Among the artists whose art I like and admire, there are a few whom I feel as if I've known personally. Rembrandt would be one of them. With dozens upon dozens of self-portraits, we are able to follow him from youth to old age. Also we know his mother and father, son, wife and mistress – all painted in a deeply personal way that reveals his feelings about them.
As far as I know, the great American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who died last week at the age of 82, never portrayed himself, his family or friends, and yet, I feel as if I knew him well. Probably it has something to do with the fact that almost everything he had seen, worn, slept in, or touched somehow found its way into his art, thus literally becoming his artwork. Two years ago, the wonderful traveling exhibition of Rauschenberg's early works from the 50's and 60's could be seen here at MOCA. It was during this particular decade that the artist, it seemed, could do no wrong. In a state of sustained fury – or could it be a state of grace? – Rauschenberg churned out one masterpiece after another, calling them 'Combines,' a combination of painting and sculpture. He threw in stuffed chickens and a goat, old socks and dirty linen, rubber tires and a whole panoply of electric appliances, and then, in a baptism of color applied with coarse brushstrokes, the artist transformed this junkyard detritus into sizzling icons of awe-inspiring power. How anyone could sustain this creativity at such an unbelievable fever pitch for an entire decade is beyond me.
Rauschenberg retained his youthful spirit, and, more to the point, his curiosity – which fed the creative engine of his art – to the very end of his life. In a 2006 interview with Gisele Galante Broida for Paris Match magazine, she suggests that his 'combines' "may be viewed as a veritable portrait of an artist as a young man searching for his identity," to which he responded, "I was just exercising the curiosities that occurred in my normal life...Sometimes I find myself in the awkward position of giving advice to young artists and universities and things, and the question always comes up: ‘What is your final advice?' and I say: ‘To keep the curiosity...the curiosity is the most important thing.'"
It's never been a secret that the artist was gay, though in post World War II America, "being openly gay was considered a mental disorder," as Tyler Green writes in his blog. He adds that "In Rauschenberg's work, gay life and love is not hidden in an abstract, oblique reference to be noticed by those in the know; it is central, autobiographical..." It's ironic and a little bit sad that in their obituaries, "Most writers and critics refused to say that Rauschenberg was gay."
Two years ago, during the opening of his exhibition at MOCA, the artist, then 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 him to sign copies of the exhibition catalogue and the wheelchair-bound artist refused no one. That's the spirit.
Banner image: Robert Rauschenberg, Ark (detail), 1964; Supplementary plate for the deluxe edition of the illustrated book, Rauschenberg: XXXIV Drawings for Dante's Inferno; Lithograph, composition (irreg.): 13 15/16 x 16 1/8" (35.4 x 41 cm); sheet: 15 3/4 x 16 1/8" (40 x 41 cm). Publisher and printer: Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York. Edition: 44; Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. Art © Robert Rauschenberg and U.L.A.E.