Date of this Version
Sheldon Solo, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Februarv 9 - March 21, 1999
The importance of Robert Rauschenberg to the history and development of 20th-century American art has been firmly established for well over three decades. It is, however, the nature of his importance that remains, in large part, unresolved. The recent retrospective exhibition of the artist's work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1997- 98 represents to date the most ambitious attempt to document comprehensively the multiple aesthetic activities of one of the most complex and diverse artists in the history of modern art. By focusing on his involvement in performances, sculpture, and unique and creative engagement with technology, in addition to an in-depth exploration of his early paintings, combines, and phototransfers, the Guggenheim retrospective painted a portrait of an artist that is quite different than the one portrayed by most formalist histories of art. These formalist narratives have defined Rauschenberg as a product of historical "influences," from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Despite his work's superficial affinity with the "Action Painting" process of Abstract Expressionism and a shared interest with the Pop artists in popular imagery, the fact remains that Rauschenberg's artistic intentions and aesthetic modus operandi bore little resemblance to either movement. And, therefore, like his friend and fellow artist Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg sits firmly outside the reductionist Greenbergian narrative of the inevitable formalist "progress" of avant-garde art. And like Johns, Rauschenberg continues to produce artwork, long after the "influences" of Abstract Expressionism in the fifties and Pop Art in the sixties have faded.
It is thus probable that Rauschenberg's quite broad and eclectic artistic activities from the late forties until the present can be interpreted, analyzed, and more fully appreciated within a broader methodological context than is usually utilized by most art historical narratives, narratives which assume-either explicitly or implicitly-the necessity of a Manet-Monet-Cezanne-CubismFau' ism-Surrealism-Abstract Expressionist lineage in interpreting the meaning and significance of postwar American art.
The difficulty of understanding Rauschenberg's artistic development and diverse creative activities within the limits of this modernist aesthetic has led many critics and historians to conclude that Rauschenberg's art is "postmodern."l Whether or not his eclecticism is sufficient grounds for his art being considered "postmodern, Rauschenberg's aesthetic is, without question, profoundly anti-formalist. Like those other "neo-Dada" artists he was often associated with, such as Jasper Johns, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg's artistic activity requires a broader, more sophisticated conceptual model within which to interpret his work and one that is more faithful to the artist's own intentions.