New York Journal 1.
A blast of fun Monday night. Met up with Filmbrain and Aaron for dinner at a French place in their Brooklyn neighborhood. I was curious about how our easy on-line social dynamics would translate to (gasp) actual face-to-face meeting, but the moment I shook hands, the question evaporated from my mind. We fell in like a band of thieves, and moved our non-stop movie-talk to a late-night watering hole before walking back through the empty stillness of Brooklyn several hours later.
Tuesday morning, I showed up in Greenwich Village to rendezvous with yet another highly companionable cinema savant, Zach. People milled about; we had to call and describe ourselves and specify our exact locations; we spotted each other and made contact. Then to Thiru’s, a South Indian food stand that Zach has raved about on his blog and mine. I can see why. The masala dosa was among the yummiest I’ve ever had. Our chat was great fun but too brief since Zach was on his lunch hour. We’ll be trying for a more leisurely meeting later in the week over a movie and a drink.
From there, uptown to the Met to catch the Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. I’ve been intrigued by him since I read Calvin Tomkins’ The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters Of The Avant-Garde, the first art book in which I remember underlining and scribbling all over. (It’s both highly accessible and rich with ideas—also a great book to gift, I’ve discovered.)
In the 1950’s, Rauschenberg invented the idea of the “combine”, a combination of painting, sculpture and collage. What a great big difference it is to only look at art in books, and to stand a foot away from it. Take for example “Monogram”(1959), which is made up of a horizontal flat board, collaged and painted, with a stuffed angora goat sitting on it, a tire around its middle. Or “Bed” (1955), which consists simply of Rauschenberg’s unmade bed, mounted standing up on the wall—pillows, sheets and comforter—and half-caked with paint.
These works were made fifty years ago, and have passed into textbooks. But what on earth does this art possibly mean? I’m not exactly sure, but to me it starts to acquire meaning when we see it for its place in the flow of art history. The 50’s were the decade of the abstract expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning who rejected the “recognizable world” and made art that was about itself. They were in part reacting to the old Renaissance view of art as a “window” on to a world: we could peer into that world (which was not exactly the same as our world—it was more “ideal” than ours) and recognize objects and shapes and things from our world in it. In Pollock’s paintings, you don’t recognize anything from our “real world” except paint and canvas.
But Rauschenberg rejected these exclusively formalistic notions of the abstract expressionists, and reintroduced the real, recognizable world into art. But this world wasn’t meant to be idealized in the Renaissance manner—it was meant to be ordinary (a bed), though not documentary (a goat with a tire around its middle?). Take away this “narrative context” provided by art history and his art—a lot of art, not just his—might look just plain bizarre.
A few more thoughts:
Rauschenberg didn’t invent the collage (Picasso did, in 1912) but by fusing it with painting and sculpture, he erased boundaries between media, which was prophetic—think of the explosion in multi-media art in the last fifty years.
In prints and in textbooks, his art appears random and haphazard. Up close, it’s anything but. I realized for the first time that he uses grids, though they’re disordered—they float, slide, hang askew. Check out “Bed” above: the top half is chaotic, the bottom half is quite ordered and grid-like.
So many of his works are human-sized and vertical, which means we see them almost as if they were mirrors, reflecting in human scale. Perhaps they invite the viewer to step into them, rather than just peer into them like we would through a window (a Renaissance window into another, more refined world)?
I noticed that the curator’s notes on “Monogram” allegorized the goat to be a satyr, a phallic symbol. But frankly, Rauschenberg himself might be a little horrified at the easy literal-ness of that interpretation. He intended his work to not have symbolic value. (If something symbolic caught his eye while he was painting, he took it out.)
There are odd and surreal juxtapositions in his work but they never feel like variables in a calculus of cause and effect. The objects in his art have been put there simply because they are from the real world, and of it. “I don’t want to change the world,” he once said about his art, [italics mine] “I just want to live in it.”