Robert Rauschenberg died last week, at 82--which isn't even as old as my father was when he died of multiple ravages. Rauschenberg had a puckish smile that reminded me of my father's, and the same silver haircut. The cause was announced as "heart failure," and when I heard the news, I wept.
Mind you, I don't usually get particularly verklempt when artists, especially well-known ones, die, but Rauschenberg is among my small coterie of favorites, which also includes Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Joseph Cornell. These four men took Cubism's basic idea of collage--originally compositions that included pasted paper, paint, and drawings--and opened up an entirely new mode of creative expression. As innovative as Braque's idea was (for it was, in fact, Georges Braque and not Picasso who came up with it), neither he nor Picasso, nor any of their original followers managed to marry two- and three-dimensional art in the way that "my four" did.
There's a natural affinity between what these men created and the idea of a Wunderkammer. Collage can become a locus of memory: collecting bits and pieces of life, sticking them to a canvas, and recording an idea, a moment, an observation about the human condition. It can also interpret the artist's experience of the world, and help us all make sense of history--as Rauschenberg's large screen-printed canvases did after John Kennedy's death, the subject of Skyway (1964), owned by the Dallas Museum of Art, and pictured here (rather awkwardly, because it's in the Atrium Cafe and I had to shoot it with my iPhone from the stairs). The DMA's image, plus three others from the collection can be found here. Although this isn't really a collage in the formal sense (it has more in common with Picasso's late synthetic Cubist efforts that looked like collages but were actually created entirely in oils), it's an example of one of the possible directions Rauschenberg and others explored: collage as a collection of images, married in improbable ways, but which can produce an almost jarring connection with the objects pictured.
These works have clearly touched a monumental nerve in the American psyche, because their impact includes twenty-first century book arts, and has even reached into the mundane aisles of the hobby merchants, fostering (indirectly) the current craze in "scrap-booking."
Little I could say could even begin to describe Rauschenberg's impact on modern art, and so I'll end by including a list of links to biographies, articles, and obituaries. 82 may not seem particularly young to many people, but I'll miss the works he'll never create, and I hope he left a huge cache of unrevealed works for us to enjoy.
New York Times obituary, by Michael Kimmelmann (includes a slide show of significant works)
Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind, by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. It links the same slide show, but also lists New York museums in which Rauschenberg's works can be viewed.
PBS's American Masters episode, with a video about Monogram and the other "combines."
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition featuring the combines (2005/2006) with an introduction and images.
"The Wild And Crazy Guy," Time Magazine's obituary, by Richard Lacayo.
As always, a list of online sources of Rauchenberg's work can be found on the Artcyclopedia.
Photo credit: Canyon, 1959 (Wikimedia Commons photo, taken at the National Gallery of Art in Washington). My shot of the Atrium Cafe at the Dallas Museum of Art was taken on May 15, 2008.