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The Island of the Misfit Toys: New York’s Avant-Garde Artists of the late 20th Century.

Part 1: Robert Rauschenberg

“Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” Gaston Bachelard

I had been working on a Refractions entry on the works of American contemporary artist Jasper Johns, when the news of Robert Rauschenberg passing away hit the news wires. Rauschenberg was Johns’ comrade in the frontlines of the avant-garde art world. Both artists are now considered seminal and central to twentieth century American art. Along with other notable figures such as John Cage (composer), Merce Cunningham (dancer/choreographer) and avant-garde painters such as Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, Rauschenberg redefined the landscape of contemporary art. The radical nature of their art challenged and shaped the new capital of art, continuing a century of dominance of American art, and of the New York art scene.

These artists left an indelible mark in my artistic vision during my undergraduate years, as I visited New York museums and galleries, having several notable “epiphany” experiences there (Gorky’s retrospective at Guggenheim Museum in the early 80’s being most potent). I wrestled with their art, often with the question of “what is art?” or even “is this art?” These questions continued during my stay in Tokyo as a National Scholar graduate student in the Nihonga department. As I learned the revered tradition of Japan, these artists, like characters in a theatre of the absurd, kept creeping into my consciousness, dancing in and out of the process of my works.

They were misfits, but the island of Manhattan did serve as a perfect backdrop to these artists’ existential dramas. Surely, there was to be a unique destiny for those willing to eek out a meager living in their illegal lofts, without having to sell a single painting for many years, receiving ridicule after ridicule if they were fortunate enough to have their works shown. These vanguard creators always lived in tension, both in their art and in life, often juxtaposing contradictions together in a patchwork. No simple or singular definition of their art, or their lives, would suffice: they were surprisingly varied in their personalities, political persuasions, and aesthetic dispositions, but found a common ground in their ambitions and in their brokenness. They were quite like the toys on the Island of the Misfit Toys: and in Rauschenberg’s world, Charley in the Box, the pink spotted elephant, and the red-nosed reindeer would all find a place in a single canvas.

In writing Rauschenberg’s New York Times obituary, Michael Kimmelman states that Rauschenberg’s work “helped obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art - not to mention between art and life…” He made art with an extraordinary sense of design, appropriating media imagery, inventing with any found materials he saw fit to use. Beds, broom sticks, stuffed birds and animals, quilts, bicycles, cardboard, newspaper…, it seemed there were no materials forbidden in his art. His greatest contribution, though, may not be in bringing ordinary objects into museums; instead, he brought Art into life’s ordinary objects. He, along with another seminal twentieth century figure, Joseph Beuys, desired to liberate art to the everyday person. His visual language of combining text, newspaper images, advertisements and objects, often in a contradictory manner, seemed eclectic and electric at the same time. He was never a profound artist: but every object was, to him, indeed profound. His art teaches us to consider every moment, every material as potential material for art. “You begin with the possibilities of the material,” he has stated, “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made of the real world.”

Calvin Tomkins’ book Off the Wall, one of the most interesting book on Rauschenberg’s art and his contemporaries, notes that Rauschenberg as a child, as with Cage, had desired to be a preacher;

“Our church was so strict that it was a full-time job for any Christians just to search for evils,” according to Rauschenberg. “Even so, I was going to be a preacher until I was about thirteen. I was really serious about it. Finally I decided I couldn’t spend the rest of my life thinking everyone else was going to hell, but I kept on going to church - I still went when I was in the Navy and for some time afterward. Giving that up was a major change in my life.” (Pg. 15, Off the Wall, Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, Calvin Tomkins, 1980 Penguin Books)

Indeed I find it remarkable that these avant-garde artists, while denying and often decrying the institution of Christianity, and living transgressive lifestyles, delved deeply into theosophy (Mondrian), Zen (Cage, Johns) and Jewish mysticism (Rothko, Kline), often blending these religious traditions, almost like Rauschenberg paintings. Mark Rothko equated the process of painting to a religious experience. Many of them, like Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns were brought up in Protestant church. Often these influences are treated as footnotes in the accounts of the art and life of these artists. But when you consider their artistic trajectories, especially in what they chose to work against, and how they saw their commitment to art as “religious,” then clearly their early development figures quite significantly.1 Barnett Newman, the high priest of the religion on avant-gardes explicitly stated, “instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”2 In discussion of contemporary art, such crucial details of counter-spirituality are often left out. In understanding culture and her spiritual journey, what the artists were wrestling against is just as noteworthy as what they embraced.

