Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008) is considered by many art historians and critics to be an avant-garde colossus. Among several reviews praising his work, the one published in The New York Times Dec. 24, 2018, of “Rauschenberg: 1/4 Mile,” an exhibition currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is particularly laudatory: “Decoding Robert Rauschenberg: His quarter-mile-long mural is a self-portrait of a man who reshaped 20th-century art; curators decipher the work’s meaning.”
Artists’ reputations are not permanent — some change with time. Did Rauschenberg really reshape 20th century art, and are his works so enigmatic that middlemen, that is, curators, are needed to interpret his painting and sculptures?
Completed over a period of 17 years, the “1/4 Mile” (1981-98) mural is composed of 190 panels that combined measure approximately 1,000 feet — or nearly a quarter of a mile – in length (the approximate distance between his studio and house in Captiva Island). His works reveal the broad scope of his artistic practice through a multitude of materials and techniques employed, including printmaking, sculpture, painting, sound and the use of technology.
Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, then moved in 1949 to New York City, where he started his career decorating Tiffany windows. He had a few solo exhibitions in a few art galleries that propelled him to both fame and money. As such, he could afford to take chances artistically.
Rauschenberg was a neo-Dadaist — a 1950s movement based on the tenets of the original Dada, an early 20th-century Swiss-based school. They focused not on creating aesthetically pleasant objects, but on making works that often generated difficult questions about society, the role of the artist, and the purpose of art.
Even though LACMA touts the exhibition as “a self-contained retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work,” it is not so much, as a few of his most off-the-wall artworks are not part of the show. He created works that were not necessarily unique and pioneering, though they were applauded by art specialists and the public as great art. It is time to dare to question.
First, the artist’s major contribution to art was what he coined “Combines” (1954-1964), merging aspects of painting and sculpture together as a stand-alone piece of art. “Monogram” (1955-59) is his best known Combine: a stuffed angora goat with a car tire encircling it, his nose painted multi-colored abstract-style, drawings and collages on the platform where it stands. However, this concept is not new, as Michel Duchamp, a Dadaist (French-American, 1887-1968), bought a urinal, signed it J. J. Mutt, dated it “1917” and titled it “Fountain.”
The urinal preceded Rauschenberg’s “The Goat” — so much for him being the first artist to appropriate ready-made materials and call them art. It had been done 38 years before his goat.
In “Automobile Tire Print” (1953), Rauschenberg poured black paint in front of the rear tires of his Model A Ford and had it driven over 23 sheets of paper glued together, with the front tires embossing the scroll and the rear ones imprinting the paper with a continuous black tire tread mark. The result is a pleasant black and white artwork, but one that could have been made by hand by the painter himself. Instead, whenever this painting is mentioned it is always about the process by which it was made, not its aesthetic, or otherwise, qualities.
Finally, in 1961, Rauschenberg was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert, in Paris, where artists were to create and display a portrait of the owner, Iris Clert. Rauschenberg’s submission, “The Telegram,” consisted of a telegram sent to the gallery declaring: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”
In this case, Rauschenberg borrowed a concept first put forward by the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte (1898-1967) who painted a pipe and declared: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe)” in 1928. This, 33 years before Rauschenberg’s telegram, followed the same logic of Magritte’s painting — both “declarations” of what art is and what it is not.
There’s more than meets the eye regarding Robert Rauschenberg than this exhibition — namely, the “off the wall” works that were nowhere to be found — suggesting that the artist was not as innovative as he is hyped to be.
“Rauschenberg:1/4 Mile” is on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, through June 9. For information, go online to www.lacma.org.