Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rauschenberg Combines

Well, I know I said that I was going to write about Rauschenberg's Combines, which I saw about a month ago at the Met . I wasn't going to keep that promise; who am I to add to the mountain of words already written about him? I'm still reluctant to write a full review or analysis of the show. However, I do want to respond to Tyler Green, who has a post about the show up today.

Green claims (with reference to Duchamp) that the Combines are not "retinal", that "the eye isn't seduced by them, the way it is by say, Monet." Frankly, this makes very little sense to me. On the contrary, the most salient feature about these pieces is their perceptual richness, their ability to draw the eye. The layering of image, texture, objects, and paint is staggering. Walking through the Met show, I kept feeling dizzy, like I was going to plummet into the the work (arguably, the experience does go beyond the strictly visual, into the tactile and the kinesthetic). The pieces stand in marked contrast to Jasper Johns' paintings of the same period, which hold you off, despite their richness of texture. (Perhaps it isn't an accident that Green chose the Johns-like Coca-Cola Plan as an illustration.) Sure, they require time and effort to fully appreciate, but so does Monet.

Jerry Saltz writes of Rauschenberg that he "is unafraid to have to have his work look cruddy". I doubt very much however, that Saltz actually thinks that any of the combines (or at least any of the successful ones) actually look cruddy. I certainly don't. I think Saltz simply has in mind an (apparent) sense of recklessness or improvisation. Sure, to a sensibilty weaned on Impressionism, the Combines are going to look ugly and awkward. But then again, when Monet's work was new, many (probably most) people thought it was ugly too. I'm probably over-reading Tyler's post, but I don't think he has a good basis for opposing Monet to Rauschenberg.

Tyler also discusses the quasi-religious character of the Combines, as installed at the Met. I think that this point potentially contradicts that of their supposedly anti-retinal nature. It is doubtful that an analogy to devotional images would work if the work itself wasn't so eye-catching. (This isn't to say that the institutional context is irrelevant.)

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2 Comments:

Anonymous JL said...

I think you're onto something regarding the "retinal" status of the combines, etc. It seems to me that there's been some imprecise talk, leading to conceptual errors, in talking about this show. Not that I think I'm Mr. Rauschenberg Critic, here to set everyone straight. But like you, I feel a gap between what's been written and what I know of the work (I haven't been to the exhibit.)

8:48 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

I think that we should be very careful about saying that a work of (putatively) visual art is truely anti-retinal. It strikes me as very problematic, even regarding Duchamp's readymades. At the very minimum, given the institutional context of the gallery or museum, I think its fair to say that we are compelled to look at the art object regardless of its apparent artlessness or even ugliness. All the more so for Rauschenberg's work, which seems to me to evince (despite the usual Cagean rhetoric of randomness, indetermimacy, etc.) considerable formal sophistication and deliberativeness. (It would be convieniant historical shorthand here to make reference to his study with Albers.) Sure, his work is plenty dissonant and departs radically from traditional standards of coherance and balance. But, at least speaking from my own experience, I do find his work visually compelling, much more so than most of his imitators (and you can obviously see these all over the place). I also think that they are more "retinal" (in the sense of being compelling and enjoyable to look at) than a lot of other things, say the readymades, or most Minimalist work, or even Johns' early work.

4:43 AM  

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