Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Filling the Gap

“I work in the gap between art and life,” Robert Rauschenberg once said when asked to describe his multivarious universe of art. Born October 22, 1925, Bob, as his friends call him, still creates new works of art today, still stretching himself beyond the boundaries of what is considered art, many of which he helped shape over the years. In Canyon (above, from 1959), Rauschenberg redefined painting and sculpture simultaneously by incorporating elements of both in his “combines”. A stuffed American bald eagle “flies” out of the picture frame, recreating the sense of life within the canyon itself. (This work actually presents problems when traveling due to American laws governing the transport of endangered species, such as the bald eagle, even when stuffed and transformed into art.) Bob Rauschenberg never met a rule he couldn’t break, all to wonderful, mind-expanding effect.

In Monogram (above, from 1955), Rauschenberg used a stuffed Angora goat he found in a second-hand shop and, after cleaning and combing its fur, placed a rubber tire around its middle, dashed paint here and there, and then mounted the beast upon a painted board. Monogram serves as Rauschenberg’s signature piece in many ways, the embodiment of how his mind works in combining the strangest of parts into a whole so much greater. Along with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg reigned over the art world in the late 1950s. Calvin TomkinsOff the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time recounts the close and then estranged relationship between the two artists, who helped usher in the age of Pop Art among other movements of the 1960s.

Rauschenberg’s art exists oddly within and outside its time. His 1966 performance piece Open Score, now available on DVD (and which I reviewed here), seemed the perfect marriage of technology and art at the height of the race to the moon, yet failed to find a contemporary audience. Today, the haunting images of figures in the dark seen through infrared cameras seem like the ghosts of modern day tragedy. In 1964, Rauschenberg cut a cross-section of American culture by painting the recently martyred President John F. Kennedy, initiator of the space race and Camelot-laden symbol for all that was once golden and then ashen in American. The repeated image of Kennedy’s finger extended in emphasis and pounding the lectern simultaneously recalls the outraged humanist and the cold warrior, the two sides of the American cultural coin of the early 1960s as the respective evils of racism and Communism called for some response. Rauschenberg’s art retains the ability to speak to us regardless of time, icons steeped in a cultural moment that cut to the heart of all human interaction. Everything old in Raushenberg is new again for each generation that looks closely and recombines the elements of his combines for themselves.

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