Even THE MET screws up

Last January I posted

VANDALISM at The Portland Art Museum

about how the careless installation of a Robert Irwin work at PAM effectively destroyed the work and lied about its meaning.

Last week I was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and saw this installation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool, 1959:

RR Winter Pool

Note the goofy extension of the baseboard/floor—a plinth. I cannot find any rationale for this plinth other than the idea that because this is a “painting” it needs to be hung at a similar height to other “paintings” on the wall. And then the ladder needs something to sit on.

But there is a difference between a ladder extending to the floor and a ladder being supported by a plinth. And The Met knows it is supposed to be a floor. From their own website:

The work, in exceptionally fresh condition, consists of two separate canvases, each about the height of a man. A wooden ladder bridges the gap between them, and its legs extend to the floor, inviting the viewer to climb into the picture.

You might be “invited to climb” from your place on the floor, but less likely from a reserved space on a plinth. BTW, here’s The Met’s own pic of the work from their website:



You can see that someone there thinks it is correct to have it be on the floor.

This isn’t as bad as the PAM/Irwin fiasco, but it does distort the meaning of the work. It’s just dumb.


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: http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/rauschenbergs-bed.html

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.

Robert Rauschenberg – A Video, some thoughts

I came upon this very short video of Robert Rauschenberg speaking about some of his very early work  through a link on the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Facebook page:


I was particularly struck by this line:

This particular group of works were somehow sort of the the icons of eccentricities and exceptional in the sense that they didn’t fit into the art world at that time.

I did them to see how far  you could push an object and yet it still mean something. 

Of course Rauschenberg was influenced by his friend John Cage who said…

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.

There is, of course, a difference between “meaning” and “beauty,” but I believe there is a connection in attitude between these quotes. For Cage the thing under consideration can be beautiful through the attitude of the viewer. Rauschenberg is talking about daring to present something perhaps “eccentric and exceptional” to test the possibility that there is not only “beauty” for those with the right attitude, but also “meaning.” Finding pleasure in the viewing is an experience of  “beauty,” while sparking thought (which might or might not include the verbal) or a “gut level” reaction (thats a kind of thought, too), has meaning.

While at the Residency looking through the dozens of books, I was struck again by Rauschenberg’s Cardboards series from the early 70s.


Small Turtle Bowl (Cardboard), 1971, 94 1/2 x 145 in.

This series is essentially constructed from found cardboard boxes. I probably became aware of them right around the time I left college (1972). Must have seen Small Turtle Bowl when I went to San Francisco in 1977 to see the Rauschenberg retrospective, but I don’t remember it.

What strikes me now is the difference between the artist who made work in his early twenties to,”see how far  you could push an object and yet it still mean something,” and the artist in his mid-forties who chose to select some of the most modest remnants of our culture to present, with seemingly little modification (well, a lot of extra staples on the left side above), in the context of art. In these I detect  a sureness of knowing that these works would succeed with meaning. (However, they seem to have had less success with gallery sales according to Mary Lynn Kotz in her excellent biography of Rauschenberg.)

In design there is the concept of using poor materials richly or rich materials poorly. In the early 50s Rauschenberg had made paintings with gold leaf and with dirt, testing the possible “art” difference between the rich and poor materials—is there more meaning in gold than in dirt?. (BTW, you know, expensive oil paint is just “dirt” and oil.)

In the cardboard works Rauschenberg takes poor materials and assembles them to have dignity. Sure, he used a lot of used materials before and after, but with a lot of those remnants there is the possibility of feeling that the material previously had an important use—the bicycle had been ridden, the bed had been slept in, the crumpled metal came from some once really useful object, the goat once walked the earth. But these boxes were just the things the important stuff came in.

Again Rauschenberg asked the viewer to take notice of the real world.

Somewhat of a digression, but related:

There is a great art documentary titled Painters Painting (1972) by Emile de Antonio (highly recommended, DVD available on Amazon for $18.93, book transcript [edited] also available). In this film Jasper Johns tells the following story about his sculpture Painted Bronze, 1960:

I heard that Bill de Kooning had said about Leo [Castelli], with whom he was annoyed over something, “That son of a bitch, you can give him two beer cans, and he could sell them.” 

At that time I had made a couple of sculptures. I’d made one or two of a flashlight and one or two of a lightbulb. They were small objects, sort of ordinary objects. When I heard the story I thought, “What a fantastic sculpture for me. I mean, really, it’s just absolutely perfect.”

So I made the work. It fit in perfectly with what I was doing. I did it, and Leo sold it. [Johns laughs uproariously.]


These are common objects reproduced, not actual cans. Made of more precious metal than the original cans. Bronze signifies “art.”

