Monday, June 19, 2017

Robert Rauschenberg – Friends, Lovers and Art


Short Circuit, with open doors, featuring a Susan Weil painting and Elaine Sturtevant’s reproduction of a Jasper Johns flag.

There is an extensive retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg’s work currently on view at MoMA, entitled, Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends. As the title suggests, the show accentuates the relationships that he had during his many decades as an artist and how those relationships influenced and enabled his collaborative envisioning of art practice.

This premise is a bit complicating because it makes you think that perhaps they, the curators, wanted to explain the variety and limits of Rauschenberg’s art. Surveying over sixty years and including two hundred plus works, this show is a bit exhaustive and the ties to ‘friends’ is perhaps a convenient way to string it all together. There might also be something more disagreeable to this linkage since lucky for Rauschenberg (or perhaps not), these ‘friends’ of his are the cream of the art crop.

Biography, biography, such a ghastly beast of a thing but it so truly does make the person and here the relationships, nay, lovers, which Rauschenberg had, connote and reveal many things. He was married to Susan Weil (had one son with her), divorced and then had relationships with Cy Twomby and Jasper Johns. All were artists and Twombly and Johns are 100% art thoroughbreds.

The show, through wall text, spells these relationships out and just in case you missed the point it also includes collaborations with said artists as well as stand-alone works. You see a Johns next to one of Rauschenberg’s works from the same period and to no one’s surprise you see how they relate. It’s like an I Spy of sorts and while amusing; it is also a bit befuddling.

Everyone can agree that Rauschenberg is Rauschenberg in the mid 1950’s when his Combines and aesthetic touch seemed solely his own. When you see the works during this period you don’t care who influenced them but rather are glad they got a chance to exist and agree that he belongs to this pantheon of American Art. The colors, forms, and repetitions of delighted choices and assemblage give everlasting and individual weight. I never realized how much he focused on the idea of passage. Doors, ladders, even bed sheets feel like devices of entering, leaving, and escape.

As the show precedes you see how collaborative he was and how far that network reached. Performances, dance, stage, science (the mud piece is wild and funny), politics, pop art, printmaking, music, kinetics, it’s an everything and the kitchen sink sort of art making.

Today, this might feel familiar as artists are encouraged, nearly demanded, to be interdisciplinary but I can imagine the scattered mélange it might have felt like when he first endeavored it. Most artists might not have gotten away with this sort of practice in his day but he did because frankly he was Rauschenberg.

When I say Rauschenberg I mean both the man and also the idea of the man. This is what I find very interesting about this show and its overt connections to his circle of ‘friends.’ Through the relationships that he had in his private life he was given not only access but also a permission to expand in otherwise unwieldy ways. The people that he collaborated with were at the very top, the most professionalized avant-gardes of their day. This made/makes everything/anything that any of them did or do important, archival, and seemingly necessary.

Are they all really all those things though? No, but because they have this constellation of peers who are the stars of their respective fields, this is their default historicization. This to me is depressing because it conditions art practice and history through the promotion of entitlement and a stacked distributions of privileges. But reality forces one to surrender. It is the way things work.

Let’s jump into the present re: relationships and art. Today, as it was in Rauschenberg’s time, relationships (close friends and lovers), that one has in the art world is utterly entwined and integral to one’s successes and opportunities. Anyone who has been in the art worldeven for a short timesees these connections. Jobs, money, esteem, and access are all valved through the status and station that you and those around you have. This is true for nearly all industries and the nature of the why and how of it is understandable but there is a overwhelming silence in the art world to reveal this truth.

Another name for this type of behavior is ‘networking’ but god forbid the art world call it that, we are entirely too uncorporate to do that, but that is what it is. I’m not complaining about it but I find it delusional to pretend otherwise. The power of relationships, especially intimate ones, are very very powerful and have very real consequences. This I accept but what I don’t is how these consequences become institutionalized, become nepotistic, and become the foundations for movements and markets.

I do not bring up Rauschenberg nor his show to dissemble the artist or the sprit of his practice, those things stand up on their own right and deservedly so, but I do want to point out this other subtext because it is important to understand why we find ourselves where we are in thinking, talking and learning about art.  

Transparency, collaboration, love, influence. All these things can share the same messy bed with each other and hopefully there will be others who follow the aspirations of Rauschenberg but without always needing all those lovers and friends so tightly entwined.