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One of the first objects encountered upon entering Robert Rauschenberg: Combines at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was Satellite (1955). This modestly scaled Combine is composed of a sundry collection of materials including a pair of dirty cream-colored socks, two dainty discolored doilies, a strip of worn paisley sheet, sections of cardboard, paint-soaked comic strip broadsheets, and dripping, sensual passages of red, yellow, white, and blue oil paint. This mess of elements is topped off by a swaggering, taxidermied chicken caked in thick oil, who struts defiantly across the paint-encrusted upper ledge of the picture, his downward gaze defiant, comedic, endearing, and paradoxically alive.
While Satellite, one of Rauschenberg’s earliest Combines, displays many of the visual traits common to the works that occupied the artist from 1954 to 1964, when compared with later efforts such as Canyon (1959), or Monogram from the same year, it is a reserved, diffident work, but no less determined in its explosion of contemporary pictorial conventions. Orthodox modernism’s investment in the arrangement of flat abstract forms on a two-dimensional plane that prevailed in the 1950s is here subjected to merciless derision. Not only does Rauschenberg demonstrate his irresistible formal sensibilities in the body of the painting by using socks and doilies as another artist might use oil and acrylic, but having strutted his formal stuff satisfactorily, the artist crowns his efforts with a mocking, stuffed bird, as if to drive home the casual ease with which this radical gesture was achieved. One can begin to imagine how this, one of Rauschenberg’s most understated and accessible Combines, might have appeared to a viewer who had in the late 1950s just come to terms with the work of Morris Louis.
Despite his resolutely unconventional use of materials, his parodic barbs, and audacious snubbing of tradition, Rauschenberg’s avant-garde effrontery proved endearing if elusive to early critics who—though often reluctant—granted that there was something to the work of this new enfant terrible. It took almost eighteen years, however, and the arrival in 1972 of Leo Steinberg’s watershed reconsideration of the Combines, for the language of art history to catch up with Rauschenberg. But from then on, art historians and critics ranging in approach and interest from Rosalind Krauss to Jonathan D. Katz have hailed Rauschenberg as prescient and radical; with typical rhetorical overstatement, Dave Hickey went so far as to claim that the 1950s and 1960s are unimaginable without Rauschenberg.1 The great virtue of Paul Schimmel’s exquisite survey of the Combines at MOCA L.A. was the exhibition’s capacity to reprise the moment these works burst onto the scene—a pre-theorized moment before Rauschenberg’s achievements had been rationalized, synthesized, and tamed by explanation—when the Combines were simply and unambiguously new, and it was the task of the most ambitious critics to begin to articulate their significance.
In returning to this moment, one realizes why these rich, endlessly engaging works have proved to be of such enduring critical interest. Satellite, which was first shown in 1958, is a signal example. Loaded down with references and narratives, obtuse and direct, oblique and unmistakable, it teases, tempts, and tantalizes, offering just enough of itself to prompt speculation but never enough to allow for an infallible reading; it is a riddle designed to allude understanding. It is little wonder, then, that many of the most prominent voices in art history have been drawn to these objects, each considering and reconsidering the work’s formal, conceptual, and narrative properties with increasing sophistication. There was a time, however, during the 1950s and early 1960s, when academic and popular critics, understandably ill-equipped to evaluate Rauschenberg’s innovations, were nonetheless compelled to write about the Combines, and it is this raw, untutored moment, when art outpaced the language available to describe it, that Schimmel’s show—if not the current catalogue—captured. This approach not only casts the Combines in a new and fresh light, but also, as will be explored in this essay, throws into relief the state of art criticism today.
Arguably, it was not until Steinberg’s 1972 essay, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” that the canonization of the Combines began in earnest. In it, Steinberg declared that by inventing what he dubbed the “flatbed picture plane,” Rauschenberg derived a “pictorial surface that let the world in again”—a bold and profound claim from an art historian who had upon their emergence in the 1950s loudly decried the Combines.2 Implicitly contrasting Rauschenberg’s achievement with the conventions of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, Steinberg claims for Rauschenberg not simply a great formal advancement, but one that forced a shift in the discourse of visual art to include once more the social world.
