Thinking about Robert Rauschenberg

Hey, I just had to write this…

I had the good fortune to briefly meet Robert Rauschenberg twice. The first time was in 1979 when I was a 30 year old art critic for Willamette Week newspaper in Portland and he was having an exhibition at Portland Center for the Visual Arts. I was there before the opening to interview him and he graciously answered my questions while he signed exhibition posters. As I recall, I don’t remember much of the actual interview (although I do have the tape somewhere and there is the published version), but I do remember something he said to me during the opening reception in response to something else that I asked: “My work is an invitation to look…out the window.”

So that’s stuck with me for 33 years, and of course if one is familiar with Rauschenberg’s work and all of the writing about him, that statement is not at all surprising. His work and his attitude can teach us about how to enjoy the world that we actually inhabit. Here’s something else he said that I like:

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.

And reading about Rauschenberg leads you to the attitudes of his friend and sometime collaborator John Cage:

Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look. 

But a long time ago—a bit over 1800 years ago—Marcus Aurelius anticipated this kind of pleasure in the mundane:

This also thou must observe, that whatsoever it is that naturally doth happen to things natural, hath somewhat in itself that is pleasing and delightful: as a great loaf when it is baked, some parts of it cleave as it were, and part asunder, and make the crust of it rugged and unequal, and yet those parts of it, though in some sort it be against the art and intention of baking itself, that they are thus cleft and parted, which should have been and were first made all even and uniform, they become it well nevertheless, and have a certain peculiar property, to stir the appetite.

 So figs are accounted fairest and ripest then, when they begin to shrink, and wither as it were. So ripe olives, when they are next to putrefaction, then are they in their proper beauty. The hanging down of grapes—the brow of a lion, the froth of a foaming wild boar, and many other like things, though by themselves considered, they are far from any beauty, yet because they happen naturally, they both are comely, and delightful; so that if a man shall with a profound mind and apprehension, consider all things in the world, even among all those things which are but mere accessories and natural appendices as it were, there will scarce appear anything unto him, wherein he will not find matter of pleasure and delight.

 So will he behold with as much pleasure the true rictus of wild beasts, as those which by skillful painters and other artificers are imitated.

 So will he be able to perceive the proper ripeness and beauty of old age, whether in man or woman: and whatsoever else it is that is beautiful and alluring in whatsoever is, with chaste and continent eyes he will soon find out and discern.

 Those and many other things will he discern, not credible unto every one, but unto them only who are truly and familiarly acquainted, both with nature itself, and all natural things.

[From The Project Gutenberg Etext of Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, my paragraphing]

I enjoy the great philosophers like Rauschenberg, Cage and Marcus Aurelius.


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