Influential artist Robert Rauschenberg passed away yesterday at the age of 82. I have always been drawn to his work, overwhelmed by some of his pieces. I don’t know much about art, beyond what I like and dislike, but it isn’t hard to see why Rauschenberg was such an influential artist.
When I was in New York three years ago, I was able to see several works by Jasper Johns. The way he used collage to make up the small portions of his art, things that one could only see close up, was amazing. He built paintings. Rauschenberg did the same, blending painting and sculpture in a way that hadn’t been broached before, and which served as a model for Johns and others. They’ve been labeled ‘Combine paintings,’ and I think the moniker illustrates exactly what these pieces really are.
His piece ‘Bed’ was made up of his own sheet, quilt, and pillow slathered in paint, as if they were soaked in blood. It’s hard to verbalize how works like this affect me, but I was really moved, I felt like he was showing me the corruption of my youth. It exhausted me.
He once said that he really felt ‘sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.’ He turned average things that surround us into art, and thus changed the way we looked at our world.
Reading his NYT obituary, I see that Rauschenberg was much more influential and had a much greater scope than I was ever aware of. But what I remember tonight is how briefly studying him for a week or so when I was 18 allowed me to connect with modern art for the first time, maybe not enough to ‘get it,’ but enough to realize that there was something there worth getting.