The Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at MOCA continues to fascinate me. Last week I stopped by the Museum to hear Thomas Crow, Director of the Getty Research Institute, give a captivating talk about the artist. Well-known facts about the friendships, collaborations and relationships between Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham and John Cage were discussed and presented as fodder for a number of works in the exhibition. The prevailing opinion about Rauschenberg's Combines--his most celebrated body of work created between 1954-64--is that their explosive energy is very much a result of his spontaneous improvisation. Not so, according to Thomas Crow, who made a very persuasive argument for the possibility of seeing, or if you prefer, almost reading these Combines as a series of complex, biographical and artistic references.
It was intriguing to listen to his interpretation of Rauschenberg's early works with their combustible energy as the result of a deliberate juxtaposition of images, objects and references to paintings, drawings and ideas of other artists.
For myself, I can only add that the tension between the spontaneity of the Combines and the underlying deliberation embedded in their creation remains the source of their irresistible appeal and lasting relevance. Ezra Pound famously said, "Literature is news that stays news," and for me, this is the very essence of the enduring power of any great work of art. It's tempting to paraphrase this great quote as "art is news that stays news."
It's difficult to believe that more than twenty years ago a big controversy erupted over the MOCA acquisition of approximately seventy works of art from the Count Panza collection, that included, among others, iconic works by such artists as Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Claus Oldenburg. The collection was acquired for $11 million, then considered to be an exorbitant price. In today's art market many individual works from this collection would easily command that price, if not more, if they were to be sold at auction. What critics perceived as reckless spending by the fledging Museum proved to be the most astute acquisition by MOCA and much credit for that should go to then-Museum Director Richard Koshalek.
As for us, mere mortals, we still can indulge ourselves, at least in buying the beautifully printed catalogue of the Rauschenberg exhibition with a cover photograph of the artist as a wiry, attractive and rather pensive young man. I was told that during the opening reception and during a public appearance the next day, the artist, who is now eighty years old and not in the best health, delighted the audience with youthful exuberance and quick wit. A long line of people waited for Rauschenberg to sign copies of the exhibition catalogue and the wheelchair-bound artist refused no one. That's the spirit.
"Robert Rauschenberg: Combines"
May 21 --- September 4
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012