at the Museum of Contemporary Art

During World War II, a young Navy technician on furlough hitchhiked his way down the California coast. As a child growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, he’d drawn and sketched constantly, kept pets of all kinds, and obsessively collected objects natural and man-made. Suspended from college after six months for refusing to dissect a live frog, he had been drafted. He was on his way to San Marino–someone had told him of the gardens at the Huntington Library. There he also found an art gallery, where he saw oil paintings for the first time in his life and realized that there was such a thing as a professional artist. It was at that moment that Milton Rauschenberg decided to become an artist himself.

After only a decade–and a new first name, a trip to Europe, and stints at four different art schools–the still-young Robert Rauschenberg was making the startlingly original, powerful, moving, and highly influential works now on view in a superb retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. If the fact that that room at the Huntington Art Gallery was filled with 18th-century British portraits by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Lawrence seems surprising to the viewer of such radical Rauschenbergs as his White Paintings and Elemental Sculptures, it should be remembered that Rauschenberg’s artistic spirit is nothing if not protean.

There is indeed an extraordinary youthful exuberance to the works in this show. In just five years–from the point in 1949 that the exhibit’s curator, Walter Hopps, identifies as Rauschenberg’s first artistic maturity until 1954, just before the first “combine” paintings that were to make him famous–the artist worked in paint, sculpture made of found objects, collage, and photography. He also made works that seem unclassifiable, such as a scroll image of a tire print and an erased de Kooning drawing. Even within each category there is huge variety. The paintings, for example, range from abstract expressionism to newspaper collage to pictures that use fabric and gold leaf to another made entirely of earth. Many of these caused minor outrages and scandals in their time, generally because they were completely misunderstood. The critic Leo Steinberg, a great admirer of de Kooning’s work, was deeply upset when he first heard about Erased de Kooning Drawing; the great color-field painter Barnett Newman is said to have remarked, on seeing Rauschenberg’s all-white pictures, “What’s the matter with him? Does he think it’s easy?”

If a viewer today far less knowledgeable about art than Steinberg or Newman is also far less likely to be shocked, one reason is that Rauschenberg’s influence has been so vast. His old friend Jasper Johns–they were a couple through much of the 50s and deeply influenced each other–has cited him as the most influential living artist, a man who has “invented more than any artist since Picasso.” Among the art movements and trends the works in this exhibit anticipate–and perhaps helped create–are minimalism, pop art, conceptual art, serial imagery, and the recent ecologically oriented gallery pieces that incorporate elements from nature.

While the richness of Rauschenberg’s art surely stems from the mixture of genius and passion that makes all great art possible, several external factors also played a role in shaping his early oeuvre. His naivete, stemming in part from a small-town upbringing (his father finished only the third grade), is a more extreme version of a quality common to many American artists. Unburdened by the weight of centuries of artistic tradition, which any European must feel, Americans have been more free to establish and enjoy their own “original relation to the universe,” in Emerson’s phrase. By the time of his early maturity Rauschenberg had already seen, enjoyed, and been influenced by a wide variety of art; yet the works in this show, and the work of many other American artists, also suggest the artist as Adam, the first person to see.

Rauschenberg had one other great influence, which he fully acknowledges: the great Bauhaus master and painter Josef Albers. Albers was anything but supportive of Rauschenberg’s early efforts. In Calvin Tompkins’s Off the Wall, Rauschenberg recalls that Albers would pick up one of his pieces in class and say, “This is the most stupid thing I have ever seen, I dun’t even vant to know who did it.” But Rauschenberg benefited greatly from Albers’s approach to materials. Albers taught first that there is no hierarchy, that all materials are equally suitable for art, and second that one should use materials according to their essential natures.