John Cage, in developing his compositions, or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, reducing things to non-compositions, worked squarely against the classical tradition. His 4’33”, 1952 work is performed without a single note being played. Why 4’33”? Artist David O’Connell, a colleague of both Cage and Rauschenberg, states: “He did a survey and came up with the average time spent getting comfortable in their seats coughing, opening gum and candy wrapper etc… Both he and Bob had the ability to turn the camera around and point it at the spectator.” The pianist, thus, simply sat in his chair, and the listeners were to hear the environmental sound as “music”. He boldly asserted that “Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been extensive as it has been lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music” (Tomkins, Pg. 70). Not only was he working against the classical tradition, he wrestled against the conservative, controlling environment of the church he grew up in. He saw art as a way to explore his spirituality, seeking answers in Zen Buddhism and incorporating elements of I Ching (ancient Chinese cosmology.)

Cage often spearheaded other avant-garde artists’ experiments, generating a new creative language of openness, freedom and transcendence. Though they did not intentionally intend to do so starting out, they created a new religion of the avant-garde, preaching their virtues eloquently, persuading countless numbers of artists to join in. The world they depicted anticipated the spiritual climate of post-modernity, and the multi-media culture to come. Avant-garde expressions and artifacts echo Hazel Mote’s “Church without Christ” in Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.” If to O’Connor the south was “Christ haunted,” then so was the avant-gardes scene in lower Manhattan. What is in the negative can be revelatory.

Negative spaces are just as important as positive shapes, so we learn in a drawing class. If a chair is to be drawn, a good instructor will help the student pay attention to the shapes in between the legs of the chairs, or the back rests, as much in the “positive shapes” of the chair itself. In the same way, these artists depicted the spiritual climate by negative shapes, but by doing so they effectively described the shape and influence of the churches they rejected. Their observations serve as an invaluable service for the church, as they gave shape to the spiritual vacuum that pervades our culture today. They are important precisely because they depict an honest spiritual wrestling within empty spaces.3 In that sense, art can always point to the profound, and, even in perverse disagreements, artists accurately reveal the spiritual vacuum. But, while they rejected the church, I contend that they did not throw out Jesus altogether. Many of these artists, Warhol, Beuys, Newman…perhaps, do I dare say, all of these artists would be interested in Jesus of Nazareth simply because of the extraordinary means through which Jesus communicated to the world. Jesus often confounded his disciples, using unconventional terminologies. Jesus spoke in negative shapes, too, upsetting the authorities. Jesus transgressed — but he transgressed in love. An artist is always interested in an Artist. For me, even to reflect on the work of a contemporary artist is to wrestle deeply with questions of faith. For me, the role of an artist and a follower of Christ in contemporary culture is to transgress in love, learning from Jesus.

In Rauschenberg’s key work Monogram, an installation/combine piece with a stuffed Angora goat placed upon a collaged canvas. This important work reveal an artist surveying images from all around him (literally) walking about in his South Street seaport blocks, and salvaging objects being thrown out, appropriating all influences, but especially and notably specific Christian iconography. There’s a clear overlap between Monogram and 19th century British artist Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat. Rauschenberg took Hunt’s image of the goat as Christ, and re appropriated it. Rauschenberg may have walked away from the church, but spirituality, and even the tenets of the gospel, were never far from his creative core. Art to Rauschenberg was like a truth serum, and all of what he saw, experienced, and even rejected, was blurted out on canvas. Undeniably, he wrestled with the reality of Christ throughout his career. But the way Rauschenberg wrestled was unlike the way of a traditional artist such as Holman Hunt. No, Rauschenberg’s process of creativity worked like a powerfully intuitive search engine that explored the deep recesses of cultural realities. A traditional artist like Hunt focused on communicating already accepted spirituality. Rauschenberg probed deeper. And in doing so Rauschenberg’s vast speculative purveyance actually anticipated how we are to experience the world in the years to come.

