It’s been two days since Robert Rauschenberg’s death and a day and a half since I read his obit in the New York Times. My friend Morse has posted about him twice on his blog while I fretted about finding the right words.
Like Morse, I once met Rauschenberg at an opening reception. It was in Houston on the occasion of a three-museum retrospective of his work. If anyone needs evidence of the man’s importance and astonishing output, the bald fact that he filled the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, and the Menil Collection all at the same time should suffice.
Then there was the art gallery which showed his most recent work at the time – big vegetal dye prints combining art historical and mass media imagery in endlessly inventive compositions. It was there, at Texas Gallery, that I spoke to him. Of course, I was so star struck that I mostly stammered, but he was gracious, having experienced muttering, babbling fans before, no doubt.
In art school many years before we spoke on that gallery porch in Houston, I’d devoured Calvin Tompkins’ Off the Wall and The Bride and the Bachelors, two gossipy and thoroughly inspiring artworld books about Rauschenberg and his lineage. That he’d determined to collaborate with his materials was liberating. That he’d combined junk with an exquisite sense of design opened my eyes to a world of aesthetic possibilities. That he’d once thrown most of a gallery-full of assemblages into a river resonated delightfully with what I knew of the Buddhist practice of non-attachment. That he’d erased a de Kooning drawing deliciously enacted the oedipal conflict among generations of art heroes, and effectively nullified it by making it so explicit.
But the erased drawing was more than aggression and its effacement. It was a clearing, an opening up, a talisman which pointed to a new beginning for art and art’s possibilities. Rauschenberg cleared the path for Philip Taafe to restate Barnett Newman in terms of decoration. He cleared the path for Richard Prince to re-present the Marlboro cowboy in terms of our desires. He cleared the path for techno-nerds who make techno-nerdly art works. He cleared the path for scores of artists (Morse and me included) who operate “in the gap between art and life.”
I got to see the erased de Kooning that weekend in Houston right before it was confiscated by Harris County constables serving a misguided judgment on the part of a Houston judge. (There was a dispute about commissions with a dealer up in Austin, apparently.) Although I’ll never be privy to the subsequent machinations, it’s amusing to imagine the moneyed and powerful individuals who took action that night to void that judgment. Houston is like that.
The erased de Kooning was back on the Menil’s wall within a day and in time for the opening that night. Houston is like that, too.
Also in the Menil were other seminal early works – the combines, the blueprints, the illustrations for Dante. Bed was there, as was Odalisk. Near the entrance sat a tire sculpture made of glass, which I assume was the inspiration for a Texas-based online art magazine’s name. If it wasn’t, they’re missing a damn good chance.
Among the MFAH offerings that weekend was the ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece – a huge, continually evolving concatenation of images, materials and sensibilities that I found impossible to bring together into a coherent experience. Ordinary artists settle for sketchbooks. Not this guy.
Over at the CAM, I found the strange stuff—the bubbling table of mud (a big hit with a preteen boy who watched it belch and burble with me), the motorized glass disks covered with images which allowed viewers to redesign the work's formal and poetic interactions as they saw fit. Or just to play with a gizmo with motors and switches.
Like other, smaller Rauschenberg shows I’d seen before and I’ve seen since, the whole of the Houston gig was generous and downright friendly. There were elements of sorrow and regret and remorse, to be sure, but you got the feeling he liked us and wanted us to like what we saw. He seemed certain we’d like it if only we could see it with fresh awareness and delighted eyes. It’s all around us if only we’ll take the time to look at it. And it’s ravishingly beautiful.
And that was his great accomplishment: He helped us see.