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He led the way to Pop Art

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925 - 2008

Influential works combined sculpture, collage, cast-off items.

May 14, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

The intimate precinct of a bed is inevitably associated with dreams, sexual activity and the private inner life of its inhabitant -- all subjects that figured prominently in the mythologies of Abstract Expressionist art. The much-romanticized notion of the social alienation of the Modern artist was even reflected in Rauschenberg's choice of a single rather than a double bed as a painting support. His "Bed" is a bed for one.

The goat for "Monogram" was found in the commercial window display of a neighborhood store that sold used typewriters. The animal stands atop a collaged painting that lies flat on the floor. Like Rauschenberg rummaging on the streets of the city, the goat is grazing in a field of ordinary debris, prepared to consume just about anything. The artist later recalled that, as a child in rural Texas, he suffered emotional scars when his father killed his pet goat for food.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Rauschenberg obituary: The news obituary of artist Robert Rauschenberg in Wednesday's Section A said only that he died after a brief illness. He died of heart failure after a brief illness.

The candidly titled "Monogram" is also an unconventional declaration of identity. Western art has used goats as a symbol for priapic sexual energy ever since the Dionysian satyrs of ancient Greece -- half man and half goat, always merrily drinking and dancing. The outrageous interlace formed by the goat and the tire astride a landscape of cast-off debris dates from the conformist social atmosphere of the Eisenhower years, when an anticommunist "Red Scare" was accompanied by an anti-homosexual "Pink Scare." Critic Robert Hughes described the unforgettable "Monogram" as "one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture" -- the complement to Meret Oppenheim's famous Surrealist sculpture of a phallic spoon in a fur teacup.

Rauschenberg made 162 combines between 1954 and 1964, and they remain the most highly regarded and influential body of work by the unusually prolific artist. (During his career he produced about 6,000 unique paintings and sculptures, along with a sizable number of prints and multiples.) The largest collection of combines -- 11 works -- is housed in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chief curator Paul Schimmel organized an exhibition of 70 combines in 2005, which traveled to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and to museums in Paris and Stockholm.

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born Oct. 22, 1925, in the Texas oil-refining town of Port Arthur, on the Gulf Coast near Louisiana. His mother, Dora Carolina Matson, and father, Ernest Rauschenberg, who worked at the local power and light company, were of Dutch, Swedish, German and Cherokee descent. Raised in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which forbade dancing, drinking and card playing, he was encouraged by his deeply religious mother to become a preacher. Instead, after public school he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology. But he soon dropped out, unaware that dyslexia was contributing to his difficulties as a student.

With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in spring 1944. Given his pacifist commitments, Rauschenberg was assigned as a neuropsychiatric technician in a San Diego hospital, while stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton. "This is where I learned how little difference there is between sanity and madness," Rauschenberg later recalled, "and realized that a combination of both is what everybody needs."

A fateful visit to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino would change the so-far rather aimless direction of his life. At the Huntington, Rauschenberg saw Thomas Gainsborough's celebrated 1770 painting of young Jonathan Buttal, famously known as "The Blue Boy." He knew the illustrious painting from calendar reproductions and playing cards, but like many people from rural and small-town America, he was thunderstruck by an otherwise obvious fact: Pictures are painted by people.

"That just never occurred to me before," he said, recalling the epiphany, even though he had been drawing avidly since the age of 10. Rauschenberg decided on the spot to become an artist.

After the war ended and he was discharged from the Navy, Rauschenberg settled in Los Angeles, where he worked briefly as an illustrator for a Westwood newspaper and as a packing clerk in a bathing suit factory. In 1947, Rauschenberg used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Kansas City Art Institute. With his identity in flux and creativity his chosen direction, he decided to pick a new name. After carefully considering which one might be the most ordinary in English, he dropped Milton in favor of Bob (subsequently Robert).

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