Two and a half years later, Krauss, also in the pages of Artforum, responded explicitly to Steinberg’s argument. In the opening paragraph of “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” she writes anecdotally of a conversation with a friend:
The response of my colleague had not been to whether Steinberg’s appraisal of a certain situation was accurate or not, but to her sense that a change of major esthetic consequence must be proffered in the form of masterpieces, something which, in her eyes, Rauschenberg had not produced. I think of that now in relation to Jasper Johns’ remark that Rauschenberg was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso.3
Siding with Steinberg in his contention that the Combines represented a radical departure in artistic practice, Krauss is careful to stress that Rauschenberg’s treatment of imagery in the Combines is “something entirely original,” because in them he rejects the idea that a picture is something that translates a three-dimensional “thing” into a two-dimensional “field.”4 For Krauss, Rauschenberg does not engage in crude transformation, but rather in what might be termed “transportation”: the process of embedding objects from the world—actual “matter” to use her phrase—in and on the picture plane. Since the Combines represented a profound shift in pictorial language, they also exposed the deficits in the critical terms of art history, and as such posed a formidable challenge to the discipline’s leaders. There is little question that it was in large part the capacity of the Combines to propose—or even demand—new critical language and concepts that attracted the attention of ambitious thinkers keen to overhaul the status quo and make their own mark on a narrative that had been defined by the synthetic history of painting proffered by Clement Greenberg.5
Ever since Steinberg and Krauss argued that the Combines represent a singular and revolutionary turn in the history of representation, claims for Rauschenberg’s radicality have been loud, multifarious, and emphatic.6 It does not, for example, raise the seasoned reader’s eyebrow to encounter a remark made by Schimmel, with little justification and argumentation, in the very first paragraph of his catalogue essay for the current show, that “the Combines paved the way for a new direction in art, one that was subsequently explored by a wide range of artists—including those associated with Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, the Viennese Aktionists, and various forms of performance art in the 1960s and 70s.”7 While many of the claims made by art historians currently writing about the Combines are provocative, new, valid, and compelling, the exhibition did not undertake to summarize, evaluate, or even account for these arguments. Rather, by presenting the Combines in simple chronological order from 1954 to 1964, with little or no further curatorial intervention, the formal and conceptual evolution of Rauschenberg’s thinking was dramatized in stark isolation from the sophisticated discourse that has grown up around it. With an organizational principle as simple and unobtrusive as chronology, the show encouraged a close encounter not only with the works but also with the span of time during which they were created. To accompany this comparatively unmediated return to the object, it is instructive to revisit and reflect on how the radicalism of the Combines was discussed by early critics before these works were, in a sense, tamed, or at the very least disciplined, by the procedures of modern art history seen first in essays by Steinberg and Krauss, and continued by art historians working today.
Yve-Alain Bois has made a similar observation. Writing in a recent issue of Artforum, Bois suggests that the searching, microscopic analysis of Rauschenberg’s Combines has turned them into Old Master paintings, circumscribing them in such a way he feels is incommensurate with the unruly, irresolvable quality of the pictorial details: you can decode all you like, Bois suggests, but the Combines will simply (and rightfully) lead the earnest historian in interpretive circles.8 The iconographic and iconological insights offered by the “iconographer-sleuths,” as Bois pejoratively dubs this unnamed group, issue, as he acknowledges, from lots of close looking and fastidious research. Here Bois gestures, perhaps unconsciously, toward a key issue: all of this theorizing and close looking has deadened the material immediacy and formal shock of the Combines. It was, however, just this property—the untutored jolt of critical apprehension—that gave these objects their initial currency among early critics, a foundational moment that is not given due attention in current scholarship.
