2017-05-18 18:03:03
Art Review: Robert Rauschenberg: It Takes a Village to Raise a Genius

In the late 1960s at the bar at Max’s Kansas City, Janis Joplin passed a note to Robert Rauschenberg. “We’re the only two people who ever got out of Port Arthur, Texas,” she wrote. Strangers till then, but hungry, gregarious, go-for-broke types, they ended up talking far into the New York night.

Both had, indeed, left home. And they were, in their different worlds, stars: Joplin after a breakthrough gig at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Rauschenberg as the grand-prize winner at the 1964 Venice Biennale. The singer’s life would be brief (she overdosed on drugs at 27); the artist’s, long. He died at 82 in 2008, after a career so staggeringly and variously productive that even the huge retrospective called “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” which opens at the Museum of Modern Art on Sunday, can represent it only in generous slivers.

At the same time, the show adds something missing in the last survey in New York, at the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. It gives clear evidence of the social nature of Rauschenberg’s art, of how much it was shaped and stoked by the company, which was also a family, of colleagues, teachers, assistants, lovers and bar buddies that he gathered around him.

The first of those relationships came in 1948, when he met the American painter Susan Weil, who was to become his wife, while studying painting in Paris. She had plans to go to Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., a communalist school where, basically, everyone studied everything — science, literature, art — and pitched in on daily chores. He joined her there.

It was the right place: cooperative, interactive. Among the earliest works at MoMA are full-length blueprint-style photographs — antic, Edenic — the couple made of each other after a first stay at the school, where they studied with Josef Albers. Albers had arrived from Germany in 1933, bringing Bauhaus precepts with him: Focus on ordinary materials, what’s close at hand; consider all materials and forms of equal value, and all combinations valid. Rauschenberg internalized this thinking — it was what he wanted to hear — and along with it the idea that using art primarily to monumentalize personal emotion was not the way to go.

This was a contrary view at a time when Abstract Expressionism was the vanguard high style. But at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg found an alternative avant-garde in iconoclasts like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who gave egolessness a good name, and with whom Rauschenberg forged lasting collaborative ties. Some of his own work became pointedly un-AbEx, as in his series of all-white canvases painted, like walls, with a roller.

Cage called these works “airports for light, shadows and particles” and said they inspired his 1952 “silent” composition “4’33.” They were also practical in a way Albers might have approved: If a “White Painting” got scuffed, no problem. Just paint it white again, as at least one future Rauschenberg assistant, Brice Marden, did.

Rauschenberg returned to the college in 1951, this time with Cy Twombly as his lover. A year later, the two men traveled together to Italy, Spain and Morocco, making art as they went. While Twombly painted and picked up antiques, Rauschenberg arranged assemblages of street finds — stones, nails, thorns, dead insects — and continued to forage back in New York, living in Lower Manhattan.

There Rauschenberg produced small reliefs, which he called paintings, from dirt, gold leaf and toilet paper, tossing the concept of value into the air. He took similar liberties with printmaking when he enlisted Cage to drive a car with inked wheels over a long paper scroll laid out in the street. And he turned draftsmanship on its head by asking Willem de Kooning, with whom he had become friends, to give him a drawing, not to preserve and admire, but to erase. De Kooning complied. Rauschenberg rubbed and rubbed. (He said the obliteration took two months and 40 erasers.) The resulting smudge is at MoMA in its original gilded frame.

It was placed in that frame by Jasper Johns, whom Rauschenberg had met and partnered with in 1954. By that point, Rauschenberg’s mixed-media experiments — post Dada, proto-Conceptualist — were growing extravagant. In a group of so-called “Red Paintings,” he was piling on more and more matter: newspapers, posters, neckties, doilies, a letter from his mother, a Twombly drawing, someone’s underwear. And these works shaded into the “Combine” series, for which he is renowned.

There are classic examples here, and they’re plain great, art as rich, perplexing and permission-giving to other artists as anything the 20th century offered: “Monogram,” with its regal, tire-girdled, taxidermied goat; “Short Circuit,” with its cabinet of funky all-American treasures, from Judy Garland’s autograph, to a print of Abraham Lincoln’s face, to a Johns flag painting, or rather an Elaine Sturtevant version of the same, replacing a Johns that someone had walked off with.

This is art of sly, affectionate wit, though not exactly sunny. The 1959 “Canyon,” with its hovering stuffed eagle, is usually read as a reference to the myth of an avian Zeus carrying his boy toy, Ganymede, to heaven. That sounds right, though the piece feels dangerous and grave, more about predation than about ascension. And although Rauschenberg referred to his quilted “Bed” as “one of the friendliest pictures I’ve ever painted,” it doesn’t feel friendly. Smeared with paint, nail polish and toothpaste, it looks befouled and abandoned.

Rauschenberg was fundamentally an optimist, fueled by do-it-yourself energy. But he took the catastrophes of the 1960s hard: Vietnam, assassinations, racial violence, Aquarian self-destruction — Joplin’s, for example. The anxiety is there in the work, early and late: in the Cold War “Combines,” in the skewed street signs of the 1980s “Glut” sculptures, and in the image-jammed silk-screens that suggest stacked-up televisions, each tuned to different types of jolting news.

Rauschenberg was into television — he kept it playing in his studio — and interested in electronic media in general. In the early 1960s, he implanted remote-controlled transistor radios, then fairly new, into the modular sculpture “Oracle” (1962-65), turning a work that looks as grim as a car wreck into a cutting-edge sonic machine. And he asked a group of engineers to design the monstrous “Mud Muse,” a vat of beige sludge — 8,000 pounds of it — that keeps bubbling away to the fed-back vibes of its own percolation.

In 1960 Rauschenberg met the Swedish-born engineer Billy Kluver, a specialist in laser and optics at AT&T Bell Laboratories, who was working on what, in those days, felt like a sci-fi future for telecommunications. With Kluver, he later arranged “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering” at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan, in which engineers and artists, primarily dancers (Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton) together cooked up technologically driven performances.

The evenings were riddled with glitches, but they pulled crowds with the promise of delivering a taste of the future in the guise of entertainment, a desire the theater-savvy artist understood. The collective event was a one-time thing but has been wonderfully revived for the retrospective in a video installation by the artist Charles Atlas, who was for decades the official filmmaker to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

I bet Rauschenberg would have enjoyed Mr. Atlas’s deft editing here and elsewhere in the show, organized by Leah Dickerman of MoMA and Achim Borchardt-Hume of the Tate Modern, with the help of two assistant curators, Emily Liebert and Jenny Harris. And I suspect he would have been pleased that the exhibition’s chronological scan of his career concludes with a view not of Rauschenberg the soloist, but the collaborator, and friend.

In the final gallery, projected on a long wall, we find a slide show of photographs by him, nature shots mostly, close-ups, taken near Captiva Island in Florida, where he had his studio and home. Moving left to right, and dissolving as they go, they formed the original backdrop for a 1979 dance, “Glacial Decoy,” by the choreographer Trisha Brown, who died in March and with whom Rauschenberg had worked many times.

The installation, by Mr. Atlas again, is layered. Set up in front of the slides is a kind of miniature theater, showing a video of the piece being performed: Four female dancers in simple gowns, making ordinary, graceful gestures, slowly vary their formation, becoming a quartet, a trio, a pair, one, none. They, and Ms. Brown’s choreography, are the focus of the gallery. You half forget you’re in a Rauschenberg show till you look up to see his big pictures filling that wall.

The images are beautiful, but not unusual. They add emotion to the dance, by notching up its everydayness just a bit. That’s the way his art is: as public as a Pyramid; as intimate and particular as a soul-mate chat.