Consider this: if my thoughts were to be projected onto a screen, even in the process of writing this, I am sure it would look a bit like a Rauschenberg painting. Part of this essay was completed while riding a transatlantic airplane 892 kilometers per hour, at 34,000 feet, assimilating various thoughts; I watched a Japanese movie (Yama san, a “salary-man” goes fishing, and ends up fighting against the company he works for. The company wanted to destroy the beautiful coastal town known for fishing with their real estate venture), I pondered the shapes of the terrains of Alaskan territories on a video map in front of me (thinking of Andy Goldsworthy’s terrain drawings in the documentary Rivers and Tides), while listening to Alison Krauss on my iPod… these thoughts, and other random thoughts, are like elements of a collage, interdependent, but often competing. Our lives are “combines” being simultaneously worked on.

Of course, such thinking could become a self-fulfilling prophesy of an artistic kind. It could be that I see the world through Rauschenberg’s eyes because I am trained to see the world through an artist’s lens. But even so, to be given such an inclination is the mark and influence of a significant artist, one who facilitates the viewers’ imaginative journeys. As Time magazine critic Robert Hughes has noted in Shock of the New, we will never see a cypress tree in the same way after seeing a van Gogh painting. Likewise, we may never see a worn out quilt, or the collage of competing neon signs called Times Square, in the same way after Rauschenberg.

In 1951, it was John Cage who became Rauschenberg’s first collector (Tomkins, pg. 65). Although Cage could not pay the price being asked which was less than $100 then, he convinced dealer Betty Parsons to allow him to take a pink work home. But one day, Rauschenberg snuck into Cage’s loft, and repainted it completely in black with enamel.

That painting would be worth tens of millions of dollars today. A Rauschenberg just recently sold for $14.6 million. Of course, the fact that their works now sell in the upper echelons of an auction market (often without the artists getting a single penny from the auction transaction) made these avant-garde artists newsworthy for the first time. But our interest here goes beyond the auction prices, to Rauschenberg’s true cultural value as a pioneer. We must not forget that Rauschenberg was the first living contemporary American artist to be recognized and honored overseas. Others like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko who died too early to allow for such a retrospective. Rauschenberg’s notoriety, after winning the coveted Venice Biennial in 1964, extended far beyond the reach of any other American artist. I remember the exhibit at Setagaya Museum in Japan in 1986, when he exhibited, among other pieces, the biggest print ever made (it was still in progress). His prodigious output took over the vast halls of the museum, and in Japan where small and compact things are the norm, Rauschenberg’s works seemed delightfully outlandish and raw. By going to a Rauschenberg exhibit, the viewers were baptized into contemporary American art. By the time the viewers walked out of a Rauschenberg exhibit, the fresh “melting pot” called America had become a delectable collage, so democratically arranged, blatantly and confidently imprinted in their visual memory.

True artists swim upstream of culture, and their work will eventually affect the entire river. What seemed once peripheral, inconsequential gestures, their experiments and thoughts, now takes up center stage of a global popular culture. What was upstream a decade ago is now downstream. The jarring array of competing, but uniform patterns of the YouTube culture, ambitious collage of time events over vast geography in movies like Babel, the blurring of high and low art in Takashi Murakami’s orgiastic world at his recent Brooklyn Museum exhibit, all can be traced to Rauschenberg’s canvas (although, one can rightly argue that Warhol was ahead of both.) Takashi was my classmate in Nihonga department, so he must have seen the Rauschenberg exhibit of 1986. Our thoughts, our media and our conversations in general are filled with such Rauschenbergian incidental gestures, thinly spread smears of competing stimuli. Our lives, and perhaps even our identities, are collaged tapestry, sometimes neatly arranged, sometimes warring against another. What is now a ubiquitous hodgepodge of post-modern montage was not only anticipated in Rauschenberg’s images, but they serve to warn us as an emblem of our overloaded, scattered lives. What Rauschenberg was appropriating was not just newspaper images, but actual experiences of our time: he froze the movements of contemporary moments that bombard us everyday, and he thereby mediated our fragmented realities. In that, he was exceedingly successful, often masterful. He breathed life into transient images, giving them reprieve from our disposable culture, literally rescuing our cultural memories from the dumpster. “Materials are never wrong,” Rauschenberg said. “It’s only me that can be wrong.” (Off the Wall, pg. 213)