Yet what makes the work in this show so stunning is not any lesson it offers on the nature of materials, or any lesson in art history on originality and influence, but rather its complex mixture of sensuality and imagination, beauty and suggestiveness. Consider, for example, the works that greet one on entering: two large blueprints he made with his then-wife Susan Weil. In one, a nude female model lay on the paper while Rauschenberg exposed it with a sunlamp; the other has two images of Rauschenberg. The eye is captivated by the rich range of blue tones surrounding the white silhouettes, but before long the viewer is also wondering how the works were made. The figures are clearly life-size not because they were painted that way but because they’re the directly printed shadows of actual bodies. One has a stronger sense of the bodies’ physical presence than would be the case with a conventional painting, or even with a photograph. At the same time the mind is encouraged to wander, in this case to imagine the actual event, the time exposure of a body, that these prints record.

Young artists frequently make self-portraits at the beginning of their careers, but rarely are they as original as Rauschenberg’s blueprints. In an untitled photographic self-portrait (c 1952) also in this show, Rauschenberg is seen lying on a mattress, the top of the frame just touching his forehead. His body, the mattress below, and a large, solid area beneath the mattress form horizontal bands that recall the bands and grids of many of his earlier works, as well as anticipate the bands in the last large painting in the show, Yoicks; but the position of his body, compressed between the mattress and the top of the picture, also suggests the tenuousness with which many young people, first making their way in the world, view themselves.

More unusual is a more direct vision of the attempt to make one’s way in the world: a collage hanging behind the blueprints called Mother of God. Fragments of road maps of major North American cities are jumbled together, some sideways and some upside down. Occupying the center is a huge, apparently cutout hole in the map collage, revealing the bare board (with a few specks of colored paint) beneath it. At the bottom, also on bare board, is a fragment of text that reads “An invaluable spiritual road map . . . As simple and fundamental as life itself.”

It is a measure of this work’s complexity that the quote seems to function simultaneously as an ironic joke and as an utterly sincere message. On the one hand, it’s hard to see what sense even the least demanding and least literal traveler might make of this collision of map fragments, to say nothing of the empty circle that aggressively cuts off each map and dominates the viewer’s attention. And yet in his juxtaposition of maps and circle Rauschenberg appears to be making a pretty clear statement–to be drawing, particularly in light of his later work, his own “spiritual road map.” The curved and grid street patterns in each map fragment collide with all the others because of the way they’re collaged, as if to suggest a simultaneous fascination with urban street plans and a rejection of the primacy of any one of them. At the same time the nearly blank center represents an alternative to all of them. In this center the eye is encouraged to wander unfettered by concrete imagery; the mind is freed from cities and networks to become more attuned to itself. This dual structure, of materials asserting their sensual attraction while the overall structure of the work encourages the viewer to travel beyond its physical confines, is common to most of the other works in the exhibit.

In the White Paintings that followed, the viewer’s journey beyond the work’s physicality is emphasized even more. These pictures, consisting of one or more panels of canvas painted a solid and uninflected white, were much misunderstood in their time, as Walter Hopps points out in his insightful catalog essay, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s. Some saw them, and other Rauschenberg works, as neo-Dada, antiart gestures, for example. What is surprising is how pleasurable, especially in the context of this show, these works are to experience. Their gentle, meditative presence sets the mind at rest, at least at first; after a bit, one begins to notice how subtly their appearance changes when the viewer moves about the room, or even how one’s perceptions of them are changed by distant sounds. John Cage, who admired Rauschenberg’s first gallery show, when the artist was virtually unknown, was deeply affected by the White Paintings and cites them as an inspiration for his famous silent piano composition, 4′ 33″. (In a gallery adjacent to the Rauschenberg show the museum is presenting an exhibit of Cage’s musical scores, including the score of 4′ 33″.)

Rauschenberg also made one painting of solid and uninflected black, a kind of mirror image of the white pictures. But he made a variety of other “dark” pictures. In one of the untitled paintings from the Night Blooming series, abstract white brush strokes suggestive of a germinating plant seem to point toward a crescent moon above. There followed a number of dark paintings with irregular or mottled surfaces, often with relief effects produced by placing pieces of fabric or newspaper on the canvas and then painting over them. In some the newsprint is obscured by the black paint, while in others the yellowed newspaper, and sometimes some of the text, is visible. In some of the most complex of these, such as an untitled work from 1953 known as “horizontal black painting,” a great variety of textures and shades of yellow, gray, and black form a dense, nearly chaotic pattern over a large surface.

