In 1953, Rauschenberg took a drawing from abstract impressionist Willem de Kooning and erased most of it. (Now we’re getting somewhere!) It was the toast of the New York art world. As Gopnik tells us, “It was the younger generation, turning history into a blank slate—but needing that history for its erasure to have meaning.”
Vandals, take note.
My only real complaint with the de Kooning thing is that Rauschenberg didn’t finish the job. Truth be told, he liberated the art world from the grip of the abstract expressionists, who had the art world worshiping at their altar. As with Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, Rauschenberg’s creations were at least based on realism and were entertaining at times, such as his “Monogram” (1955-1959), which featured a stuffed goat wrapped in a whitewall tire and accompanied by stuff such as part of a shoe, newspaper articles and a tennis ball. Not everybody’s cup of tea.
Still, some visitors take convincing that the eyesore in front of them is really art. When a woman did not sufficiently appreciate his works, one of which was “Bed” (1955), consisting of scribblings on his old pillow, sheets and a quilt, Rauschenberg recalled (as related in a book quoted by the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman:
“To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly. So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying . …Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”
Yes, another admirer won over by the artistry of explanation.
And that’s the problem, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his 1975 book The Painted Word. Very little of modern art would be worth anything without the critics (and sometimes the artists) explaining why we are supposed to appreciate it. As such, the spin becomes as important as the artistry.
But the critics are unpredictably selective.
When David Letterman drops watermelons from a high-rise building so his TV viewers can enjoy waching them smoosh, these videos don’t seem to find a place in the Museum of Modern Art.
Now maybe if he threw down a stuffed goat…..