Rauschenberg at MoMA: Inspiration, Collaboration, and the Turned-on Mind

Winter Pool, 1959

I’ve been thrilled by visual art most of my life. A combination of blessings, like where I grew up  and one particularly inspiring teacher when I was still very young, created me, a person who is literally vibrationally activated when I’m in the presence of exciting, great art. And there is a lot of great art in this world.

So on August 12, 2017, as my beloved Charlottesville was under attack by domestic terrorists, I was having a very good day. This hurts a little, in that place inside me (a vestigial mental construct left from my odd, if art-infused, childhood), but the bigger, better place inside me knows that it was okay for me to spend the day at MoMA with a friend, renewing myself by visiting the Rauschenberg exhibit called: Robert Rauchenberg: Among Friends.

You can read about it. You can (aka should) go see it if you are within a few hundred miles of New York City. There are great pictures and video clips on the MoMA site (linked above). I’m not going to describe the exhibit for you, or review it, or narrate what was in each room, elucidate each chapter in his artistic journey.

Rauschenberg’s work as stage set for dance.

Just want to say a few things. Like this: the exhibit is a window into a great and thrilling mind. Rauschenberg’s openness and his seemingly endless flow of ideas and “I’m going to try this now” moments, his humor, his relationships, his appreciation of fellow artists from composers like John Cage to choreographers like Merce Cunningham, and visual artists from Jasper Johns to Sue Weil to Cy Twombly. All of these things added to his inspiration. An angsty life of isolation, darkness, competitiveness, bitterness was not for him. He was an effluence of joyful creative pollination.

Rebus, 1955

His life and how he chose to live it, devoted to his art, to his ideas, to the ideas and art of others, inspired by the ideas and art of others—that was as much a thrill as seeing the art itself—both the majestically large pieces and the small pieces, all of it both conceptual and very real and glorious.

I mean he tried things. Nothing was “not worth” his exploration. He’d have an idea and bam. I have no idea how his “Erased De Kooning Drawing” was received critically. Who cares? He went to visit the great De Kooning himself and said, hey, I want to try this thing. I want to make a piece of art that is an erased drawing. How about one of yours? De Kooning was like, okay cool. Here is a piece I actually like a lot so have at it. Rauschenberg gave it a shot. He doesn’t seem to have started an entire phase of his art based on erasing drawings, but it was a thing he did. Jasper Johns came over and said, cool. Let’s frame it.

Canto II, the Descent (from Dante series 1958-60)

The drawings of all 33 cantos of Dante’s Inferno. I could have spent the entire day just on those. My God.

Charlene, 1954

His florid, red pieces—gorgeous assaults. I want to fill a house with them and then never leave it.

Automobile Tire Print, 1953

The tire tracks—John Cage’s Model A, one tire dipped in black paint, Rauschenberg’s 20 pieces of typewriter paper stapled together.

Hiccups (not as it was displayed at MoMA), 1978

Hiccups, the 97 zippered-together pieces of handmade paper, each an explosion of color and each a unique assemblage of transferred items run through a lithograph press.

Grapheion, 1988

His lithographs and silk screens. I mean those ALONE….

Gold Standard, 1964

His use of all media from toothpaste to old clothes to rusty nails to glue to film to silk to tossed out shipping boxes to canvas and paint and about a thousand other things.

His 9 Evenings combining an incredible mix of artists and audience-participation and lights and performance.

Monogram, late 1950s

His humor. The stuffed goat in the tire. Majestically itself. Having gone through several versions. I mean, how can you just have one version of a stuffed goat in a tire?

Bed, 1955

His incredible fabulous combines, (most of the pieces shown in this blog) a term he made up to make people stop asking him “WHAT IS THIS?”

Some of his pieces are statements, some of them just… something excellent to look at. Well, no, I take that back. They are all statements, aren’t they? Statements of an aesthetic and a consciousness and a will to create.

I love how being in the presence of a lifetime of art—his or any artist’s—Van Gogh, Renoir, Pollack, O’Keeffe, Kahlo, Rothko, Nevelson, whoever it is—invites you into the soul of that artist. I guess it’s like that with reading someone’s writing, seeing someone’s dance, hearing someone’s music. But the difference is that you can be inside a room with ten visual creations at once, in an exhibition with 500 pieces, maybe. You can’t simultaneously watch 500 ballets or read 500 poems or listen to 500 sonatas.

So this experience of visual art is like an immersion, a flood. You open yourself to it and you are filled with it. If you let yourself, you almost become that person for a moment. Or maybe for a lifetime, because you have so fully experienced that outflowing of another human, one so willing to commit her or his ideas to the plane of perceived reality (I’m being very careful here). For some that is a risk and for others, maybe for Rauschenberg, simply an imperative, like reproducing, or an instinct, like breathing.

