Back To The Future

Rauschenberg's golden oldies at the Whitney inspire his new work in Florida

On the one hand, Robert Rauschenberg never seems to hurry when he's home on Captiva Island--a densely populated winter hideaway for CEOs and celebrities off the southwest Florida coast. He smiles easily, speaks in a flannelly Texas drawl only partially blunted by his 40 years in the New York and international art worlds. He talks of looking forward to "the good old useless days." On the other hand, Rauschenberg's looks--thick wavy hair, slightly flattened features acknowledging his quarter-Cherokee heritage and clear hazel eyes--belie a man of 65. His spacious house and studio on 37 acres churn with enough artistic production to occupy a staff of six (artist-assistants, administrators and a janitor). And the office for ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, or "Rocky," a kind of rolling-thunder tour of his art), at the University of South Florida in Tampa, employs a few more. If Rauschenberg is indeed the American Picasso, as some people think, he's got at least another 20 years of gritty urban imagery still in him.

Like Picasso, Rauschenberg is an artist who, in the process of wandering all over the place, actually operates in compartmentalized periods of intense improvisation and invention. "If something is an idea before it's a work, if I can avoid it, I do," he says. "The piece that you're working on--whether it's sculpture, dance, anything--is the idea." His painting-plus-found-object "Combines" of 1955-62 established him as an important artist and, in the bargain, managed to link the unlinkable: abstract expressionism and pop art. In 1958 he began flirting with (or inventing, depending on the source) "transfer drawing," in which newspaper photographs are doused with solvent to loosen the ink, and then rubbed off in reverse onto paper. But the most fruitful--and perhaps the best--Rauschenberg period was 1962-64, when he produced the silk-screen paintings that are the subject of one of the better recent exhibitions at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art (through March 17).

In silk screen, the image is created by squeegeeing gelatinous ink through a piece of silk stretched tautly across a frame onto whatever material is underneath. Normally the purpose is a matched set of posters, prints or T shirts. Rauschenberg's aim was to get his collage sensibility (the most compelling since dada's Kurt Schmitters) directly onto canvas and into painting. The net effect in the 37 mostly large paintings in the Whitney show (roughly half the series) is an oddly benevolent roller-coaster ride through JFK-vintage America: astronauts, helicopters, skylines, Roger Maris and the late president himself. Although the iconography--pollinated with visual quotes from Rubens and Velazquez and allusions to Duchamp and Muybridge--will keep art-history doctoral candidates busy for generations, the real merit of the silk-screen paintings is simply that they're so good looking. In fact, they're such yummy examples of graphic design raised to fever pitch and heroic scale that it's hard to imagine that there was ever a question of any reasonably sophisticated viewer not liking them. Which shows either how far we've come or--could it be?--how deceptively elegant Rauschenberg has always been.

He was born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, the same cracking-plant metropolis that gave us Janis Joplin. At 18, the draft provided a way out. After the war (during which Rauschenberg worked in a Navy hospital), a friend convinced him he had drawing talent and directed him to Kansas City to study art. He paused in the K.C. bus terminal just long enough to decide on "Robert" as a new name for a new life and was soon gone to Paris. From Paris, Rauschenberg repaired to the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he became, as he puts it, the pet "intimidee" of the lab-coated, authoritarian, geometric abstractionist, Josef Albers. "I was sort of lucky," he remembers, "because I was so totally unable to do what Albers expected of me." Inevitably, Rauschenberg migrated north, to the hurly-burly art scene of New York.

There he hooked up with another young iconoclast, the painter Jasper Johns, and they in turn found mentors and senior soul mates in composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham. While Johns has played it esthetically closer to the vest in the decades since (sticking mostly to paintings, prints and tabletop sculpture), Rauschenberg has, as they say, done it all: sound sculptures tuned to radio broadcasts, performance pieces with parachutes and turtles, a painting aiming to be a quarter-mile long and the world's biggest, and collaborations with local artisans in Mexico, India, Russia and China.

After he somewhat scandalously won the grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg phoned a friend in New York, asking him to destroy the screens so that he could avoid his professed worst nightmare, repeating himself (Rauschenberg was careful, however, to print a set of the images on paper, from which he made a few postscript pieces, such as "New York Bird Calls for Oyvind Fahlstrom," in 1965.) But the silk-screen paintings remain at the core of Rauschenberg's work. He's never given up the medium entirely and, in the last several years, has resuscitated it on metal. The north and east walls of the single-room second floor of his Captiva house are covered with big works from the ghostly "Borealis" series, which hasn't been shown yet. The exploited images are typical Rauschenberg favorites: oil cans, Charleston porch railings and rocket boosters, with the added exoticism of Eastern religious figures. The stunning, coppery pieces combine silkscreen and chemical dyeing; the result is eerie, oil-sticky colors that change in the light from rose to gold, from electric blue to gasoline sheen.

In 1961, Rauschenberg said, "There is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting." He certainly does, and for a long time he's been pilfering bits of it to stick into his own paintings, which are (compared to the world, at least) really tiny little collages. These he puts back into the painting-that-is-the-world and starts all over again. His champions hail him for this as a founding father of mix 'n' match postmodernism. And in small amounts, or in carefully cordoned-off sections as with the Whitney show, Rauschenberg is always refreshing, sometimes even breathtaking. But his great flaws as an artist lie right up against his virtues. He's so facile and sensitive, especially in composition, that every collision of images looks deft and "right" in the same way. And he's so passionately egalitarian about pictures that one particular combination of them doesn't seem to mean something especially different from another. His working method is a little like salsa: pour enough of it over anything and you've got fill-in-the-blank ranchero.

But Rauschenberg is still the most jovially muscular American artist out there. Compared to him, the younger generation of "media artists" looks doctrinaire and prissy, and the latest brushy painters cramped and academic. Contrary to almost all of them, Rauschenberg still looks like he's having a good time with art. And he's not afraid, as one critic erroneously reported, of "being written off " because "I never wanted to be on." Perhaps when ROCI takes its hard-earned rest and the "Borealis" series goes public, Rauschenberg will be revealed to be once again at the top of his form. In the meantime, the silk-screen paintings at the Whitney remind us of just how good that can be.