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Remembering Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Robert Rauschenberg, the man who once said he wanted to act in the gap between art and life, has departed this life, dying on Monday at the age of 82 in his home on the island of Captiva, off Florida's Gulf coast. There are few things that the men and women who run the culture industry enjoy more than shedding some tears over the passing of a bohemian bad boy who lived a full life, and in the next few weeks, there will be many salutes to Rauschenberg and his times. We will see him as a student at Black Mountain College, in the hardscrabble downtown New York days of the 1950s, and winning a Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964. While the truth is that a lot of people who loved Pop Art never thought Rauschenberg was anywhere near as important as Johns or Warhol, for some years there was a general agreement that he was 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. The only trouble with all of this was that there never has been a gap between art and life. There is art. There is life. For all I know, Rauschenberg's has been a life well lived. As for his art, it stank in the 1950s and it doesn't look any better today.

"De mortuis nil nisi bonum." Of the dead, speak no evil. But of the works of the dead, it seems to me that we have a perfect right to say whatever we think. And the fact is that Robert Rauschenberg's work has been protected by a sort of critical silence for many years now--at least what little negative comment there has been is more or less ignored. The merest suggestion that the juxtapositions of objects and images in Rauschenberg's paintings, sculptures, and prints are nothing more than arbitrary has left one open to the accusation of being a conservative or a reactionary. And once you have been called those names, you are out of the discussion.

I cannot see that there is any poetry or power in Rauschenberg's work, not even in the Combines of the 1950s and 60s, which were the subject of a worshipful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. I find no mysterious or striking qualities about the tire that is hung around the midriff of the goat in Monogram. Or the stuffed rooster in Odalisk. Or the paint-spattered quilt in Bed. The art historians will tell us that what we are witnessing is yet another demonstration of the allure of the quotidian, an increment in an evolution that had already given us the collages of Picasso, Braque, and Schwitters and the readymades of Duchamp. We are told that with Rauschenberg the work of art has become like the mind itself or like life itself, full of dissonant elements. But what if the dissonance has no rhythm, no resonance? There are important questions about Rauschenberg's work, questions that have too rarely been raised, much less discussed.

In 1961, when the exhibition "The Art of Assemblage" opened at the Museum of Modern Art, there was a panel discussion, and Rauschenberg, Duchamp, and the writer Roger Shattuck participated. Shattuck--who had three years earlier published an extraordinary book about the avant-garde, The Banquet Years--suggested that there are two kinds of juxtaposition in modern art. "In certain cases," he said, "juxtaposition cancels out…and in other cases it keeps its level of tension." The Cubists and sometimes the Surrealists managed to keep the level of tension. But many Dadaist works, so Shattuck argued, "illustrate the association of two elements that cancel each other out and return us--spiritually and aesthetically--to zero." It seems to me that Rauschenberg fits very neatly in this category. The sum effect of his Combines--not to mention the nearly endless silk-screen thingamajigs of more recent years--is a zero.

Why are people so interested in Rauschenberg and his doings? His hold on the public suggests the power exerted by certain charismatic performers in earlier times. Rauschenberg's involvement with avant-garde dance in the 1960s; his collaborations with engineers in the nonprofit foundation known as Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT); his silk-screened paintings that can include anything and everything, from portraits of JFK to nudes by Rubens; his later collaborations with artists and craftsmen around the world--all of this has 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.

It is said that Rauschenberg was a man of considerable charm. And he is surely a representative figure in the second half of the twentieth century, with an energy level that sometimes even left his friends feeling out of breath. For those who were close to him or knew him to some degree, his death is certainly sad. But so far as his work is concerned, it has from beginning to end been nothing but bad news.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl