Soaring Like an Eagle

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

The mammoth retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg’s art that recently arrived in Texas comes across like a New World epic. His best work defamiliarizes the familiar, suddenly bringing the strangeness of contemporary life into poignant, contemplative view.

As befits a tale with such big ambitions, the 300 or so paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and mixed-media works from the past 48 years that make up “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective” occupy not one but three museums here. (Fittingly, the artist was born in 1925 in the Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur, less than 100 miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana border.) In the galleries of the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, the epic unfolds with grace and skill.

Part of the story concerns the postwar restlessness of a youthful nation suddenly on the move. Part of it is about a young man in a situation not altogether dissimilar--a painter of voracious appetites, huge ambition and profound spiritual yearning, attempting to find his way.

And still another part involves a crisis in visual language, which was inescapable by the 1950s. The traditional ways and means of applying paint to canvas seemed increasingly ill-equipped to handle the explosive rhetoric of a new electronic age, an era of television and imminent space travel.


A work such as “Canyon” (1959) shows how dense the layers of poetic allusion can be in Rauschenberg’s art. “Canyon” is a Combine painting--a term the artist invented to describe the hybrids he began to make in 1954, in which painting, collage, assemblage and printing techniques all merged. Over the next seven years, the Combines turned out to be his most stunning body of work.

“Canyon” is a big canvas, almost 6 feet square, and its mottled surface is as evocative as a ruined city wall. Brushy slathers of black and white paint, recalling the urban dynamism of the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Franz Kline, mingle freely with elements of collage, which read as alleyway detritus scavenged from trash cans.

A snapshot photograph at the left shows a little boy seated in the grass, arm outstretched in a gesture of exploration. In the upper right corner a cardboard box is squashed flat. A small mirror wrapped in gauze creates murky reflections, while an astronomical picture torn from a scientific magazine displays the deep space of a star-studded night sky.

And there’s more--most startlingly the dramatic assemblage affixed to the bottom of the canvas.


A pillow dangles by a string from the end of a long, wooden stick, looking rather like Huck Finn’s knapsack. It asserts a downward visual counterweight to the soaring object above: a taxidermic bald eagle, wings spread wide, head stroked with paint and sharp talons clutching an empty cardboard box.

An eagle swooping down before a tattered urban wall? Artists before Rauschenberg have evoked the skyscraper-cliffs of the modern American city by using the Western metaphor of dramatic mountain precipices, but none have had the abrupt, audacious power of “Canyon.” Even its audacity speaks of a distinctly urban brand of insolence.

The swooping mountain eagle clutching its earthbound prey is also a wonderfully compelling reinvention of the homoerotic myth of Ganymede, the beautiful Greek boy carried off by Zeus to be cupbearer to the gods. The adjacent magazine picture of star-studded heavens provides a suitably romantic backdrop to this familiar Olympian tale, which was painted often by Renaissance and Baroque artists. It also reminds us of modern scientific romance: Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter, the name for Zeus in Roman mythology.

“Canyon” melds the drama of New York School painting with a highly personal narrative, while its sexually charged homage to the cupbearer of the gods suggests both the fragility of human fate and a secularized ideal of the artist’s role. It’s a brilliant picture, easily among the artist’s finest works.

Indeed, the exhibition underscores conventional wisdom: a lot of exceptional work has come out of Rauschenberg’s prolific career, especially in the early decades, which have been closely scrutinized for years.

The show was organized by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, curators at the Menil, where often rigorous and challenging work from 1950 through the mid-1970s is beautifully installed. Works from the mid-1970s and 1980s, the majority owned by the artist, are at Richmond Hall, a warehouse annex to the Menil three short blocks away.

Two miles southeast, the Contemporary Arts Museum is showing videotapes of Rauschenberg’s often provocative dance and performance pieces, as well as his usually clunky experimental efforts to exploit new technologies. (The big, bubbling vat of goo called “Mud Muse,” made for the notorious 1971 Art and Technology show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is here.) Finally, the past decade is rather blandly represented across the street at the Museum of Fine Arts, along with “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece"--an ongoing, monumental visual diary most notable for its operatic scale (at present it spans about 1,000 linear feet).

