On Dec. 7, 1992, the New York Philharmonic celebrated its 150th anniversary by unveiling a poster it had commissioned from Robert Rauschenberg. An attractive, if slightly innocuous, silk-screen collage, it is instantly recognizable as a Rauschenberg. In the center sits a large pale rose, its stem coming out of a couple of earthy, painted-over brass instruments. On top is a lopsided keyboard. The poster enhances the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, which needs all the visual help it can get.
Rauschenberg, whose Combines are featured in a major exhibition that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was an obvious and an unobvious choice for the commission. The orchestra craved a celebrated artist whose work had long embodied the energy of New York — just as long as he didn't bring along any of his musical baggage, namely his associations with John Cage and his circle in the 1950s. When asked at a news conference about that New York School of composers, the orchestra's German music director, Kurt Masur, drew a blank.
As far as the Philharmonic was concerned, Rauschenberg's rose was a rose was a rose.
To the extent that Rauschenberg would be the last one to impart symbolism onto the images he selects, it is. But in a larger context, it is not. No visual artist of his stature has been as important to the world of music and the performing arts. Not even Picasso.
The connection is often duly noted. Rauschenberg organized performances. He designed backdrops and costumes for dance companies, and eventually went so far as to create dances and to dance himself. His boyish, theatrical personality remains even at 80, despite a stroke that has left him physically weakened.
But if those things are regularly acknowledged, they are also typically sidelined. That Rauschenberg made great art, such as the Combines — which combined painting and sculpture, the painterly assemblages of found objects and images that were his principal activity from 1954 to 1964 — is one thing. That he made some of them as a part of a performance or as a backdrop for a dance is another. When he turned to full-scale performance in the '60s, that was something else again.
Rauschenberg and performance is always the separate, ancillary essay. Although he likes to say there is no poor subject and although an artist famed for opening eyes, he is often approached with closed minds. Like the New York Philharmonic, people want only the part they want of Rauschenberg.
But it is also possible to look at the whole of Rauschenberg's artistic activity as its own kind of cosmic combine. In his best-known example, "Monogram," he put an old automobile tire around a stuffed goat. Having rescued the mangy remnants of taxidermy from the window of an office supply store, he struggled with ways to bring it to life. He daubed paint over the parts of the face that had decayed. For four years, he did this and that. Nothing worked.
Then the tire did it. The tire had a personal significance, since in 1953 Rauschenberg made an elegant scrolled painting by inking a tire of Cage's Model A Ford and having the composer drive it over a long sheet of paper.
But the goat didn't know that. And we don't need to know that either. The goat simply needed the tire, something unrelated, incongruous, to draw our attention to its goatness. Might not we think of the placement of the tire as a grand theatrical gesture, equivalent to raising a curtain and enticing the goat to walk onstage?
Let's step back for a minute to 1952. Something happened that summer in the hills of North Carolina that had a huge influence on what kind of art might thenceforth be produced and how it could be produced. Rauschenberg was a part of it.
The place was Black Mountain College, the unconventional school where the arts and artists freely mingled. Cage organized an event, which came to be known variously as "Theater Piece No. 1" or "Black Mountain Piece." Exactly what took place can't be pinned down, since it has been remembered differently by those who saw and participated in it. Cage and pianist David Tudor came up with the idea that artists could be themselves onstage, in this case the school cafeteria, in a structured environment for 45 minutes.
There was a ladder. Cage sat atop it reading something, maybe from Zen Buddhism or a text of his own. Merce Cunningham danced. Rauschenberg contributed his "White Paintings" and he played a scratchy record on an old Victrola. Charles Olson mounted the ladder and read his poetry. Some say that Lou Harrison supplied Asian instruments, although he didn't recall doing so. But he was there, and he was not pleased. Years later, he said that the activities had told him "what not to do."
The ramifications from this event remain. It was the first Happening. Rauschenberg's panels of canvases painted white gave Cage an idea. For several years he had longed to write a silent piece but lacked the nerve. Now he knew he could do it and how to go about it.
Cage saw the paintings not as emptiness but as space waiting to be filled in unpredictable ways. The blank spaces invited the dance of shadows. They changed as the light changed. Cage called them airports for dust mites. They were, in other words, frames for chance theater.
Silence, likewise, is never empty. All Cage needed was a frame and a theatrical setting. That summer, at Woodstock, N.Y., Tudor premiered "4'33"." One of the most accomplished virtuosos of his day, the pianist sat motionless at the keyboard through three movements of noisy "silence." Rain rattled the roof. A nervous audience stirred. Listeners themselves became the show. Conceptual art came of age during those 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
The Black Mountain event had an obvious influence on Rauschenberg as well. Most notable was the solidifying of his relationship with Cage, who helped foster the career of the young, unknown painter in any number of ways. MOCA's chief curator Paul Schimmel, who organized "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," said recently that "it is impossible to overestimate the influence of Cage on Rauschenberg." Nothing, after all, could be more Cagean than Rauschenberg's inclination to get his materials from whatever he found lying around on the street rather than buy them from an art supply shop.
