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Performing Rauschenberg

The artist's Combines aren't limited to canvas -- they come alive in music and movement as well.

May 21, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

ON Dec. 7, 1992, the New York Philharmonic celebrated its 150th anniversary by unveiling a poster it had commissioned from Robert Rauschenberg. An attractive, if slightly innocuous, silk-screen collage, it is instantly recognizable as a Rauschenberg. In the center sits a large pale rose, its stem coming out of a couple of earthy, painted-over brass instruments. On top is a lopsided keyboard. The poster enhances the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, which needs all the visual help it can get.

Rauschenberg, whose Combines are featured in a major exhibition that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was an obvious and an unobvious choice for the commission. The orchestra craved a celebrated artist whose work had long embodied the energy of New York -- just as long as he didn't bring along any of his musical baggage, namely his associations with John Cage and his circle in the 1950s. When asked at a news conference about that New York School of composers, the orchestra's German music director, Kurt Masur, drew a blank.

As far as the Philharmonic was concerned, Rauschenberg's rose was a rose was a rose.

To the extent that Rauschenberg would be the last one to impart symbolism onto the images he selects, it is. But in a larger context, it is not. No visual artist of his stature has been as important to the world of music and the performing arts. Not even Picasso.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Rauschenberg music: A critic's notebook in Sunday Calendar about artist Robert Rauschenberg's contributions to music and dance misspelled the surname name of pianist Susan Svrcek as Svreck. The piece also was incorrect on the year of Rauschenberg's performance of "Pelican." It was in 1963, not 1965.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 28, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Rauschenberg and dance: A critic's notebook last Sunday about artist Robert Rauschenberg's contributions to music and dance misspelled the surname of pianist Susan Svrcek as Svreck. The article also gave the incorrect year of Rauschenberg's performance of "Pelican." It was in 1963, not 1965.

The connection is often duly noted. Rauschenberg organized performances. He designed backdrops and costumes for dance companies, and eventually went so far as to create dances and to dance himself. His boyish, theatrical personality remains even at 80, despite a stroke that has left him physically weakened.

But if those things are regularly acknowledged, they are also typically sidelined. That Rauschenberg made great art, such as the Combines -- which combined painting and sculpture, the painterly assemblages of found objects and images that were his principal activity from 1954 to 1964 -- is one thing. That he made some of them as a part of a performance or as a backdrop for a dance is another. When he turned to full-scale performance in the '60s, that was something else again.

Rauschenberg and performance is always the separate, ancillary essay. Although he likes to say there is no poor subject and although an artist famed for opening eyes, he is often approached with closed minds. Like the New York Philharmonic, people want only the part they want of Rauschenberg.

But it is also possible to look at the whole of Rauschenberg's artistic activity as its own kind of cosmic combine. In his best-known example, "Monogram," he put an old automobile tire around a stuffed goat. Having rescued the mangy remnants of taxidermy from the window of an office supply store, he struggled with ways to bring it to life. He daubed paint over the parts of the face that had decayed. For four years, he did this and that. Nothing worked.

Then the tire did it. The tire had a personal significance, since in 1953 Rauschenberg made an elegant scrolled painting by inking a tire of Cage's Model A Ford and having the composer drive it over a long sheet of paper.

But the goat didn't know that. And we don't need to know that either. The goat simply needed the tire, something unrelated, incongruous, to draw our attention to its goatness. Might not we think of the placement of the tire as a grand theatrical gesture, equivalent to raising a curtain and enticing the goat to walk onstage?

Let's step back for a minute to 1952. Something happened that summer in the hills of North Carolina that had a huge influence on what kind of art might thenceforth be produced and how it could be produced. Rauschenberg was a part of it.

The place was Black Mountain College, the unconventional school where the arts and artists freely mingled. Cage organized an event, which came to be known variously as "Theater Piece No. 1" or "Black Mountain Piece." Exactly what took place can't be pinned down, since it has been remembered differently by those who saw and participated in it. Cage and pianist David Tudor came up with the idea that artists could be themselves onstage, in this case the school cafeteria, in a structured environment for 45 minutes.

There was a ladder. Cage sat atop it reading something, maybe from Zen Buddhism or a text of his own. Merce Cunningham danced. Rauschenberg contributed his "White Paintings" and he played a scratchy record on an old Victrola. Charles Olson mounted the ladder and read his poetry. Some say that Lou Harrison supplied Asian instruments, although he didn't recall doing so. But he was there, and he was not pleased. Years later, he said that the activities had told him "what not to do."

The ramifications from this event remain. It was the first Happening. Rauschenberg's panels of canvases painted white gave Cage an idea. For several years he had longed to write a silent piece but lacked the nerve. Now he knew he could do it and how to go about it.

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