This will be a short post. I just saw on the New York Times website that American artist Robert Rauschenberg died Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Florida. Please read their excellent obituary of this seminal artist. It is far more articulate than anything I might write here.
Rauschenberg is sometimes identified as a Pop Artist, but he actually predated Pop Art of the ’60s, emerging in the early ’50s. And his work over his long career defied definition or pigeonholing. Here’s how Michael Kimmelman of the Times puts it: “A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.”
Jasper Johns came to prominence about this same time and while both he and Rauschenberg embraced and, in fact, heavily shaped Pop Art, they transcended it as well. Coming out of the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others, their work was more painterly than other Pop Artists. And this only served to make their inclusion of found objects and mixing of media more exciting, more shocking, more energizing.
A couple of years ago, I had the amazing good fortune to see the show Robert Rauschenberg: Combines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Combines was his term for pieces that included painting, collage and sculpture. I considered myself to be reasonably familiar with Rauschenberg’s work and a big fan of his. But suddenly seeing these 67 works, all created between 1954 and 1964 and all in one place, was electrifying.
In looking back at art from other periods, I’m sometimes frustrated by not seeing it with eyes of the time in which it was created. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art is among the most beloved today—Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh… But when the work was first exhibited, it was revolutionary and caused an absolute uproar. Walking among these Combines at the Metropolitan some 40 or 50 years after they were created, I could get some sense of either how outrageous or wonderfully fresh they must have seemed when they were first exhibited.
It was an amazing show. An amazing career. An amazing life. Thank you, Mr. Rauschenberg.