It is clear, both from biographical information and from the evidence of his art, that Rauschenberg was a great admirer of the abstract expressionist painters, who were almost as unknown as he was in the New York of the early 50s. The vast areas of color in a Newman or a Clyfford Still, the expressionist brush strokes of a Pollock or a de Kooning, all have their traces in Rauschenberg’s early work. But crucial differences–and even a real break with tradition–are also evident.

If mainstream Western representational painting functions as a kind of window, a view into the depths of some illusory world, the abstract expressionists abandoned representation but retained the window idea. Rothko’s and Newman’s pictures lead the eye inward, into some imagined depth or vast and coordinateless space; the painting is merely a vehicle to lift the viewer out of the here and now and into some imagined elsewhere. The more gestural painters lack the same transcendent form, but the dense skein of brushwork or poured paint leads the viewer to construct an illusion of rhythm, of a particular kind of movement, which gives the illusion of traveling into another’s body and mind. Additionally, the complex network of lines in a Pollock or a de Kooning, however chaotic they may seem at first glance, form a perfectly enclosed system, one that is not inconsistent with the compositional history of classical European painting.

Rauschenberg’s steadfast, resolute rejection of both approaches has perhaps not been fully appreciated. Yet he gives us a rather obvious clue in his Erased de Kooning Drawing, one of the few of his early works he actually titled at the time–and the only one with the title printed visibly below the picture. At Rauschenberg’s request, de Kooning provided a drawing to erase; the older artist selected one drawn with a variety of materials, which proved particularly hard to rub out, requiring about a month and many erasers. All that remains of de Kooning is a faint, ghostly image. What is extraordinary is how different this image is from the adjacent Rauschenbergs. Even the trace of de Kooning is more formal, more complete in itself than Rauschenberg’s works; it suggests a presence almost classical, sculptural. Yet the rough surface, the result of the erasures, and the fact that what one sees is quite obviously only a trace of something formerly there interject an element of aging, of uncertainty, even of chaos, never explicitly present in the work of the abstract expressionists. Rauschenberg expands the limits of art by including an order that is no longer a reflection of the artist’s coherent imaginative vision but is rather a reflection of the workings of nature, of the natural process of decay. It is no accident that Erased de Kooning Drawing bears a close resemblance to old frescoes, often found in Europe, so ruined by time that only a shadow, a barely recognizable image remains.

Contemplating a work like the untitled horizontal black painting, one is first of all immersed in the aggressive materiality of the surface. One doesn’t look beyond or through the picture; rather than being transported, the viewer is down in it, wading about in the mess, the profusion of shapes. In time it becomes evident that the work is organized: there is a genuine sensual rhythm to the strange, asymmetrical, and unsystematic orchestration of forms. The composition manages to create the sense of a delicate balance between organization and chaos, between order and randomness, or perhaps more accurately between the ordering of the human mind and the ordering of the natural world–the same dualities present in Erased de Kooning Drawing. Rauschenberg has in fact achieved two new balances for art. No longer is the rigid formalist organization of classical painting held superior to that of the natural world; instead both are presented together, in a tenuous, contradictory, somewhat uncertain balance.

This also results in a new relationship between picture and viewer. Instead of the work being experienced as a hieratic organization the viewer must try to comprehend, a given that the viewer must meet on its terms, the balance between formalism and natural forms requires far greater participation by the viewer, who is now the artist’s equal partner. The mottled, sensual surfaces of Rauschenberg’s fabric and newspaper paintings encourage the viewer to experience them almost with the immediacy their creator must have felt, while their initially perplexing organization first engages the mind, then frees the viewer’s imagination, through the absence of formal closure in the compositions, to make of them what he will.

