I don’t know much about art, or about art history. I don’t always even know what I like, and when I like something, I don’t always know why. But I liked Robert Rauschenberg’s art, at least most of the time.
Which is odd, considering that before his death on Monday a good part of his energy went into a sort of counter to the only visual-art movement I ever really cared about, Abstract Expressionism. “Dr.” Barbara Rose, an art historian writing in the Wall Street Journal, who I suspect is not in fact a doctor but a Ph.D., ranks Rauschenberg second only to Jackson Pollock as the biggest innovator in art, and here again I exhibit my inability to perceive as an art historian would: I never gave a damn about Pollock. Some of his works are pleasant to look at, but none are impressive. I too can generate a huge amount of random stuff and select a tiny part of it that is less irrelevant than the rest, and as our sainted Veep says, So? In a decade or so computers will produce stuff at least as good as Pollock.
But there were several saving graces for Rauschenberg’s work, including his belief that art could change the world, his sense of humor, and his interest in turning the making of art into a community operation. In most cases it seems that painters are like writers in that their art is created in solitude. If I were given the choice of what to do in the next incarnation, I guess I’d probably pick music; musicians are poor like other artists, but at least they get to hang out with other musicians while they’re doing their art. Rauschenberg, who was heavily influenced by John Cage among many others, seems to have transcended that problem.
People ask me, “Don’t you ever run out of ideas?” In the first place I don’t use ideas. Every time I have an idea it’s too limiting, and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven’t run out of curiosity.
He also cut a heroic figure: paralyzed by a stroke in the late sixties, he continued to work to the end of his life. As late as two months ago, he traveled to Valencia, Spain, to applaud a friend’s opening.
But of course, the real measure of an artist is his work. If you haven’t seen much Rauschenberg, or if you want a good overview, check out