I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg: Obituary

Robert Rauschenberg, Art Pioneer, dead at 82

Charles Stuckey once wrote that Robert Rauschenberg considered art a gift. In Italy in 1953, Rauschenberg took the great artist Alberto Burri one of his works as a present. He gave gifts to his friends – there's one infamous but lovely story where Rauschenberg repainted a black painting he had given John Cage because the composer was a few minutes late and he needed something to do. Rauschenberg created a foundation to help out struggling artists that did not have enough money to live on. His R.O.C.I, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, aimed to bring new art making techniques, technology, and energy to other cultures. Rauschenberg’s generosity was famous, and with his death at 82 on Monday night, he will be dearly missed.

Rauschenberg’s vision of gift giving changed art forever. For not only did he give, he received in a wonderful way. Rauschenberg’s inspired collaboration with people like Cage, Susan Weil, Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, Jean Tinguely, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Willem De Kooning, and even Dante (that’s a small fraction of the collaborations just in the 50s) led to a sea change in art making -- a festival of allowances, amendments, and multi-disciplinary experiments that affects everything serious in art today. I will let all the competent critics around the country way in on this fact. You will find a compendium of them here.

I want to tell stories and stories are what brought me to Rauschenberg. The wonderful stories that came from Rauschenberg’s long life are why I love him and will miss him. I love that he grew up in Port Arthur, Texas and ended up in New York. I love that Janis Joplin attended his high school in Texas but that they were not friends. I love it that the first artwork to inspire him was Blue Boy, a painting still hanging at the Huntington where it was hanging when he saw it. He hated Joseph Albers but went on to acknowledge his great influence. He once decided that he wanted to photograph the entire United States foot by foot and actually made it down Black Mountain College’s drive way.

It is wonderful that Rauschenberg and John Cage decided one day to cover the wheels of a Model T with ink and run it over a long sheet of paper in the street. It is still a famous fact that he erased a De Kooning but did it in a way that was not offensive or juvenile. He drank whiskey, a lot of whiskey – always Jack Daniels. When he was to have an exhibition at the now defunct and worthy of study Stable Gallery (paging all grad students) in the fifties, he and Twombly had to clean out its basement themselves. In a world of Abstract Expressionism, he decided to illustrate Dante, put a tub of mud in a gallery, and make a paining out of dirt and grass (he watered it himself). And then there is this, absolutely priceless: Leo Castelli and U.S. officials had to sneak his painting into the main pavilion of the 1963 Venice Biennial at night so that the French would consider it for the prize. They did consider it, and Rauschenberg won.

We are still only up to 1963 – this went on to the present.

Who was this guy? How does one man have such a life? A good Texan I’d say – bigger than life. We would like to think it was all a tall tale. It wasn’t. I cannot do Rauschenberg justice. It is all just too big for me, too generous, too wonderful. If you ever get down on art, if you are ever jaded by theory or are not seeing anything you think is worth looking at (you know who you are) – just reach for any Walter Hopps written Rauschenberg catalogue and you will be okay. Just look at Monogram – if you don’t look at that phallic, paint splattered goat and laugh, well, you are too far gone. I can’t help you.

To close, I want to tell my own Rauschenberg story – how, I found him. Believe it or not, I came to Rauschenberg’s work by way of Bruce Chatwin and Alexander Rodchenko. I had read a cryptic, wonderful story about how Chatwin had visited Rodchenko’s granddaughter in Asia. When the writer asked about his famous “Ultimate Painting,” three monochrome panels in the primary colors called Pure Red, Pure Yellow, and Pure Blue, 1921, she led him to her basement where the canvases were rolled up.

I became fascinated by the poetry and irony that the “Ultimate Painting” had been abandoned and was now in a basement. This perfect absurdity seemed to answer the theoretical questions of the death of painting I was reading at the time. It told me that I didn’t need to worry about it – that any endpoint in art is mere rhetoric, a tenure track insider witticism that affects very few people. That same day, I opened up a Rauschenberg catalogue and found out I was right. Art is generous, art goes on, art tells us there is always more to see, more to do. Art is a gift. Rauschenberg knew this. Rauschenberg always had something to do.
IcallitORANGES Rauschenberg links: Shirt Boards and my favorite, an early Black Mountain piece