Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, May 19, 2008

Retroactive I, 1964

In Slate magazine, Jack Shafer is pissed off that people loved the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who died recently: “The solemn tributes to Robert Rauschenberg in today's newspapers prove that you're more likely to encounter an independent mind operating in the sports pages than the arts section.”

The same day in Slate, Jim Lewis waxed luscious about Rauschenberg’s fabulousness.

I have mentioned Rauschenberg many times hereabouts, at greatest length in October 2005. I wasn’t going to write about him now because he became such a Brand Name by the end that I didn’t know what to say -- the Seattle Symphony paid him something like a Million Dollars to do a collage for their new symphony hall a few years ago, and the influence of his style is so ubiquitous now that it just looks like a nice painting.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that the influence of his style captures only part what’s unique about him, which neither the tributes nor the diatribes I’ve seen have done justice to.

Rauschenberg began as a fascinating conceptualist and ended as a massively influential stylist. I can’t think of a parallel figure. His friend John Cage was hugely influential as a conceptualist, but, while many people, including me, love a lot of his music, he’s not famous for an influential style. The kicker is, Rauschenberg was more of an influence on Cage than the other way around.

In 1952 Cage composed his silent piece, 4’33”, the fame of which has gone far and wide. But in the year before then, Rauschenberg had painted completely white paintings, inspiring Cage to his make his silent piece. Cage admitted the influence, saying, “The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.”

Rauschenberg and Cage were jointly germinal in the development of Happenings in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rauschenberg presaged such beautiful works as Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os -- in which Johnson erased large chunks of Milton’s Paradise Lost, leaving behind radiant word clusters -- with his 1953 work Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is just what its title says.

More famous than his conceptual works, though, are Rauschenberg’s collages, often gorgeous and elegant constructions in which he aspired to an aesthetic of “multiplicity, variety, and inclusion.” It’s hard to imagine now, but works on which he painted on untraditional surfaces, such as 1955’s Bed, scandalized patrons. Now it just looks cheerful and friendly -- -- like Rauschenberg’s demeanor (Slate’s disputing Rauschenberg commentators, both of whom met the artist, agree on this point), and, surprisingly, like the mainstream myth of the Eisenhower ‘50s.

Rauschenberg had a greater impact on me, as a musician and aspiring poet, than Cage did, because I thought his collages were beautiful. Cage challenged my mind, and I found and find many of his non-collage music lovely, but I didn’t find his sound collages -- the ones that I heard, anyway -- beautiful. Cage’s principal of non-selection did not seem like an honest way for me to proceed. Rauschenberg’s “multiplicity, variety, and inclusion” inspired me much more -- it included aesthetic judgment. Not to exclude the ugly, but to contextualize it. And -- Rauschenberg’s collages are beautiful.

I don’t know with certainty, but it’s my hunch that his collages were hugely influential in book design. Martin Williams’s beautiful book The Jazz Tradition came out in 1971, seven years after Rauschenberg’s Kennedy homage, Retroactive I. I can’t help but feel that the book designer found inspiration in Rauschenberg. Ain’t it a lovely cover?

I bought that book 10 or 11 years after it came out, when I was a teenager. It blew my mind as much as Rauschenberg did. I still find inspiration in something Williams says in his introduction, extolling jazz’s drive to individuality. This is one of the few quotes I’d like to have on a coffee cup (and I’ve quoted it before):

The high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and co-operation required in a jazz ensemble, carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them. It is as if jazz were saying to us that not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but that such individuality, far from being a threat to a co-operative social structure, can actually enhance society.

I still find political as well as aesthetic inspiration in this Williams quote.

If Rauschenberg maintained his conceptual fertility after his 15 year explosion from the early ‘50s through the mid to late ‘60s, I wasn’t aware of it. He continued to make nice looking works, an avatar of Williams’s individuality, and he became very wealthy -- far wealthier than Cage or than any of the musicians Martin Williams championed, even Miles Davis.

By becoming an ubiquitous influence and a wealthy brand name, Rauschenberg became irrelevant as a possible model. I know an artist who follows Rauschenberg’s lead in painting on fabrics, but her work differs from his in many ways, most immediately in being intensely socially engaged -- like classic jazz, and unlike most Cage and Rauschenberg. Social engagement is not a requirement for lively or beautiful art, and if Rauschenberg’s later work lost its liveliness and even some of its beauty, he had liveliness and beauty in spades for a long time.

As I write this, I struggle with an ambivalence. I am grateful for Rauschenberg’s work, but I resent him. And it’s taken me this many paragraphs to remember why. In 1985 Rauschenberg designed a limited edition pressing of Speaking in Tongues.
When Talking Heads made a concert film of the subsequent tour, they titled it after a line from the album, “stop making sense.” I hated that line. I was in college, or recently dropped out, and we were living near the beginning of the Reagan onslaught, of which Bush the Second is the insane apotheosis -- and what Reagan said didn’t make sense. David Byrne’s second-hand, college-sheltered Dada pissed me off. The original Dadas lived through the first World War. The horrors of Reaganism killed people. But not so many in America; Talking Heads (of whom I had been a fan) certainly faced no consequences. We needed to start making sense. We’re still struggling to. (Funny: Now playing on computer shuffle: “Born Under Punches” -- Talking Heads, a beautiful song, from the album preceding Speaking in Tongues.)

Well, good for Rauschenberg for taking the record cover gig. What the heck. It’s not his fault that the Talking Heads started going downhill about then.

Rest in peace. Thanks for the mind-benders and thanks for the beauty.

My brush w/ Bob (sort of).

When I was just out of school, my brother got me a job w/ and art mover. We were gathering pieces for a 50s show in Upstate NY, and I got to go to Rauchenberg's Lafayette St. studio to pick up one of the white canvases. We were directed to the 3rd floor where his own team of restorers kept his various fragile pieces on order. The white painting was affixed with a note detailing the brand a color of paint, the roller width and style, and instructions on how to touch it up.

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