Published January 10, 2006 in The Wall Street Journal
The exuberant and expansive exhibition, “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers the opportunity to revisit a major body of work created between 1954 and 1962 by one of our leading artists who, at the age of 80, continues to produce art daily. The Combines not only influenced the art of their own time (Assemblage, Pop Art and Minimalism), but they also anticipated some of the art being made today. Organized by Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the traveling exhibition (it goes on to L.A., Paris and Stockholm) brings together 65 of these works, so called because they “combine” aspects of both painting and sculpture.
In the Combines, drips, splatters and brushy swaths of paint inherited from the artist’s Abstract Expressionist elders intermingle with all manner of objects and materials drawn from everyday life: plain and printed papers, fabrics, articles of clothing, eating utensils, working light bulbs, Coke bottles, a ventilator and stuffed animals — most famously the angora goat encircled by a tire in “Monogram” (1959), arguably the artist’s most celebrated work. Attention-grabbing and often shocking, these works were denounced by some when first exhibited as little more than a fusion of Willem de Kooning’s brushwork, Marcel Duchamp’s iconoclasm and the collage technique practiced by Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters. Others celebrated the Combines for their wit and bravura, describing them as nets that randomly captured the stuff of life. Mr. Rauschenberg once wrote in 1959: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)”
Rauschenberg’s Combines use drips and splatters of paint, along with unexpected objects. In his “Monogram” (1959), those include an angora goat and a rubber tire.
Another point made about the Combines — even by Mr. Rauschenberg’s admirers — was that you could take everything in with a rapid scan; there was nothing to be gained from the kind of prolonged contemplation most works of art require.
Yet it turns out this isn’t true. There’s much more going on in them than those early observers believed. For one thing, they were not indiscriminately assembled, but composed with varying degrees of order and control. In each Combine form plays against form, shape against shape and image against image in complex interlockings of subject and form. The diverse objects and images generate multiple associations. The process of looking at the Combines is thus a never-ending, high-spirited game played between the artist and the viewer’s searching eye and mind.
For example, in “Satellite” (1955), a stuffed pheasant is positioned as if parading along a wooden shelf at the top, while a black arrow immediately below, drawn in paint, implies its fall. Embroidered doilies attached to the surface suggest planetary bodies, while a pinup from a “girlie” magazine alongside implies another kind of “heavenly body.” (In several works, such pornographic images of women are juxtaposed with reproductions of Old Master nudes, as if to ironically suggest that the latter were just more naked ladies.) The theme of gravity is reinforced by a wallpaper motif featuring apples hanging from a tree at the upper right, while in the lower portion of the piece a pair of men’s socks on tip-toe anchor the whole to earth.
A number of Combines made during the mid-1950s have a distinctly autobiographical content. They include family photographs as well as myriad allusions to the artist’s childhood home in Fort Arthur, Texas, and recent past. Both an untitled work of c. 1954 and “Odalisk” (1955-58), freestanding Combines that also feature stuffed fowl (a hen in one, a rooster in the other), refer to the artist’s short-lived marriage. For instance, his white wedding shoes and a news clipping announcing his parent’s silver anniversary are incorporated into the untitled Combine.
By the middle of 1962, Rauschenberg had abandoned the Combine form, moving into a series of silkscreen paintings and in other directions. While he returned to making Combines in the 1970s, it is the earlier work featured in the exhibition that was most important at the time and is of continued relevance today.
In its exploitation of objects and images drawn from contemporary culture, in its openness and multiplicity, and in its eclectic and performance-oriented nature, the Combines anticipated many of the concerns of Postmodernism — manifested in work as different as that by Jeff Koons and David Salle. A full half-century after they were created, these works continue to inspire, intrigue and delight.