Thursday, May 15, 2008

Perspectives in abstraction

Artist Robert Rauschenberg died 82 years old Monday this week. His art under the aegis of postwar modernism was different (to put it mildly). Though I am not a big fan of his artwork, the following quote helps us understand the way he looked at art and provides us a better perspective in reacting to art.

Mr. Rauschenberg, describing to writer Calvin Tomkins an encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to “Monogram” and “Bed” in his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum:

To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly. So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”

Of course, the New Republic has an interesting point (His art stank in the 1950s and it doesn't look any better today. "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." Of the dead, speak no evil. But of the works of the dead, it seems to me that we have a perfect right to say whatever we think. And the fact is that Robert Rauschenberg's work has been protected by a sort of critical silence for many years now--at least what little negative comment there has been is more or less ignored. The merest suggestion that the juxtapositions of objects and images in Rauschenberg's paintings, sculptures, and prints are nothing more than arbitrary has left one open to the accusation of being a conservative or a reactionary. And once you have been called those names, you are out of the discussion).

Chuck Close, 'Robert Rauschenberg', 1996, Color digital pigment print, 140 x 112 cm

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