Cage, in those days, loved to tell about the times he used to go for walks in Seattle with painter Mark Tobey. "Tobey would stop on the sidewalks," Cage once said in an interview, "sidewalks which we normally didn't notice when we were walking, and his gaze would immediately turn them into a work of art."
Cage also spoke of his brief stint in Hollywood working as an assistant for the experimental filmmaker and commercial animator Oskar Fischinger in the 1930s. Fischinger was a student of Buddhism and believed every stone had an inner movement and an inner sound. That conviction led Cage to begin composing for percussion.
Whenever I look at "Gift for Apollo," a Combine from 1959 that MOCA owns, I hear it. A beat-up bucket sits on the floor attached by a chain to a canvas, which is on four wheels. That old bucket has a story to tell, an inner sound, and what releases it for me is the dirty green necktie that is glued onto the canvas. I can't tell you why. It just does.
But if Rauschenberg's work sometimes represents more than the implication of performance or sound, it can also be the product, or an integral part, of a performance. Again Cage was instrumental. He brought Rauschenberg into his group of young composers and musicians (particularly Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Tudor) and also Cunningham.
The first work to greet a visitor at MOCA is a delicate red Combine, and it was made as a set for the Cunningham dance "Minutiae" in 1954. For the next 10 years, Rauschenberg as the Cunningham company's artist mainstay, creating sets, costumes and lighting.
And it didn't take long for Rauschenberg's theatricality to flourish. William Anastasi, a New York artist who became an artistic consultant for the Cunningham company in 1984, recalls hearing stories about Rauschenberg bringing "junk" from the street to add to his décor, often at the last minute, blithely upstaging the dancers.
Though not exactly sharing Cage's absorption in Zen, Rauschenberg did discover that performance was a way for him to liberate, at least to some extent, his ego from his work. While many Combines were made over time and with considerable thought, others were the products of a performance onstage.
"He wanted to create a situation that was not unlike being an athlete or a dancer," Schimmel says of some of the later, performance-based Combines. "It was an opportunity to excel in the public arena in a competitive environment that forced him to do something with greater freedom and originality."
Such work is not valued as muchby collectors and critics as the studio Combines, but Schimmel reminds us that even in his studio, Rauschenberg was usually performing. He likedto work with several radios playingand to have people around. Take it for what it's worth, but the pianist Glenn Gould practiced with radios and TVs blaring and seemed to be always on the phone.
Thinking about Rauschenberg lately, I now find it impossible to escape his aura anywhere I go, be it to concerts, museums, the theater, the beach.
Last month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for instance, Rauschenberg's spirit was unmistakable at the West Coast premiere of Feldman's six-hour String Quartet No. 2. Rauschenberg and the late composer were close. Feldman — who once told music students in Germany, "If you don't have a friend who's a painter, you're in trouble" — was the one who introduced Rauschenberg to Leo Castelli, the powerful gallery owner.
But Feldman also took from Rauschenberg. He noted that he never could have produced a six-hour composition without the example of Rauschenberg's assemblage technique. A piece that long couldn't sustain a traditional narrative musical form or suffer symmetry. It must have one thing, not logically but intuitively, placed alongside the next. A string quartet Combine? Of course.
Around town, Rauschenberg practically pops out of bushes. In Orange County, Lou Harrison, who along with Cage made percussion instruments out of whatever they could find in junkyards in the '30s, is presently being celebrated by the Pacific Symphony.
Robert Wilson, whose "Black Rider" is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a member of the next generation of artists molded by the consequence of the Black Mountain event. From this experiment, Cage and Cunningham further developed work in which the dance, music and Rauschenberg's décor could exist independently of one another. Wilson has long acknowledged that it is from such a notion that his own vision springs.
The summer of '52 at Black Mountain, Cage also performed his landmark Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. He inserted nuts, screws, bolts, pieces of plastic and rubber between the strings to create perhaps the first musical instrument Combine. Earlier this month, Susan Svreck played the Sonatas and Interludes for a Piano Spheres recital and now Margaret Leng Tan has released a DVD performance of the pieces along with a documentary on the preparations.
Minimalism in music, we learned at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival in April, was fostered by the support of artists in downtown New York in the '60s. Rauschenberg was there too. None of that support would have happened without the New York Schools of music and painting having paved the way.
And the beach? No, it is not singing pebbles on the sand but Segways, those two-wheel computerized carts you stand on and ride. In 1965 for the Judson Church, an experimental space in Greenwich Village, Rauschenberg created a dance called "Pelican." In it, he roller-skated with a large sail on his back. He also mounted a two-wheel device that looked like a proto-Segway.
But one place you'll still not encounter the rambunctious Rauschenberg effect is at the prim New York Philharmonic. Some things never change. The last time I looked, the poster was hanging, as always, off the side of the Fisher lobby. It felt more necessary than ever, if a bit lonely.
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