Viewed naively, the Combines, even in the anything-goes climate of contemporary art practice, might easily be seen as explicit dramatizations of Rauschenberg’s ability to bring formal resolution to a set of materials that appear profoundly incompatible. The idea, for example, that a paint-encrusted bald eagle might be affixed perpendicularly to a vertical plane featuring among other things a mirror, a paint tube, and a photographic reproduction of the Statue of Liberty still retains an air of the implausible today. The Combines may be impressive as compositions, but the discrete elements comprising these compositions are very difficult to incorporate into a written description that mimics the visual coherence Rauschenberg achieves. As Carrol Dunham has noted recently, “The Combines are the most nonverbal form of communication imaginable while being replete with nameable things.”9
Early critics, however, had no precedent for incorporating these “nameable things” into a formal or conceptual account of Rauschenberg’s work, and consequently those elements remained essentially nameless. Instead, critics generally directed their attention to the overall impression, the gestalt, rather than to the details. Unsurprisingly, then, it was the general formal appeal of Rauschenberg’s Combines that took the place of iconological, iconographical, or theoretical readings in early criticism. In other words, while the cataloguing of specific pictorial details required by iconographical analysis provided a way for art historians to describe and understand the Combines, early criticism, by contrast, did not employ this method; as a result, the writing tends to capture a raw, initial excitement brought about by Rauschenberg’s bold break with pictorial conventions of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. The intense newness of Rauschenberg’s work is often exacerbated in the first reviews of it by the fact that critics drew on conventional formal language and aesthetic criteria to describe and evaluate objects that departed explicitly from those same conventions. Untutored or not, however, these typically ambitious, self-reflective early critical appraisals provide the basis for Rauschenberg’s iconic position in modern art history, especially since Rauschenberg himself claimed that “today is their creator.10 Surely, then, the response of that audience to his work is significant.
The tendency toward general formal analysis is exemplified most vividly by the terse, frequently acerbic, and always judgmental criticism of Donald Judd. The terms of Judd’s approval were far less poetic and humanist in inclination than most of his contemporaries. In his many reviews of Rauschenberg’s work, he almost always disregarded specific iconography, preferring instead to focus on the artist’s approach to materials and on the formal advancements evinced by Rauschenberg’s manipulation of these elements. Accordingly, “Rauschenberg,” as Judd noted in 1963, “is almost the only major artist using the traditional European structure in a way that both retains its quality and is credible and strong.”11 For Judd, Rauschenberg’s interest in “the unrectangular and unflat format, the use of found and simply existing materials and the casualness are three of Rauschenberg’s radical aspects.”12 “The depth or height,” he claims in a review of 1962, “and the spatial variety are the radical and abstract elements of Rauschenberg’s work.”13
Further evidence of the early stuttering steps of this criticism can be observed in a 1958 review by John Ashbery of Rauschenberg’s show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, which featured works such as Bed and Rebus (both 1955). Here Ashbery claims tentatively, “you . . . have the artist’s permission to get nothing out of looking at his paintings other than the marginal pleasure of being alive. But it is nevertheless impossible not to enjoy them and respond to them.”14 The self-conscious naïveté of Ashbery’s language belies the critic’s obvious confusion. Nonetheless, he does not shy away from claiming Rauschenberg as a “terrific talent,”15 despite his inability to adequately judge the precise manifestation of this talent in the face of the radically alien experience proffered by the “plastic beauty” of the Combines.16
There were also some fiercely dissenting voices; but even when a critic was baffled and upset by “the artistic logic that produces such illogical results,” those same critics, Robert Rosenblum in this case, were forced to admit that, “there is hardly a work here not compelling enough to jar complacent seeing and thinking.”17 Indeed, the idea that critics were willing to herald as revolutionary art they did not yet have the language to describe or the critical tools to understand is one of the most significant threads running through their evaluations. Writing for the New York Times in 1963, Brian O’Doherty registers this condition quite self-consciously, and uses clear, unqualified language utterly alien in today’s art-critical moment, in which writers are far more likely to remain neutrally descriptive—hedging their bets—than to claim an artist as the beginning of something entirely new. He writes:
Obviously a new era is at hand. If you can’t lick the environment, join it. For many years Mr. Rauschenberg has been pointed steadily towards an annihilation of conventions in a new freedom. His main characteristic is a conquest of common, everyday reality from a bridgehead of abstract expressionism. He is trying to materialize an ambiguous limbo between high art and low life. His “combines,” as he calls them, are on the crest of a new and popular wave they helped to start. At 38, Mr. Rauschenberg is both contemporary and historical, and his creations tend to force a redefinition of what art is all about.18
Though precisely how this revolution is enacted in Rauschenberg’s work remains unspecified—at least relative to the detailed terms offered by Steinberg in 1972—O’Doherty’s praise is profound and positively effervescent.
Recent art history has not proved adept, or perhaps has no interest, in capturing the specific tenor of this early criticism. The initial encounter with Rauschenberg’s work is now generalized and historicized, but not dramatized. Steinberg’s groundbreaking essay, however, was not a work of criticism, but a broad, historicizing essay that culminates in a reconsideration of Rauschenberg’s Combines as the beginning of a new representational tradition. But, as I have tried to demonstrate here, the first stages of critical response to an artist’s work is of vital importance since it is these reviews that establish the tenor of the criticism to follow, and depending upon the review, tacitly endorse or else lessen the chances of that artist being offered a second show. It might also be argued that it is at this early juncture in an artist’s career that the close and often insidious relationship between critical endorsement and commercial success is most glaringly apparent, whether or not it is the objective of the critic to affect such judgments. Ultimately it will be on the crest of sustained critical excitement—resulting from various leaps in critical thought and connoisseurship that are often quite under-developed and under-theorized—that an artist is later ushered into the more sophisticated world of academic criticism, and ultimately into the art-historical canon, though of course this is not always the case.19 Despite the significance of these short, early reviews, however, the terms proposed are often forgotten or disregarded. While less systematic and urbane than the essays written by Steinberg and Krauss in the 1970s, the frontline criticism of Judd, Ashbery, Rosenblum, and O’Doherty certainly acknowledged that with Rauschenberg’s Combines a “new era [was] at hand.”
Academic writing thrives on polemics and arguments, and the reception of Rauschenberg’s work is a fertile example. But such arguments take place from a safe historical distance: art historians do not joust over the value of artists as they emerge—that has traditionally been the work of critics.20 However, the criticism of today is of a very different order than that which greeted Rauschenberg’s work in the 1950s and 1960s. Very rarely does it joust over or even try to evaluate in a manner comparable to Judd or Rosenblum the relative value of emergent art. In the art writing of today, bold claims for the value of a young artist’s work and the palpable excitement of new ideas is far more evident in historical and theoretical work than in criticism. Indeed, this situation may account for the fact that it is difficult to reimagine today the mixture of befuddlement, awe, and excitement generated by Rauschenberg’s Combines—today’s criticism is so cautious that it has forgotten what such a thing looks and sounds like. Schimmel’s show, in its simple chronological layout, tried to resuscitate this excitement by restaging Rauschenberg’s Combines as a dramatic unfolding of formal and conceptual inventions.