Of course there are many earlier 20th-century artists who eschewed traditional aesthetic closure and personal expression and sought to make more of a place for the viewer; Marcel Duchamp is perhaps the most famous. It is Rauschenberg’s special achievement to arrive at these ends without abandoning a deep and sensual engagement, for himself and the viewer, in his materials. His works may have an apparent randomness, and they are far less formally composed than much earlier art, yet they’re far from random. His careful compositions, filled with variegated forms, achieve an order that is both as engaging as art and as nonsystematic as nature–part of what makes for their extraordinary power.

Several key Rauschenberg works explicitly reveal, through his choice of subjects, some of the sources of his aesthetic. Erased de Kooning Drawing signals a move away from earlier artistic traditions toward a surface more inflected by the suggestion of a natural process. We also have Dirt Painting (for John Cage), the only one of a series of similar works to survive. (Growing Painting included seeds, and Rauschenberg watered it regularly during its exhibition.) Dirt Painting’s soil surface is modified by a multicolored fungus growing on it, which is quite beautiful in its way; the irregular and unsystematic arrangement of soil is similar to nature patterns one can see almost anywhere. Dirt Painting also has a strong formal resemblance to many of the dark paintings. A third and equally important aesthetic source can be seen in an untitled work (“matte black painting with Asheville Citizen”). In the other newspaper paintings in this show most or all of the text is obscured, but here large portions of whole pages are presented in legible form. In subsequent decades he was to make extensive use of newspaper pages, and he has cited the layout of a front page, with its vertical columns and juxtaposition of apparently unrelated stories, as a significant inspiration.

Indeed, cultural products, man-made images and objects, are at least as important to Rauschenberg as nature-derived imagery. One of the extraordinary things about this exhibit is the balance it strikes between the two worlds. A beautiful series of small collages on paperboard, inspired in part by the work of Joseph Cornell, makes extensive use of found images. One feels the presence of the boy collector in one untitled work in which detailed printed images of bugs are placed side by side, together with a few other found fragments and much empty space. Rauschenberg’s abandonment of illusionistic depth effects–whether of conventional representational art or of the abstract expressionists’ vast, immeasurable spaces–seems to come in part from an attachment to the physical realities of this world rather than to the less tangible possibilities of an inner vision. The flatness of the spaces in his paintings and collages emphasizes what might be called the lateral relations between the picture’s elements, and he makes these as complex as any depth effect might be. As the eye moves from insect to insect in this collage, or from mottled shape to mottled shape in one of the newspaper paintings, a mysterious rhythm of similarity and difference opens up–they are all bugs, or all clumps of paint, but each is unlike any other. Again, the viewer’s imagination is given free rein. Too, the lateral organization that Rauschenberg favors seems to come out of a profound respect for his subjects. Clearly he values each bug as much as any other, and wants to preserve it in its essential thingness rather than create the hierarchies that result from organization in depth.

A similar respect for materials informs the Elemental Sculptures: found and simply made objects are presented unadorned, but the few elements are combined in surprising ways. One untitled work consists of a stone with a rope tied around it that’s attached to a wooden box. The work’s owner (but not, of course, the museum visitor) is apparently invited to place the stone in any position, inside or outside of the box, so long as it’s within the rope’s reach. In Music Box, two stones move about when the box is shaken, hitting various nails within and making sounds. (Duchamp, whose 1916 With Hidden Noise also makes noises when moved, is said to have examined this work in the 60s and said, pleased, “I think I recognize that tune.” Another untitled work consists of a chunk of bricks and mortar with a piece of concrete attached to it by a bent steel spike.

While some of these works invite direct viewer participation, in that their elements can be moved about and displayed in various arrangements, all invite the viewer’s mental participation by raising questions as to their purpose or function. Objects that have well-known practical uses are combined in a way that not only makes no utilitarian sense but, more important, suggests some other possible but unspecified use. This is where the viewer’s imagination is once again called into play. Is the stone to be placed inside the box only on certain feast days, such as the solstices or perhaps Michelangelo’s birthday? When, and in what way, can Music Box, with its rather intimidating forest of nails, be shaken? And from what ruined world does the slab of bricks and mortar come, and how is it to be displayed?