A few critical early works are absent. Most notable are “Monogram” (1955-1959), the outlandish Combine that features an elegant stuffed goat happily grazing on a horizontal field of scavenged junk, which surely ranks as the wittiest surrogate self-portrait any artist ever made; and the Combine “Factum II” (1957), the companion to “Factum I” (which is on view), in which Rauschenberg executed a hand-made copy of his own ostensibly unique work.


One of the things that makes the show’s first half so exciting is watching how the artist gropes his way through to a hitherto unprecedented visual form. To the de-centered, all-over compositions pioneered in Abstract Expressionist painting, Rauschenberg added pictures and objects. His hybrid art orchestrates a distinctly modern way of seeing, most easily described as a visual scan.

Your eye slides searchingly across the surface of his work, accumulating pictorial data and picking up its rhythms. You analyze its visual information the way you analyze poetic verse, as paint and picture merge into equivalence.

Take the big triptych called “Die Hard” (1963). Its title reeks of defiance in the face of death, while stealing the commercial name of an automobile battery in order to jump-start the lively pictorial engine.

The term also recalls the mechanical patterns used in industrial mass production, which Rauschenberg exploits in pictures from popular magazines he printed directly on the canvas by means of a silk-screen technique.

The central pivot is a sideways picture of the Statue of Liberty, while images of American flags and patriots crop up nearby. As your eye floats through the expansive field, multiple images of John Glenn’s Mercury space capsule returning to earth by parachute reverberate. All combined, these fleeting pictures represent the same thing Rauschenberg’s painting physically embodies: the American exploration of space.

In the United States circa 1963, space was the final frontier--not just for scientific discovery and Cold War politics, but for art as well. “Die Hard” uses topical imagery to reinvent the two-dimensional space of painting. (Check out the schematic diagram of a Minimalist box in the upper right-hand corner, which also sports an arrow pointing directly to the Mercury capsule landing in the ocean). In this poetic elegy, the thing that dies hard is art’s earthbound yearning for transcendence.

Flight is a subject that proliferates throughout Rauschenberg’s career. Birds are a particularly prominent leitmotif--think of “Canyon"--especially in the decade following 1954, when the image first appeared.

A stuffed hen and a stuffed rooster notoriously adorn two of the earliest Combines--"Odalisque” is even a junkyard reliquary that elaborately enshrines a single fragile feather--while a picture of a rooster’s head is collaged in the center of one from 1955. “Coca Cola Plan” (1958) is a secular icon featuring three soft drink bottles being borne aloft on cast-metal wings, and a 1961 Combine centers on a squashed motor oil can, whose Blue Eagle brand also provides its title. Rauschenberg’s most famous performance piece, in which he appeared on roller skates with an open parachute strapped backward on his body, was 1963’s “Pelican.”


The huge black-and-white painting called “Barge” (1962-1963), a mural stretching 32 feet in length, includes its own winged proliferation. In addition to a prominent silk-screened picture of caged finches, both a cupid and a Telstar satellite dart in and out of view in the pile-up of photographs and patches of runny paint. Nature, myth and technology are all evoked through images of flight.

“Pelican” and the rest no doubt hark back to the artist’s Gulf Coast youth. And sometimes a bird is just a bird. Plainly, though, there’s more to these potent flights of fancy than mere autobiographical nostalgia.

Rauschenberg’s first retrospective in 1976, at Washington’s National Museum of American Art, as well as an eye-opening 1991 Menil exhibition that focused on the early 1950s, prior to the artist’s 1954 invention of the Combines, were also organized by Walter Hopps. You might expect therefore that this one would emphasize the last 20 years, but instead it goes in more for an assertion of continuity throughout the entire career.

Still, there’s no arguing that the work of the 1950s and 1960s is, overall, more compelling than that of the 1970s through 1990s. Partly, that’s because any era of radical invention is inevitably exciting. Rauschenberg’s once-prescient method of pictorial scan is by now an almost universally shared and commonly understood experience. It no longer provides the necessary estrangement an epic demands.

And part of the reason is that, sometime in the 1970s, Rauschenberg stopped using mass media images and started to rely only on photographs he took himself. When he began to travel the globe executing projects intended to enhance international understanding through ad hoc collaborations, his subjects couldn’t help becoming more personal. Paradoxically, that made them more obscure and uninvolving for non-participants.

But that’s no slight to Rauschenberg’s amazing achievement. This epic retrospective is proof enough of that.


* “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective” remains on view at Houston’s Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross; Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose St.; and Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet St., through May 17. (713) 525-9400.