Khan Academy on Rauschenberg’s Bed – Wrong

Khan Academy is a place where you can “Learn almost anything for free.” In the case of their presentation on Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, 1955, you get what you pay for.

RR Bed

Here’s a link to the short video:

Dr. Beth Harris and  Dr. Steven Zucker discuss the work for just under five minutes. I have to say that their presentation demonstrates little actual critical thinking or research about the artwork.

They begin by referring to the work as a “combine” as if that is a standard art historical category. They do not mention that Rauschenberg invented the term (not the word itself, but the art term) “combine” specifically to describe this kind of combination of painting/sculpture that he was making.

Then, Zucker says, “Johns and Rauschenberg were actually thinking about their art as between art and life and what is that narrow space between the two.”

Well…Rauschenberg said,  “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” He didn’t say there was some kind of “narrow space.”

And Jasper Johns never said anything like that. Sure, “Johns and Rauschenberg” were the enfants terribles or dynamic duo of the late 1950s, but the viewpoint/outlook/meaning in their work is very different. It seems that Zucker isn’t familiar enough with the work of Johns and Rauschenberg to notice the gap between the two.

Then they have the revelation that the “bed,” in its real life, was once horizontal, and as an artwork it is presented vertically! Well, Jackson Pollock painted with his canvas laid  horizontally on the floor—and then his paintings were presented vertically. Must be some kind of relationship there! And there are paint drips! (Pollock was Jack the Dripper!)  Zucker goes so far as to say, “And this [the Pollock connection] is a reference that Rauschenberg wanted you to come to. This artist wanted you to be thinking about Pollock and this is really a confrontation with Pollock.”

Where the hell did he get that idea???

I’ve never seen such a statement from Rauschenberg in any literature.

If you want to connect Rauschenberg with Abstract Expressionism that is fine (and Barbara Rose has done a good job with that). But if you want to pick an AE artist to connect with Rauschenberg, make it Willem de Kooning! After all, it was de Kooning who gave Rauschenberg the drawing that he erased (Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). And, more importantly, for anyone who actually looks and thinks—Pollock’s drips land on the floor and solidify there. De Kooning’s drips ooze down from the brushstroke that sweeps across the canvas when it is oriented vertically. And in Bed, Rauschenberg’s brushstrokes have obviously been applied when the “bed” was vertical! And the drips drip down.

Zucker’s comment relating Rauschenberg to Pollock would make the uninformed viewer of the video (and that, I think, is the intended viewer as these videos seem to be intended to be elementary/introductory) think that Bed is a singular work in Rauschenberg’s career in which he decided to utilize the AE “style” in order to comment on it, instead of understanding Bed as part of a continuum from the Black and  Red paintings of 1951-53 through Charlene,1954, and Rebus, 1955, to the wonderful Monogram, 1955-59 (the stuffed angora goat with a tire around its midsection). Other than the fact that Bed is made from quilt/sheet/pillow, how is this different from Rauschenberg’s approach to his other work of the period? (It isn’t.)



Zucker finds that Rauschenberg, in utilizing what Zucker thinks is an act of copying the AE style, is “self-consciously imitating the idea of the authentic.” Harris responds, “By virtue of copying what is supposed to be someone else’s individual style.” Seems to me that Zucker  and Harris are looking through some strangely distorted art theory post-modernist lenses here, so that they don’t understand Rauschenberg as a painter who actually enjoys the materials he uses as much  as any other painter of the time. The paint in Rauschenberg’s work is applied with Rauschenberg’s actual style, not an “imitation” of a generic style. Or maybe Z&H think that anyone who lets paint drip after de Kooning and Pollock is inauthentic.

If they actually wanted to discuss what seems to be Rauschenberg “comment” on AE spontaneity, they should have utilized Factum I and Factum II from 1957


Which seems to be a comment on original/copy, similar/different, same/not same, etc.

And finally (not that there isn’t more that could be argued with in the video)…

Zucker says, “That’s why Johns and Rauschenberg are sometimes referred to as neo-Dadaists because they’ve picked up the mantle, the flag, of people like Duchamp…”

In her fine bio of Rauschenberg, Mary Lynn Kotz says, “He and Johns were called neo-Dadaists by a number of critics. He always resented the label.”

Anyone but careless speakers would have noted that.


*A really great discussion of Rauschenberg’s work is Encounters with Rauschenberg by Leo Steinberg, unfortunately out of print, but available used at a reasonable price.


2 thoughts on “Khan Academy on Rauschenberg’s Bed – Wrong

  1. Pingback: Talking to Fish: From Packaging to Scaffolding (The Higher Ed Edition) | PrattleNog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s