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Bob, love your work!

Spend some time in Robert Rauschenberg's world and you'll realize how vivid and alive our world can be.

May 21, 2006|Leo J. O'Donovan | LEO J. O'DONOVAN is a Catholic priest, theologian and president emeritus of Georgetown University. He's a frequent contributor of art criticism to various national publications.

ROBERT Rauschenberg is such a prolific and inventive artist that you can enter his world -- or better, discover the world you share with him -- through countless doors. For me, it happened Sept. 20, 1997, the day after his great, sprawling retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum opened.

I was only a boy when he first arrived in New York in 1949 and quickly became the enfant terrible of the art scene who dared to challenge -- with humor and affection -- the dominance of the New York School led by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

I was away at college and then in various Jesuit houses of study when he began to exhibit the marvelous Combines, which go on exhibition today at the Museum of Contemporary Art after a sensational three months at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I went to graduate school in Europe, I found that great museums in Amsterdam, Paris, Stockholm and Cologne, Germany, exhibited him prominently. (His reputation in Europe has almost always been even larger than here at home.) And the stories about his collaborations with dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage, were becoming as much a part of the story of modern art as the image of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque roped together as mountain climbers inventing Cubism.

It was clear that Rauschenberg had a great democratic, inclusive spirit -- I later learned how he loved Benjamin Franklin. He also was creatively blurring, or in fact erasing, distinctions between painting and sculpture, prints and photographs, environmental and technological art, dance and theater.

Walking around what is perhaps his most famous (or infamous) piece, "Monogram" (1955-59) -- a stuffed goat wearing a tire and standing on a collaged painting -- in 1967 at Stockholm's Moderna Museet, I had, I think, a not untypical reaction: shock followed by amusement, turned then into embarrassed recognition of the artist's wonderfully playful irreverence toward art and sexuality and human identity.

Rauschenberg won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964 for his silk-screen paintings. In 1976, the Smithsonian Institution chose him as the living American artist to honor the American Bicentennial. His retrospective opened at Washington's National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) and traveled the nation. While the show was in Washington, Time magazine featured him on its cover under the banner "The Joy of Art." No living visual artist had been so honored.

In those days, Rauschenberg was engaged in his first international collaborations, and he was producing gorgeous series such as the "Hoarfrosts" (1974-75), diaphanous sheets of painted silk hanging above each other in varying color schemes, and "Jammers" (1975-76), a series of draped cloths suspended from bamboo poles, an idea that seems to have been suggested by a visit to India and also by ships passing his residence at Captiva Island, off Florida's southwest coast, where he moved in 1970.

He was by this time also omnipresent in our culture, even if the American public didn't appreciate how much he had influenced the look of ads in the New York Times, window displays in stores throughout the country and the art exercises of countless schoolchildren -- not to mention his liberating effect on Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual art. He hadn't yet embarked on his generous though somewhat illusory Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, for which, from 1984 to 1991, he traveled to 11 countries to promote international understanding through artistic collaboration.

But I still didn't really get it. Individual pieces might fascinate, but I didn't see how the work as a whole held together.

Fast forward. To Sept. 20, 1997. At the foot of the Guggenheim's spiral ramp was "Barge" (1963), a 32-foot-long mural of photography and expressionistic overpainting in black and white. Mixing found imagery, painting and drawing on the traditional two-dimensional picture plane, this allegory of its decade is technological (with photographs of space capsules and skyscrapers), everyday (football scenes and swimming), personal (a house key), grand (majestic clouds and a seascape) and classically witty (it pairs Diego Velazquez's "Rokeby Venus" with a highway cloverleaf seen from above). It is at once documentary and delightful, grandly ambitious and yet somehow entirely companionable.

And then a little farther up the ramp, I was standing in front of "Bed" (1955) -- and I got it. This Combine of oil and pencil on pillow, quilt and sheet mounted on a vertical wood base was initially a succes de scandale. It still is. But it also is a remarkable evocation of what goes on between the sheets -- the dreams, the anguish, the struggle, the love.

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