Visible Republic: Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines

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Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns met for the first time one winter night in 1954 on the corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street.

Johns was walking home from his job at the Marlboro Bookstore where he worked the night shift, Rauschenberg was with his friend the young artist and art historian Suzi Gablik. At that time Gablik was one of the few people Johns knew in New York City and she introduced the two men.1 Given the time of that meeting late in the year, it is likely that Rauschenberg’s powerful photographic portrait of Johns from 1954 was taken early on in their friendship. In shirt and tie and a loosely fitting overcoat that suggests his leanness, Johns’s face is angled slightly towards the camera half in shadow, he has an embattled look, vulnerable but sharply intelligent. It is a portrait that betrays the photographer’s affection, and is evidently one of the photographs of Johns that Rauschenberg recalled later could ‘break your heart’. ‘Jasper was soft, beautiful, lean and poetic. He looked almost ill – I guess that’s what I mean by poetic’2. But, given their subsequent relationship, we might also be tempted to read a tension in this arresting picture: the slight look of discomfort, the uneasiness of the shy subject that suggests a meeting of opposites. And maybe there’s a sense of doubting, too, in that look, something almost reproachful that tends to reinforce what we have come to understand about the artists’ respective characters and the varying paths of their work. It is Johns, after all – cool, reserved and complex, developing an intensely thoughtful art of formal economy – whose reputation has endured and who seems so much more in step with our image of the serious, idea-driven artist of today.

In a telling summary of Rauschenberg – more outwardly engaging, energetic and impulsive, and by five years the older artist – Johns has said: ‘To me he seemed amazingly naïve, but he functioned in ways I couldn’t. Bob assumed that other people would support what he did, for one thing; I assumed I would have to do mine in spite of other people.’3 It could explain that look, and the attraction of opposites perhaps: on the one hand an art flowing from easy confidence, while on the other something more self-consciously hard-won, an art founded on rigour and perseverance.

Although the appeal of his expressive art has waned – the ‘sensual excessiveness’ that ‘jarred’4 so much with Johns, so alien now to the ironic landscape within which the viability of contemporary art is measured – the scale of Rauschenberg’s impact on the course of American post-war culture is undiminished. For one thing his work and his presence in the art scene 1950s New York is now seen as pivotal to the development and understanding of what came to be called post-modernism. Although largely misunderstood at the time, and shunned by the high priests of modernism – the critic Clement Greenberg didn’t mention him in print until 1967 – Rauschenberg’s work created a precious break in the hard line of modernist orthodoxy, introducing new kind of art and a new sense of what an artist might be. And then there is the evidence, which is more open to matters of taste, that Rauschenberg produced some of the most breathtaking art of our last century, an art that, especially during the fifties and sixties, put photography centre stage, giving ‘exquisite substance’ to the ‘interference and visual static’5 of a society increasingly under the spell of the mass media and its vast multi-faceted mirror of photographic images.

In fact, from 1949 when he first took photography classes at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, photography was a vital factor throughout Rauschenberg’s career, and was decisive to the moment, around 1954, when, as Leo Steinberg said, he invented ‘a pictorial surface that let the world in again’6. This was the moment of his ‘Combines’, a term that meant literally combining painting and sculpture, but one that also usefully reflected the works’ unprecedented combination of diverse materials. Now those groundbreaking works have been brought together for the first time in a large touring exhibition organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and shown recently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The show is a timely opportunity to reassess Rauschenberg’s importance and to think more about the place of photography in that momentous work.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 6, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks

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