James Elkins is one of art history’s most vocal foes of modern criticism. While he claims that “early and mid-twentieth century American art critics were . . . fiercely opinionated and even polemical,” he identifies no such spirit or ambition in the art writing of today.21 “There are,” he claims,
few living art critics who have gone on the record with what they think of the twentieth century’s major movements. Local judgments are preferred to wider ones, and recently judgments themselves have even come to seem inappropriate. In their place critics proffer informal opinions or transitory thoughts, and they shy away from strong commitments. In the last three or four decades, critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe of evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.22
Elkins’ fundamental point is borne out convincingly through a brief survey of the vast majority of reviews published in the major art journals, where a dispassionate, largely descriptive “critical” mode predominates. A review selected at random from the March 2006 issue of Art in America illustrates this point. Anastasia Aukeman’s short piece on Mona Hatoum’s show at Alexander and Bonin is cogent, clearly written, and displays a knowledge of Hatoum’s oeuvre and its relationship to the development of twentieth-century art. Here, however, broad, analytical thinking ends and gives way to a more neutral, descriptive impulse. For example, Hatoum’s Mobile Home, we learn, alludes to “the unstable environment that many of the world’s displaced find themselves occupying today”; yet no mention is made of how effective this work is next to other contemporary works with comparable concerns, or relative to other works by Hatoum that address similar themes. Similarly, we are told that Rest Assured reiterates “a symbol Hatoum often uses: the bed as a site of anxiety rather than a place of rest,”23 but the aesthetic merits of this particular work are not subjected to any kind of sustained criticism, and, in fact, the review ends abruptly with this rather prosaic observation. No attempt is made to validate the efforts of the artist, to seriously critique the effectiveness of her project, or to suggest new or provocative directions. American artists and critics active in the 1960s were in constant dialogue with one another—one thinks here of Michael Fried and Robert Smithson—and it was in large part the energy generated by such exchanges that made the 1960s such a watershed decade in the development of twentieth-century art. However, because criticism like Aukeman’s demurs on informed, constructive judgment in favor of simple description, there is very little room for response or retort from other critics, and, consequently, no broader discourse of any critical substance is developed to which artists may respond.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, when the critical orthodoxies of modernism had yet to be overturned, it was the charge of ambitious, frontline critics to find language that would describe and help establish the validity of the new direction in art and in art criticism proposed by the Combines. Compare the tenor of these reviews from the 1950s and 1960s with those published in the popular and scholarly press today, and the difference in ambition is striking. While it has always been the primary mandate of visual artists to nudge the boundaries of visual representation to say new things in fresh ways, it should be the imperative of critics looking at this sort of ambitious work to extend themselves and take equivalent methodological and conceptual risks in their own medium; and it is in this sense that modern criticism most conspicuously fails. It is not necessary for critics to back the winning horse every time they commit their thoughts to record. But it is, in my opinion, valuable to take risks in language and thought when responding to visual art that are commensurate with the radical advancements we expect—and are electrified by—when we come across new work in a gallery or museum, and which in turn encourage the best critical writing.
My point is not that contemporary reviews are badly written, poorly organized, or ill-informed. The point is rather more simple and made abundantly clear in the review of Hatoum’s work cited above: rarely is any real attempt made to measure and evaluate the relative merits of an artist’s work next to the achievements of the past or in comparison with her or his peers; nor is judgment, if proffered, accompanied by an appreciable degree of excitement that openly encourages the artist to pursue a promising path and for critics to follow and think carefully about that course. This deficit in critical ambition is not simply attributable to the fact that I have chosen to survey the critical reception of a uniquely provocative body of work, for, as Elkins notes, reviews published during the first half of the twentieth century, in both scholarly and popular journals, were across the board far more opinionated, historically comparative, and willing to proffer constructive judgment; criticism was, without question, more ambitious in the recent past whether it addressed work as challenging as that of Rauschenberg or work that has since vanished from the historical record.24
The phenomenon of what I have called frontline criticism has not been adequately discussed or theorized, and all I offer here, in the form of a convenient case study, is an argument for the validity of attending to the whole trajectory of art writing on Rauschenberg’s Combines, including not only longer, highly theorized essays like those by Steinberg and Krauss, but also early criticism, no matter how unsophisticated it may seen in retrospect. My ultimate contention is simply that ambitious early criticism of emergent strains in visual art—or at least criticism willing to acknowledge the possibility of radical innovation, no matter how provisionally, tentatively, or primitively—encourages increasingly ambitious art, which in turn permits advancements in criticism, and so on. One effective way to make this argument is to bring to light through diligent historical exegesis periods during which such a dynamic was active. In his Artforum review of Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, Dunham seems to have sensed—with some nostalgia—the excitement, shock, and rupture experienced by first-time viewers of the Combines: “To walk through the exhibition is to travel down a collective memory lane to a time of enormous change in both art and culture at large. Rauschenberg made the first Combines not long after the beginning of television, when the imagination of the art world was still very much in the thrall of the New York School, whose members he clearly venerated and also stove to surpass.”25 The process of walking through Schimmel’s Rauschenberg exhibition provided the impetuous and material to examine the parallel narratives of artistic innovation and critical response that defined the emergence of the Combines.