Mysteries even more hermetic are evoked by the earlier Scatole Personali (“personal boxes”). In one, earth and erect pins surround a fragment of an old photo of Rauschenberg. In another, one looks through a round porthole to see a pearl hanging in what appears to be a tiny underwater world. In a third, a long compartment contains dirt, pebbles, and an insect, while a smaller one contains nine beads mounted as if on an abacus. One contemporary reviewer of the Elemental Sculptures denounced one of them as a “caveman’s noggin knocker,” and in a certain sense this critic got it right: these rough-hewn works suggest an earlier, or perhaps a later but decayed civilization. The Scatole Personali, on the other hand, suggest highly evolved but as yet undiscovered civilizations, and the use to which they put these small, delicate constructions is left to the viewer’s imagination.

As ever, each element in the Scatole Personali retains its own identity. Cornell has been mentioned as an influence–but as with Rauschenberg’s other influences, Albers and de Kooning, Rauschenberg admires and then does the opposite. Cornell’s boxes and collages abound in depth effects; mysterious voids open up that lead the viewer beyond the visible. Objects are combined in a way that suggests the transformation of one into the other; a small ball set in front of a map of the solar system becomes another planet and seems subsumed into limitless space. The ambience of Cornell’s work is one of enchantment and mystery.

In Rauschenberg’s small collages, however, the blank paperboard (salvaged from freshly laundered shirts) that serves as a mounting is quite visible; often blank paperboard is more than half the composition. Paper glued to the paperboard serves as a backing for the collage elements; the glue is also visible, in rough irregular smears. In one work an indecipherable text is superimposed over a landscape with clouds; below are some fragments of Arabic, and above is a small abstract shape. Half of the paper is empty; about a third of the paperboard backing is uncovered. Pieces of fabric accompany the fragments of images and words. The parts don’t go particularly well together, but that in a way is the point: the viewer, unable to resolve them into a logical whole, sees them instead in their separateness. There are enough possible relations–between different texts, between different empty surfaces–for imagined connections. But as no connections are enforced by the work itself, the parts retain their separate identities, and the viewer’s mind is freed for its own inventions.

There is a profoundly edifying modesty to Rauschenberg’s enterprise. His art does not declare “This is what I see, this is what I know” but explores those realms he does not know. The universe is for him continually unfolding, and to confront it truthfully one must leave room for mystery, openendedness, uncertainty, randomness, chaos, and emptiness–all of which are marvelously present in this work.

Mainstream Western art has a certain imperial quality. When the artist is the creator of holy images to be worshiped, he’s also dividing the world into categories and hierarchies –beautiful and ugly, good and evil, sacred and profane. The profoundly determined inner organization of painting, from Cimabue to Rothko, also declares that the painter is possessed of a unique vision, which the viewer can only aspire to apprehend. All of these artists and their works are nothing if not sure of themselves.

But in the present era, when our relationships to each other, to our culture, and to our planet are increasingly–and in my view appropriately–being challenged, the vision that inheres in these clumps of dirt, sandboxlike messes, “empty” canvases, and “city-dump murals” (to quote another critic’s excoriation) is more than worthy of attention. John Cage has often said that one point of his music is to sensitize the listener to the sounds of the daily world, and Rauschenberg’s art has a similar effect. This art of found objects and unresolved paradoxes finally puts me in closer touch, and in touch in a different way, with my surroundings. Everyday surfaces seem more tactile and alive; apparently chaotic patterns give new pleasures. Not everything one sees needs to be transformed by the mind into some use, or purpose, or emotion, or symbol–that is to see the world only in terms of one’s own inner vision. Proposing to reformulate the relationship between self and environs, Rauschenberg seeks to approach all things with childlike wonder, trying to present them less as objects transformed than as objects with their own unique qualities–so that we the viewers may also experience them as if for the first time.