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Soaring Like an Eagle

It takes three museums in Houston to host the monumental Rauschenberg retrospective.

March 01, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

HOUSTON — The mammoth retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg's art that recently arrived in Texas comes across like a New World epic. His best work defamiliarizes the familiar, suddenly bringing the strangeness of contemporary life into poignant, contemplative view.

As befits a tale with such big ambitions, the 300 or so paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and mixed-media works from the past 48 years that make up "Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective" occupy not one but three museums here. (Fittingly, the artist was born in 1925 in the Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur, less than 100 miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana border.) In the galleries of the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, the epic unfolds with grace and skill.

Part of the story concerns the postwar restlessness of a youthful nation suddenly on the move. Part of it is about a young man in a situation not altogether dissimilar--a painter of voracious appetites, huge ambition and profound spiritual yearning, attempting to find his way.

And still another part involves a crisis in visual language, which was inescapable by the 1950s. The traditional ways and means of applying paint to canvas seemed increasingly ill-equipped to handle the explosive rhetoric of a new electronic age, an era of television and imminent space travel.

A work such as "Canyon" (1959) shows how dense the layers of poetic allusion can be in Rauschenberg's art. "Canyon" is a Combine painting--a term the artist invented to describe the hybrids he began to make in 1954, in which painting, collage, assemblage and printing techniques all merged. Over the next seven years, the Combines turned out to be his most stunning body of work.

"Canyon" is a big canvas, almost 6 feet square, and its mottled surface is as evocative as a ruined city wall. Brushy slathers of black and white paint, recalling the urban dynamism of the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Franz Kline, mingle freely with elements of collage, which read as alleyway detritus scavenged from trash cans.

A snapshot photograph at the left shows a little boy seated in the grass, arm outstretched in a gesture of exploration. In the upper right corner a cardboard box is squashed flat. A small mirror wrapped in gauze creates murky reflections, while an astronomical picture torn from a scientific magazine displays the deep space of a star-studded night sky.

And there's more--most startlingly the dramatic assemblage affixed to the bottom of the canvas.

A pillow dangles by a string from the end of a long, wooden stick, looking rather like Huck Finn's knapsack. It asserts a downward visual counterweight to the soaring object above: a taxidermic bald eagle, wings spread wide, head stroked with paint and sharp talons clutching an empty cardboard box.

An eagle swooping down before a tattered urban wall? Artists before Rauschenberg have evoked the skyscraper-cliffs of the modern American city by using the Western metaphor of dramatic mountain precipices, but none have had the abrupt, audacious power of "Canyon." Even its audacity speaks of a distinctly urban brand of insolence.

The swooping mountain eagle clutching its earthbound prey is also a wonderfully compelling reinvention of the homoerotic myth of Ganymede, the beautiful Greek boy carried off by Zeus to be cupbearer to the gods. The adjacent magazine picture of star-studded heavens provides a suitably romantic backdrop to this familiar Olympian tale, which was painted often by Renaissance and Baroque artists. It also reminds us of modern scientific romance: Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter, the name for Zeus in Roman mythology.

"Canyon" melds the drama of New York School painting with a highly personal narrative, while its sexually charged homage to the cupbearer of the gods suggests both the fragility of human fate and a secularized ideal of the artist's role. It's a brilliant picture, easily among the artist's finest works.

Indeed, the exhibition underscores conventional wisdom: a lot of exceptional work has come out of Rauschenberg's prolific career, especially in the early decades, which have been closely scrutinized for years.

The show was organized by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, curators at the Menil, where often rigorous and challenging work from 1950 through the mid-1970s is beautifully installed. Works from the mid-1970s and 1980s, the majority owned by the artist, are at Richmond Hall, a warehouse annex to the Menil three short blocks away.

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