Pop Artist Robert Rauschenberg passed away this week, so we asked TNR's art critic Jed Perl to reflect on his work. He knows it's impolite to "speak evil of the dead"--but of the works of the dead, "it seems to me that we have a perfect right to say whatever we think." In this fiery piece, he proceeds to critique the work of what many critics regarded as "America's unofficial avant-garde ambassador-at-large, spreading the anything-can-be-art Dadaist gospel to the four corners of the earth, teaching people all over the world that, by god, you too can make a collage, you too can act in the gap between art and life."
But Perl finds that the artist's eclectic style and arbitrary impulses "had less to do with art than with an art-world circus show."
Isn't part of what attracts people to this kind of act the suspicion that what they are seeing is a magnificent fraud? Doesn't the public draw closer because they are fascinated by the performer's ability to confuse and mislead? Rauschenberg's chutzpah--the man painted, sculpted, danced, choreographed, designed sets, even composed music--opened up the possibilities that are now being mined by contemporary con-artists such as Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, and Jeff Koons. Rauschenberg didn't poeticize the ordinary. He aggrandized the ordinary, he put a high-art style price tag on the ordinary. That could describe much of the most widely discussed work being exhibited and sold in the art world today.
Perl's final assessment of Rauschenberg's art: "It stank in the 1950s, and it doesn't look any better today." Click here to read the entire piece.