As haters come out of the darkness, I will not let myself forget the light that is in us. Spend a day with art—every city has a place you can go, a gallery or museum with a room you can sit in and feel the flood of ideas and— beauty or not beauty—artistic spirit. Some say that is the very thing (not brutality, not hate, not rage or selfishness or the lust for power) that defines humanity.

Bathtub, 1973


  1. It is the weirdest thing. I read your words, and words come pouring out in response. It is disconcerting, and I have to fight the need to not be weird (okay, actually weird is usually good for me, but weirdo, no, I don’t want to be thought of as a weirdo) and to offer the words to you in spite of my need to not be a weirdo. Anyway, all weirdness aside, I loved this post, and I especially loved the stuffed goat in the tire because of course.

    Usually I like art that is (okay, I’m laughing now) weird. Not usual. Not beautiful. I mean I love beautiful art, who doesn’t? But I’m drawn to striking art. Visual drama. Also funny (yes, I truly loved the goat). Things that are not typically defined as beautiful. (I love the MoBA website…the Museum of Bad Art. To qualify, art must not be deliberately bad, it must be accidentally bad. Inspired by it, I started my own bad art collection, which I call my Uglies, and they are quite literally my favorite possessions. My kids universally hate the first piece, the Ugly Lady. LOL It makes me ridiculously happy to know that, and I’m known to hang it someplace they can’t avoid, like the hall bathroom. Believe me, the Uglies inspire more conversation than any other artwork I have ever owned.)

    So, naturally, my favorite part of your post was the erased De Kooning, which I immediately went searching for more information about. On the MoMA website I sat looking at the Erased De Kooning Drawing for an inordinate amount of time with the strangest feeling in my stomach. In further effort to understand (pin down, I have an inordinate need to pin things down…and pen things down, now that I think about it) what I was feeling, I read every word on the page. Bless them, their overview deftly walked me through what I was experiencing: they enhanced the remaining traces of the original, and it turned out that knowing what was erased changed nothing. It was the ERASURE that was the art. Their final paragraph diagnoses it clearly: “The sight of this approximation of de Kooning’s drawing ultimately does not transform our understanding of Rauschenberg’s finished artwork. The power of Erased de Kooning Drawing derives from the allure of the unseen and from the enigmatic nature of Rauschenberg’s decision to erase a de Kooning. Was it an act of homage, provocation, humor, patricide, destruction, or, as Rauschenberg once suggested, celebration? Erased de Kooning Drawing eludes easy answers, its mysterious beginnings leaving it open to a range of present and future interpretations.”

    To give you what I felt: Awe. Why? The audacity. The theft of our right to see it. Why did it feel like I had the right and why did I feel like it was stolen? Embarrassment at those feelings, and so there was shame a bit, and defensiveness because of it, as if I was being mocked by the artist…and seeing it in the enhancement…I said it changed nothing but that’s not accurate. I saw it, and it changed what I knew about it, and allowed the artwork (Erasure) to own the credit for the emotion it had engendered, separately from the artwork (De Kooning) that was consumed in the creation..like credits at the end of the movie. These were the things swirling in my gut. Art that makes me FEEL. That’s what gets me.

    In thanks, I want to share a couple of mixed-media sculptural artists I like. One for the visual drama in an unexpectedly gentle way (http://katemccgwire.com/), and the other for the ability to confound in an unexpectedly tiny way (http://www.thomasdoyle.net/). It’s taken me all day to post this because I couldn’t remember either artist’s name. It turns out I was introduced to both by Hand/Eye Magazine (http://handeyemagazine.com/), a favorite resource for finding new-to-me artists (and they include textiles, and I heart textiles) (read that = eye candy). Their mission statement makes me happy: HAND/EYE is the world’s only journal dedicated to global creativity. With the help of talented writers and photographers from around the world, we focus on the work of artists, artisans, designers, and other creatives, unfettered by traditional definitions of art, craft and design.

    I hope your Woden’s day was an easy down-the-hump ride and not a plodding up-the-hump hurdle. I don’t know about you, but I could use an easy end to the week. 🙂

    1. Laurelei, I did not want to rush to reply until I looked at the links you sent. I just had a chance to do that, and I love both artists and thank you SO MUCH for sending me to them. There is so much to look at and explore on both sites and I have not done justice yet, but will look again and again. HandEye is a tremendous resource too. A wealth. I am not surprised that art that speaks to you, also speaks to me. The serpentine figures I was looking at on Kate’s site, the use of feathers (what? Well YES!), these pieces literally created a visceral response in me. I still feel it–something, sitting in my belly….

      You seem to get where I was coming from with the Rauschenberg–his audacity (good word) and for me, his vitality and that never-complacent mind of his. I’m sure he had many ideas that he rejected. But the overall feel of his work is that he’d try anything. An idea was a mere step away from The Work. His humor and vision and sassiness just kill me.

      Happy Frige’s Day!

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