Curator, Department of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; PhD candidate, Courtauld Institute of Art
1 Hickey, Dave, “Open Charms,” Artforum 36, no. 1 (November 1997): 101.
fn2. Steinberg, Leo, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” Artforum 10, no. 7 (March 1972): 49.
fn3. Krauss, Rosalind, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” Artforum 13, no. 4 (December 1974): 36.
fn4. Ibid., 40.
fn5. Thomas Crow has made a similar observation: “For any artist of the first importance, the chief requirement of criticism is to match the generalizing implications of the work with its idiosyncratic and unrepeatable character. . . . Krauss,” he notes, “recognized that the matching had been unsuccessful in Rauschenberg’s case and, further, that repairing the deficiency required a new turn of mind.” Crow, Thomas, “Becoming Robert Rauschenberg,” Artforum 36, no. 1 (November 1997): 144.
fn6. A mere sampling of this vast literature includes: Joseph, Branden W., Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Katz, Jonathan, “The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnerships (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 188–207; Molesworth, Helen, “Before Bed,” October 63 (Winter 1993): 68–82; Crimp, Douglas, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” October 13 (Summer 1980): 41–57; Bois, Yve-Alain, “Eye to the Ground,” Artforum 44, no. 7 (March 2006): 245–248, 317.
fn7. Schimmel, Paul, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in Robert Rauschenberg: Combines (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2005), 211.
fn8. Bois, “Eye to the Ground,” 247.
fn9. Dunham, Carroll, “All or Nothing,” Artforum 44, no. 7 (March 2006): 251.
fn10. Robert Rauschenberg quoted in Dora Ashton, “History Painter,” Artforum 36, no. 1 (November 1997): 99.
fn11. Judd, Donald, “In the Galleries: Robert Rauschenberg,” Arts Magazine 37, no. 9 (May–June 1963): 103.
fn12. Ibid., 104.
fn13. Judd, Donald, “In the Galleries: Robert Rauschenberg, Arts Magazine, January 1962,” in Complete Writings, 1959–1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints (Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1975), 42.
fn14. Ashbery, John, “Five Shows Out of the Ordinary: Robert Rauschenberg,” Artnews 57, no. 1 (March 1958): 40.
fn15. Ibid., 40.
fn16. Ibid., 56.
fn17. Rosenblum, Robert, “In the Galleries: Robert Rauschenberg,” Arts Magazine 32, no. 6 (March 1958): 61.
fn18. O’Doherty, Brian, “Robert Rauschenberg,” New York Times, April 28, 1963: 137.
fn19. For example, Hilton Kramer, writing predominantly for the New York Times during the 1960s and 1970s heartily endorsed many artists—e.g., Saul Baizerman and Jack Zajac—who have since slipped entirely from the critical record.
fn20. See, for example, Katz, Jonathan D., “Iconoclash,” Artforum 44, no. 9 (May 2006): 24; and Meyer, Richard, “Two On One: Richard Meyer on Robert Rauschenberg,” Artforum 42, no. 6 (February 2004): 25–26.
fn21. Elkins, James, What Happened to Art Criticism (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 11.
fn22. Ibid., 12.
fn23. Aukeman, Anastasia, “Mona Hatoum at Alexander and Bonin,” Art in America 94, no. 3 (March 2006): 147
fn24. See for example, Judd, Complete Writings; Kramer, Hilton, The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of 1956–1972 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973); Provocations: Writings by John Coplans, ed. Stuart Morgan (London: London Projects, 1996); Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
fn25. Dunham, “All or Nothing,” 249.