Thursday, May 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg

Of all the great mid-century New York artists, perhaps my favorite was Robert Rauschenberg. He was without the pretension of the abstract expressionists, lacked the layer upon layer of super cool irony that can make someone like Warhol at times seem callous, or the cultivated hermeticism of some of his latter-day imitators. Rauschenberg was protean, beyond category, promiscuously embracing every artistic style at once, and in every genre, paintings, sculptures, installations, stage designs, you name it.

I guess he will be best remembered for his “combines” sculpted collages of bric-a-brac, like his famous stuffed goat surrounded by a bicycle tire. He was an artist of the randomness and complexity of urban life, and made his often bizarre juxtapositions seem natural, and in many cases, profoundly moving. The exhibit of his “combines” at the Metropolitan Musuem a few years ago was one of the most enjoyable exhibits I remember seeing. I took a special trip down to the city to see it again.

Who is of his stature today? With his passing, earlier this week, I suppose the New York School is slowly fading away, the generation and a half or so when New York City was really at the center of the art world no more. I’m no expert (but I know what I like), but to me, the contemporary art world in New York City seems at once smaller and more heterogeneous, inward-looking, and all in all less interesting. Who are today’s larger than life artists? The only name that comes to mind, in terms of the publicity side, anyway, is the quite meretricious Jeff Koons.

Perhaps it is the all consuming greed that surrounds the art world that has made it once richer and much diminished. Artists have become race horses, prized by investors for their stud fees, while their actual productions have become secondary. The whole point is to discover a fresh unknown, buy something for a few thousand bucks, hold onto it for a few years, and cash out with a cool million. Or perhaps the problem is the steady rise in real estate prices has priced artists out of Manhattan and is doing the same to Brooklyn. Nowadays only aspiring stockbrokers and corporate lawyers, and not artists, come to New York City to make their fortunes.

Oh, these are perhaps overly sour reflections, and take away from what I wanted to write about. Rauschenberg was one of our greatest artists, with a wry, perceptive, deeply felt appreciation for the sorrows and pleasures of the city that was infinitely inquisitive and never cynical. He will be missed.

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