The Wonder Years

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg was already 27. He'd dropped out of pharmacy school in Texas, worked in a navy psychiatric hospital in California during the war, married, fathered a son and been divorced. He was living in a cold, cavernous New York loft near the Fulton Street fish market. But the face that looked into the camera in a contemporary photo was as impudent and peach-fuzzy as that of a high-school cub reporter, working on the big story that exposed substandard food in the cafeteria.

Ellsworth Kelly, staring pensively off to his left in 1949, seemed a little more mature, perhaps a small-college quarterback about to board the bus for a road game. But he was 26, a veteran of both rigorous training in figurative art at the Boston Museum School and camouflage-making in the army. When the photo was snapped, he was living the Left Bank life in Paris on the GI Bill. At these two parallel moments, Rauschenberg and Kelly were young but hardly naive. Struggling to balance sensitivity and bravado, they were dying to be the guys who took modern art the next crucial step forward from (for Kelly) Mondrian and (for Rauschenberg) Willem de Kooning.

Works of art made by young men like Rauschenberg and Kelly are often more interesting than they are good, more memorable for what they say about ambition than about esthetics. Rauschenberg's experiments with photography, assemblage and painting in "Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s" (at the Guggenheim Museum's Soho branch in New York until Jan. 24) are no exceptions. Neither are the more studied pictures in "Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-54" (also until Jan. 24 at Washington, D.C.'s, National Gallery of Art). But Rauschenberg's and Kelly's early work is very interesting. It tells us volumes about the subsequent course of American art. Moreover, Rauschenberg's audacity and Kelly's insightfulness come across as the fuel for breakthroughs that they were.

Kelly was much more the earnest seeker. He was quietly convinced that in some poignantly inconspicuous corner of melancholy postwar Paris a vision awaited him. Not a waterfalls-and-fireworks revelation but a gentle notice of the intersection of the absolutely universal and the infinitely particular. Like the shadow pattern on a stairway, or some simple leaf contours, as in "Plant II" (1949). Kelly was convinced that innumerable such visions awaited him, if only he had the patience, discipline and eye to see them. "Everywhere I looked," he told the poet and critic John Ashbery, "everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom ... I could take from everything. It all belongs to me."

Kelly made painstakingly accurate drawings of innocuous things, and he played with randomness in works like "Spectral Colors Arranged By Chance" (1951-53). But what he did best was distill. He boiled down the elements of the human visage, for instance, into the wonderful "Face of Stones" (1949), a painting that works equally well as a cosmic portrait and as surrogate sunlight. In the nearly 40 years since his Paris days, Kelly's visual acuity has produced consistently beautiful, simple, smooth paintings and brightly colored sculpture. He is to minimalism what Marguerite Duras is to autobiography. In the current postmodernist scene, Kelly is the path not taken. He's perhaps the clearest voice for the regrettably old-fashioned virtues of waiting, looking, feeling and refining.

Rauschenberg, on the other hand, was hellbent from the beginning to make as much visual racket as he could. It could almost be said that his constantly quoted remark "I try to act in that gap between [art and life]" was the signal for the drums of postmodernism to be rolled to the front of the art parade. Of course, Rauschenberg's artified junk, like the board and the stone in an "elemental" sculpture (1953), look more arty and less junky than the work of such 1990s phenoms as Cady Noland and Nancy Rubins, who make room-size assemblages from the likes of beer cans and water heaters. (As a silver-haired lady remarked at the Rauschenberg show, "He always does something to make it pretty, doesn't he?")

But the deconstructivist highway from pop painting to installation art started as a narrow, cluttered urban alley with Rauschenberg. He's one of those artists-practically an industry unto himself these days-who are best measured in terms of influence. The big, boisterous "Yoicks" (1954) could be Lesson One in the art world's neverending effort to keep painting hip by making it look discarded. The untitled photograms (that is, the patterns left by objects and figures on light-sensitive paper) made by Rauschenberg and his wife then, Susan Weil, in 1950 are precursors of the Starn Twins' outsize photocollages and Karen Finley's hypercorporeal performances. And what could be more of a model for the whole pervasive mix 'n' match style of the last 15 years than Rauschenberg's simultaneous careers as painter, sculptor, performer and (with the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange) international art ambassador? If Nike hired artists instead of jocks, Rauschenberg would be the obvious spokesman for "Just do it."

Neither of these exhibitions is huge, nor given the blockbuster treatment. Upstairs with Rauschenberg in Soho is a show of New York art in the 1950s. In it, a maturely vigorous de Kooning, a gauzily colorful Rothko and even a restrained collage-painting by Conrad Marca-Relli point up what a neophyte (albeit an inventive one) the young Rauschenberg was. At the National Gallery, Kelly's works are tucked away in the older west wing, where they snake through galleries that seem a little too compressed for their fare. But both boys bear up well, and their shows are must-sees, especially for the next century's tyros, poised to make art take the next inevitable step.