Early in the twentieth century, artists began jumping out art’s window. The Russian modernists soared into the revolutionary sky. The Dadaists, arching an eyebrow, admired the cracked glass. The Cubists couldn’t stop blinking, beautifully agog. At mid-century, Robert Rauschenberg went through the window with American gusto. He had an appetite for the churning street outside, and he seemed full of jazzy slang. He was rude—vitally and impishly rude—in a way no American painter (except the de Kooning of Woman I) had ever been before him. He’d put anything in art: postcards, socks, street junk, paint, neckties, wire, cartoons, even stuffed animals. Especially stuffed animals. The absurdist taxidermy was funny as well as provocative. The goat-and-rooster shtick made wicked fun of both the macho posturing of the fifties and the holy pomposities then gathering around painting. Sometimes, art needs a good rooster squawk.
Once through the window, Rauschenberg had one of the great, decade-long runs in American art, which is now the subject of “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Nan Rosenthal oversaw the installation at the Met—the exhibit includes 67 works created between 1954 and 1964. Among them are both famous works (the goatish Monogram) and rarely exhibited pieces. Rauschenberg himself invented the term “Combines” to describe a pungent style of mix-and-match collage. In his oeuvre, this early decade of the Combines, especially the first five years, matters the most. It anticipates much that came later, and it raises an important question: Are the Combines less than meets the eye, a slapdash everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that ultimately just celebrates energy for energy’s sake?
They’re more than meets the eye. My first impression of the show—before looking at the imagery—was one of a controlled, formal richness. An artist in love with the hot and messy splash of inspiration, of course, but also one who’s knotty, thoughtful, and considered. Rauschenberg mostly worked with what Rosenthal calls a “syncopated grid,” a formal structure within which he weighted and composed lights, colors, and shapes. In an image like Canyon, for example, he calculated how the weight of the hanging bag sets off the strength of the eagle’s wings as it pulls upward into the image-laden sky. Reproductions don’t convey the tactile feeling of Rauschenberg’s color. His surfaces are rich, steeped, time-marinated.
As you draw closer to a Combine, its imagery begins to come into focus, and everything starts to connect and connect and connect. You find that not only do the blacks in Canyon rhyme with the bird’s wings; so does that ribbing in the upper right, which mirrors the tips of the outstretched feathers. (And there’s wt., the abbreviation for “weight,” within the same ribbed black.) Canyon takes its inspiration in part from a Rembrandt Ganymede that depicts an eagle pulling a heavy, bawling boy into the air, one who looks rather like the child in the snapshot in the Combine; the hanging bag evokes the boy’s buttocks. Connections zigzag across mental boundaries. Weight, for example, can be literal or illusory, a matter of words, images, colors, and shapes.
There’s an argument that art should probe deeply, that it should rigorously edit experience in order to reach some bedrock essence. Nothing wrong with that. Rauschenberg’s endless connections, some lighthearted and some not, do something else. He celebrates the floating textures of consciousness—the way the mind moves, wanders, and joins together. One of my favorite Combines, Hymnal, contains (among much else) a book, a piece of paisley that looks the way hymns sound, and some ill-tempered graffiti. It can be good to concentrate on the hymn alone. It can also be good, as you pick up the hymnal, to acknowledge the message scratched on the pew.