His materials may not be wrong, but they are not permanent. When I saw his last exhibit of his assemblages, including the famed “Bed” paintings, at the Metropolitan Museum, I noticed that the colors of these assemblages have already become pale, losing the zest and impact that I remember them to have when I saw them as a teenager. People passed by in a whisper in the hallowed halls, and Rauschenberg, according to a friend who went to pay homage to him at the opening, wept the whole time. He knew that the end was near for him. I wonder if the backdrop of the decaying assemblages spoke back to the creator of them, even more than the visitors’ well wishes. Whether Rauschenberg’s assemblages can be preserved remains to be seen. What we know for sure, though, is that contemporary art will not be the same again.

Rauschenberg’s process-focused art refracts time, trapped in materials, in a generous spatial display. Did he generate more than that? We are not sure, yet. Kimmelman is right that Rauschenberg obscured the boundaries between genres of the arts: but it is also true that Rauschenberg obscured the notion of time itself. While his combines are decaying with time, his prints, including the largest print ever pulled, will outlast any of us, trapping time and sequence of historical events. Unlike other artists, he remained remarkably consistent in the signature style he developed, without the works becoming too staid and repetitive. The question that we must ask is whether he captured something deeper in the blurred lines of time and space.

The purpose of art is to mediate and steward Time. Artists do this via space and matter, being poets of materials. Writers can do this through words, dancers via movements of their bodies, architects via creation of space. Their work is to make Time freeze, and even “create” Time. When a gifted artist does this, the art creates, or taps into, Time-fulness. If the purpose of art is to mediate and steward Time, did Robert Rauschenberg not only capture time, but generate Time-fulness? That is the ultimate question he, or any artist, has to answer. Such deep quests need to be considered, and in order to do so, we must, for our next Refractions, turn our attention to his fellow journeyman, Jasper Johns, one of the few living artists from the heyday of the avant-garde movement of twentieth century. Johns delves into these deep philosophical, and metaphysical, questions. For if Rauschenberg danced with Time over his paintings in a blur, Johns imbeds Time right into his paintings.

Late in his life, Rauschenberg, influenced by the art and culture of India, stated; “everything is relative, that everything is acceptable, and that you don’t have to be afraid of beauty, either.” Of course, critics sneered, for the notion of beauty was taboo in late twentieth century art. When I began to show in SoHo in the 90’s, it was still unfashionable to speak of beauty, or use beautiful materials of Nihonga. Perhaps the resurgence of material and beauty in the art world that we are experiencing today began with Rauschenberg’s generous art. Quintessentially American, original and prolific, Rauschenberg’s images do lead us, like a strange red nosed reindeer, right into the thick fogs of our post-modern night. His images, even in decay, would resonate to those who look for signs of good fortune from a strangely, but beautifully, collaged sky.

The author acknowledges and thanks artist David O’Connell, who knew “Bob,” for invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.

Next Refractions: Part II Jasper Johns and “Life After Life After Death.”

  1. “The development of abstract painting in the early 20th century was a religious as well as an aesthetic movement.” (What Good are the Arts, pg 137, John Carey, Faber and Faber UK, 2005)
  2. Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, Knopf, New York, 1990, Pg. 173
  3. My wife, a psychotherapist, tells me that there is “negative space” in relationships as well. Children, for example, growing up in consistent parenting grows the ability to take the failures of a parent as “negative space” and infer, or learn, to take positive message out of a parent’s failure. See under “Judy cares about my parents.”