Rauschenberg’s use of cardboard reminds me of the Japanese concepts of wabi and sabi. According to our friend Wikipedia:

Wabi-sabi (?) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

And as Daisetz. T. Suzuki says in Zen and Japanese Culture, “Wabi really means ‘poverty,’ or, negatively, ‘not to be in the fashionable society of the time’.”  Suzuki also points out that, “This has been one of the tricks of Japanese artists—to embody beauty in a form of imperfection or even of ugliness.”  The beauty of imperfection, or the beauty of ugliness. Or as Cage says above, there is no reason that anything is not beautiful.

So, Rauschenberg’s rescue (reuse, recycling) of these poor, far from perfect, cardboards might be considered as a demonstration of the idea that anything, well presented (and that is important!), can be meaningful, and beautiful.

And these pieces of cardboard were pushed further in multiples such as  Cardbird door, 1971:



Where the original cardboard pieces are reproduced in cardboard . And they are reproduced in clay:



Tampa Clay Piece #4, 1972, electric fired stoneware

Clay is the most modest of all classic sculpture materials. I enjoy this thinking which must be something like,”What can we make with all the technical resources of contemporary clay sculpture? I know, how about an old crushed cardboard box???!”

I feel that Rauschenberg had gotten to a point where he knew that very little needed to be done with a material, an object, a subject, in order for it to have some meaning. How much meaning? I’m thinking that that could be a point (not necessarily Rauschenberg’s conscious point, but a point that I’m feeling)—maybe a little bit of meaning, a teaser of meaning, is enough meaning to get us to connect—with the artwork, with the world, with a random cardboard box sitting on the floor once in a while. The Cardboards/Cardbirds/Clay pieces, even when they are large, might just be etudes, not symphonies.


PS: In transformation from one material to another I saw this piece (or one similar, evidently there are variations) over 30 years ago and in terms of modest subject to rich materials this takes the cake:



Portrait of Toilet Paper, by Jud Nelson, carrara statuario marble



What about Marcel Duchamp? I don’t find Duchamp relevant to Rauschenberg’s work in general. Certainly Rauschenberg knew Duchamp. But there is a difference in attitude between Duchamp and Cage. Cage said,”Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Duchamp’s attitude was more of  “it’s art if I say so.” Rauschenberg wasn’t trying to see if cardboard could be art, but rather how to make art with cardboard.



This kinda relates to the quote in the beginning, but it is 25 years earlier. In Painters Painting Rauschenberg says:

I was the “charlatan” of the art world. Then, when I had enough work amassed, I became a “satirist”—a tricky word—of the art world, then “fine artist, but who could live with it?” And now, “We like your old things better.”



After returning to Portland from a wonderful four weeks in Captiva at the Rauschenberg Residency I keep being reminded of Robert Rauschenberg.

I received Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for Christmas. I just finished reading it. Near the end there is this anecdote in which Jobs recalls a visit to a Turkish Bath in Istanbul:

I had a real revelation. We were all in robes, and they made some Turkish coffee for us. The professor explained how the coffee was made very different from everywhere else, and I realized, “So fucking what?” Which kids even in Turkey give a shit about Turkish coffee? All day I had looked at young people in Istanbul. They were all drinking what every other kid in the world drinks, and they were wearing clothes that looked like they were bought at the Gap, and they were all using cell phones. They were like kids everywhere else. When we’re making products, there is no such thing as a Turkish phone, or a music player that young people in Turkey would want that’s different from one young people elsewhere would want. We’re just one world now.

That reminded me of a quote from Robert Rauschenberg that I marked in my copy of Robert Rauschenberg: Travelling 70-76 (Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves):

We’re going to end up with a generic world. Where everybody is going to be exactly the same…Even Africa is becoming like that…seeing everything leveled down to the same attitude is going to be most depressing. I look forward to the differences. I need them, I respect them. So, if everything levels out it will be boring. I don’t know what I’ll do for a living. 

They both perceived similar things, but Rauschenberg notes how, as an artist, he needs the richness of variety in the world while Jobs’s attitude seemed one of acceptance, a recognition that says to Jobs-the-designer that products need to be designed so that anyone, in any culture, can utilize them intuitively. Probably they are both right.

Perhaps it is a function of art to fight against the less attractive aspects of prevailing culture.

At another point in Isaacson’s book he quotes Bono:

The job of art is to chase ugliness away.

In being driven through Ft. Myers, Florida, I was reminded of the blandness of most of our corporate culture when I realized that a big box store mall I was passing through could be in Oregon instead of Florida if you just switched the palms for evergreens.

If you read my earlier posts you may recall that as I was taking breaks from studio work I was reading Anthony Everett’s biography of Hadrian (which I have just now returned to). Among other things, that  Roman emperor is credited with building the Pantheon in Rome.

Pantheon 2009

It is my favorite building in the world.

On visiting in 2009 I was disappointed to find that directly across the piazza in front of the Pantheon  (right behind me as I took the picture) is a McDonald’s.