No artist invented more than Robert Rauschenberg. This remark, attributed to his friend Jasper Johns, is probably true (his exception was Picasso)—at least as long as you understand “invention” in its etymological sense, where it doesn’t mean making things up, creating things that didn’t exist before, but literally to “come into” things, in the sense of finding them. In the art of rhetoric, inventio is the systematic gathering of materials out of which a persuasive discourse can be constructed. Looking back over Rauschenberg’s career from its beginnings around the middle of the last century through his death in 2008, as the current retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (on view through September 17) invites us to do, it becomes clear that Rauschenberg was above all a restless and resourceful gatherer of materials, cultural as well as physical.
The show has been curated by MoMA’s Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume of the Tate Modern in London, where the exhibition was first mounted. (After New York, it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view from November 18 to March 25, 2018.) Oddly, while the exhibition in London was simply titled “Robert Rauschenberg,” in New York it’s called “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Here, his works are interspersed with those of associates like Johns, Rauschenberg’s life partner from the mid-1950s through 1961; Susan Weil, to whom he was married in the early 1950s; Cy Twombly, Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol, Öyvind Fahlström, and others; as well as copious documentation of his work with the nonprofit Experiments in Art and Technology. The MoMA show also includes videos of dances by choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown, with whom Rauschenberg worked closely.
“Among Friends” is another example of how curators these days are trying to shift their emphasis away from the mythology of individual genius by showing the artist’s immersion in and dependence on his or her context. But the danger is that this approach can make art look like some kind of insiders’ club. “Being geniuses together” (to borrow the title of Robert McAlmon’s 1938 memoir of American-expat literary life in 1920s Paris) seems just as misleading as depicting genius as a solo act.
Still, the exhibition succeeds in showing that Rauschenberg had a tremendous zest for collaboration, as well as a talent for influencing and being influenced by others. Rauschenberg’s “Combine” paintings (canvases with objects attached) and his three-dimensional “Combines” (free-standing assemblages) of the 1950s are still his best-known works. They are all about taking things as found and putting them together in unexpected ways while leaving them still recognizable. His method was hardly new, having been modeled on that of Kurt Schwitters, the Dada-influenced German artist who, in the period following World War I, dubbed his collage-based art “Merz.” As Dickerman points out in her catalog essay, Rauschenberg was hooked on Schwitters’s work from the time he first saw it in 1953. For Rauschenberg, Schwitters’s method was itself material to be gathered; it opened a way for him to collaborate even while working alone. And yet Rauschenberg later tended to play up the differences, claiming that he’d tried to operate by using “devices that would let the work compose itself, or stepping back enough to let the accidents take over.” Schwitters, on the other hand, “was using the same kind of collage materials, but from the opposite ideology (i.e., Cubist order, imposed from without).”