These “combines,” the most iconic of which are “Untitled” (from 1954) “Monogram,” “Bed,” and “Canyon”—works influenced by artists and traditions as various as Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, the American quilting tradition and Rembrandt—represent just one aspect of a constantly shifting body of work that ultimately included over 6,000 paintings and objects, as well as numerous performances such as his dance-inspired, “Pelican,” in which Carolyn Brown first performed on roller skates with a parachute strapped to her back.
Rauschenberg also worked closely with scientists and engineers from Bell Laboratories and elsewhere to create work that incorporated various technological discoveries, founding E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), experiments that influenced numerous artists later shown in connection with Maurice Tuchman’s legendary “Art and Technology” show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a show that included Rauschenberg’s own “Mad Muse,” a vat made of aluminum and glass, filled with liquefied clay and hooked up to a compressor that produced sounds akin to the La Brea tar pits surrounding the museum.
The artist also worked with numerous printers, producing a substantial number of lithographs with Universal Art Editions on Long Island and Gemini G.E.L.(Graphic Editions Limited), founded by Sidney Felsen, Stanley Grinstein [see My Year 2004], and Kenneth Tyler in Los Angeles .
In short, Rauschenberg was a devoted experimentalist, refusing to repeat himself and striving to discover new approaches to his often whimsical and clever—and almost always visually memorable—art.
In celebration of that art, I decided a few weeks after his death to revisit “Canyon” and a few others of his work now showing across the street from my office and a block away from home at the Broad Museum Building of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Although I had long ago read of “Canyon’s” relation-ship to Rem-brandt’s “The Rape of Ganymede,” I had never seen the older work, and accordingly did not realize the obvious similarities between the Rauschenberg combine, featuring a huge stuffed eagle, a pillow (friend Deborah Meadows, who accompanied me to the museum felt that it was perhaps a flour sack instead of a pillow), a photograph of a young child reaching to the sky, transfers of news- paper headlines and a picture of the Statue of Liberty, a box painted over, a wallpaper pattern, paint tubes and excretions of the paint itself, a map of the solar system and various other unidentifiable objects.
The story of Ganymede is based upon the Greek myth—often represented as a justification for pederasty—concerning Zeus’ lust for the young shepherd boy, Ganymede. Transforming himself into an eagle, the God swept down from the skies and carried away the Trojan boy. Ganymede’s father suffered such deep sorrow upon his son’s abduction that Zeus sent Hermes to him, offering him a team of two immortal horses so swift that they apparently could run upon water. Zeus also guaranteed the father that Ganymede would become immortal, serving as the cupbearer to the Gods.
As in the Rembrandt painting, where the child’s backside is revealed, his arm engulfed in the eagle’s beak, Rauschenberg features the buttock image of the pillow-flour sack attached to a board which the eagle seems to be bearing in his talons. The image of a child in the Rauschenberg work features the boy’s raised arm, just as in the Rembrandt.
However, in Rauschenberg’s combine the focus is not necessarily on the abduction itself but what lies behind such a bestial kidnapping. And it is here that every viewer will find his or her own meaning. On the one hand, the various headlines suggesting words like “Labor” and “Associated” hints at a world of laborers, and the box laid flat and painted over seems to suggest that it once contained the products of American workers. The boy’s raised hand, almost in salute, paralleled by the image of the Statute of Liberty, along with the eagle—a major symbol of American culture—might all be read as a near-patriotic salute to the country were it not for the implied subject matter, the absconding of various products Americans have created, including a favored son. What first may appear, accordingly, as a positive image is turned, upon further thought, into something darker, as images gradually appear more and more foreboding.
What is a “canyon,” after all, but a deep valley with steep sides, through which wind and sometimes water rushes. In short, the title itself reiterates the eroticism of the child’s buttocks, the obvious focus of Zeus’s lust. But Zeus in Rauschenberg’s work has nearly disappeared as the eagle itself, with its American connotations of warfare and gory patriotism, comes to dominate the piece. Is Ganymede, also a day-laborer (a shepherd) being raped by the American system, by the nostalgic notions of the past (represented in the work’s incorporation of wall-paper samples) and everyday greed? Is not the artist, represented in the work by the tube of paint and various painted passages, also a worker who labors everyday?
The marvel of this work is that there can be no one interpretation, all possibilities interlink, and the combine—the perfect word for the way meaning emanates from the art—remains an open landscape upon which all viewers are invited to speculate.
Along with the various other Rauschenberg works—“Red Painting” (1954), “Interior” (1956), “Booster” (1967), “Sky Garden” (1969), “Untitled” (1963), and “Trapeze” (1964)—of LACMA’s collection I came away with a sense of wonderment from his art and joy in his insistence to “screw things up,” to break down what others have determined are the limits of art.
Los Angeles, June 7, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 3, 2008)