Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Erasing The Constraints:

Robert Rauschenberg Works

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California, USA

January 15, 2018

"I have a peculiar kind of focus: I tend to see everything in sight." ... Robert Rauschenberg

This essay, Erasing The Constraints: Robert Rauschenberg Works is the sixth in a hexalogy on Art:
  1. Art Gallery: The Physics Of Creativity
  2. Mona Lisa! Mona Lisa!
  3. Performance Artists
  4. Don't Regulate The Tate
  5. Bronze Buddha
  6. Erasing The Constraints: Robert Rauschenberg Works
in that order.

I am indebted to Robert Rauschenberg who inspired this conversation, and to Judy Golden and to Anita Lynn Erhard who contributed material.


Combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg

Oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal on canvas
80 x 96 x 3½ inches

1954, 1955

Photograph courtesy
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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I recently had the good fortune to be generously gifted two tickets for myself and a friend to attend a retrospective of the brilliant, extraordinary work of the artist Milton Ernest "Robert" Rauschenberg at the SF MoMA  (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Rauschenberg, considered by many to be l'enfant terrible  of the art world in the 1950s, evolved to become one of the most influential American artists of all time. The retrospective, which covered Rauschenberg's work from the 1940s until his passing in 2008, was titled "Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules". Its title evokes how Rauschenberg's amazing life and body of work is erasing the rules inter alia  for what art (and perhaps even for what Life itself as well) is ordinarily considered to be.

I went into the retrospective as one kind of art viewer. I'm not an art expert by any means, although I am art savvy  in many ways - which roughly translates to I know what I like. I wasn't expecting anything. At the same time I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the guy: I'd watched him closely and listened him speak when Werner interviewed him (the best interview I've ever seen Werner do) and I knew I loved him ie I knew I loved the person  he was, or at least I loved the person I considered him to be, based on listening him conversing with Werner, and particularly on listening the way  he conversed. But I'd never really known, bothered to find out about, or even cursorily looked at or into his art.

It's an intellectual  assertion (which doesn't make it any less valid) to say that Rauschenberg's life and work is erasing the rules for what art is considered to be. Yet something happened for me not intellectually but rather experientially  in viewing his retrospective ie something shifted for me in the constraints within which I experience  art, after which I'll never see art (or the world, for that matter) in the same way again. Ever.

By the time I emerged from the retrospective three hours later, my entire way of looking at art had transformed. No, that actually waaay  underplays what really happened for me. Rather, what happened was when I emerged from the retrospective three hours later, my entire way of looking period  had transformed. For some, Rauschenberg's influence may indeed epitomize erasing the rules. But for me, it epitomizes erasing the constraints. "So, what's the difference between erasing the rules  and erasing the constraints, Laurence?". And well you may ask. Here's how it landed for me (this is what actually happened):

Rauschenberg's work covers an unimaginably wide, unparalleled spectrum. There are paintings and sculptures. There are massive works covering entire walls. There are tiny hand-made boxes. There's a pool of bubbling mud, a biiig  pool of bubbling mud (say whut?  a mud  pool? in the SF MoMA???). Rauschenberg is credited with almost single-handedly inventing a way of creating art called combine painting  in which the artist not only paints on canvas or on some other base medium (steel, wood etc) but he then also adheres cloth, metal, neckties, torn-off Levi jeans'  pockets, knotted rope etc to it. Sculptures are formed not only from traditional clay, but mostly from whatever additional material an interested Rauschenberg found as he walked to his studio through the boroughs of New York City: discarded shoes, fallen street signs, umbrellas, some of which spear painted canvases so you have to step around, under, and behind them to get to and fully appreciate the piece itself.

Oh, and even when he does paint traditionally, there's nothing traditional about what he paints on:  one of his "canvases" is an entire made bed  replete with a cased pillow, sheets, and blankets. Stripes, gobs, drops, and spills of color transform the bed, an ordinary everyday object, into a sensual, other-worldly yet riveting  work of art which Rauschenberg hangs upright  on a wall - just as you and I would hang framed paintings on walls. Then there's a taxidermied mountain goat (really) which Rauschenberg purchased from a second-hand office furniture store on Seventh Avenue by offering $15.00 on the asking price of $35.00, put a car tire around its waist, then titled the piece "Monogram" (dunt esk  ... you have to view it standing directly in front of it then walking around it, to fully appreciate it) (and of course: yes, the goat is painted). The net effect is common, ordinary, everyday objects and materials are not only included  in art: they become  art themselves. Rauschenberg is relentlessly erasing (with dead-on accuracy, and very successfully) the rules for what art (and perhaps even for what Life itself as well) is ordinarily considered to be.

