Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg, artist, multi-media pioneer, pop icon, creative giant, visionary everyman, philanthropist, and force of nature, died yesterday at the age of 82.

Critic Robert Hughes described him as

“a protean genius who showed America that all of life could be open to art. …Rauschenberg didn’t give a fig for consistency, or curating his reputation; his taste was always facile, omnivorous, and hit-or-miss, yet he had a bigness of soul and a richness of temperament that recalled Walt Whitman.

From a 2005 NY Times feature, Rauschenberg discusses his signature multimedia pieces, or “combines”:

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable,” he has said, bringing to mind Whitman’s remark, “I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse than I have supposed.”

Whitman counseled veterans in hospitals during the Civil War, and – poetic symmetry – Mr. Rauschenberg did the same for draftees and soldiers with acute combat psychoses during World War II. This, he told the art writer Calvin Tomkins years ago, was when he “learned how little difference there is between sanity and insanity and realized that a combination is essential.

It always amazed me that Port Arthur, Texas gave Janis Joplin and Robert Rauschenberg to the world. I’ve often used that fact as an argument to the shortsighted assholes that toss off comments about “red” vs. “blue” America. Granted that talent and creativity don’t always flourish in the place of their genesis, and that Joplin and Rauschenberg had to leave in order to fully achieve their greatness, but no one can ever know where genius and beauty, usefulness and value, might come from, the totality of experience and locale that might create such American masters like these two. This idea that we can just write off huge portions of this country as lost or blighted is the epitome of dulled, cynical tunnel vision. It’s the same kind of thinking that couldn’t grasp the genius and soul in Rauschenberg’s inspired assemblages of found or discarded materials, the combines of the mundane, the humble, the weedy and rusty, the stuff of life right there in front of our eyes, under our feet.

Photo: Pilgrim (1950)