I wandered from gallery to gallery (the Rauschenberg retrospective comprises many adjacent galleries and rooms in the SF MoMA), amazed, enthralled, impressed, in love, awed, never bored, stunned. I shuffled slowly, patiently, unhurriedly from room to room, first taking in each piece to let it "speak" to me directly, and only then reading the blurb printed about each one on the wall near it (and sometimes then not  reading it - after all, the blurb only represents someone else's  interpretations and opinions, and I'm perfectly capable of getting stuck in my own  interpretations and opinions, yes?). Then I turned a corner, and that's when I saw what struck me as one of the most stunning pieces in the entire retrospective: at first glance it looked like a realistic stack of black coffee cups.

Rauschenberg had prepared me for this. If art can be comprised of (and is)  discarded street signs, a mud pool, tiny hand-made boxes, a painted bed hanging upright on a wall, umbrellas spearing canvases, or a mountain goat with a tire around its waist etc, then why can't a stack of coffee cups be art?  "This one's really  brilliant" I thought to myself, standing there in front of it, staring at it, nodding my head in appreciation, amazed. And that's  when it hit me ... and ... "... Oh ... my ... God!  ...".

It took me a moment to figure out, astonished (and it was the  quintessential double-take  moment), that it really was  a stack of coffee cups and not a work of art on display in Rauschenberg's retrospective: in meandering from room to room, I had perchance wandered into the SF MoMA's coffee shop! And what could possibly be more appropriate to see in a coffee shop than a stack of coffee cups?!  Yet what I naturally saw was another work of art.

I stood there in amazement, stock-still, asking myself "Something profound just happened ... but what?". Gradually it dawned on me that while I was taking in his retrospective, Rauschenberg was erasing my constraints that see art as art, and that see a stack of coffee cups as a stack of coffee cups  and not as art: the stack of coffee cups was  art. I was naturally seeing a stack of coffee cups as another work of art. Breathless, and out of my mind with delight  at this sudden insight, I walked over to a floor-to-ceiling window and looked out over the streets of San Francisco, savoring what I'd just realized. The retrospective was on the fourth floor of the SF MoMA building. Below me was a rooftop of a neighboring building, covered with a silver colored shiny aluminum coating to seal the roof and reflect away heat. And there it was again:  he was erasing my constraints that see art as art, and that see a silver topped building as a silver topped building  and not as art: the silver topped building was  art. I was naturally seeing a silver topped building as another work of art ... and then ... I was naturally seeing the entire city of San Francisco  as another work of art ... and then  ... I was naturally seeing Life itself  as another work of art ...

My friend and I rode the ferry from the terminal on the embarcadero at Market Street in San Francisco across the bay to the town of Vallejo's dock, from where we would drive back home to Napa Valley. On the way I found myself reflecting on what happened at the SF MoMA. Rauschenberg's contribution I realized is twofold. The first, most obvious is his enormous body of work - enough, in and of itself, to keep thousands and thousands of art lovers delighted and mesmerized for months and months on end. His breakthrough ideas sharing a well of creativity which seems bottomless, his execution of original, elegant works, evoke the thought which almost always shows up like a midwife's presence at the birth of true genius: "Why didn't I  think that?". His willingness to risk his reputation by including what is essentially discarded junk  in some of his most powerful creations (which have now become some of the entire art world's most powerful creations), is erasing the rules for what art is (and for what it could be, and perhaps even for what it should  be). It all comprises a legacy which generations of art lovers to come will treasure and marvel at.

Rauschenberg's second contribution is far more subtle: it's this erasing of experiential constraints which he accomplishes without warning or even declaring "I'm erasing experiential constraints" ("erasing the rules"  as in the title of his retrospective, I say is addressed to a more formal, more proper, educated art palate - pun intended).

It's in his erasing the constraints of experience, that Rauschenberg alters the very fabric  of what it is we experience - to wit, he alters that which determines what we experience as art, and that which determines what we don't experience as art ie that which we experience as not  art. In this, Rauschenberg is demonstrating an astonishing, unerring, remarkable, unique genius.

As the distinctive blue-coned roof of the Vallejo ferry dock came into view, I realized there's actually a third  contribution Rauschenberg makes, perhaps hidden unnoticed in all of the above, yet arguably the one which speaks way beyond  his retrospective, way beyond the world of art, and way beyond the many visitors to the SF MoMA: it speaks to all of humanity. For me, it's an outcome of ie it's a corollary  of (if you will) his second contribution of erasing the constraints of our experience of art: it's by doing that, he nudges us to look at the constraints each of us harbor which limit how we experience Life itself.

His nudging says "Look: reality isn't hardcoded this  way and neither is it hardcoded that  way ie it's not fixed:  it's waaay  more malleable than that.". He invites each of us to inquire into our own constraints which limit the way we experience Life itself, and to consider the possibility of erasing them ie of letting them go. Erasing the constraints of experience, something within the realm of choice for each of us, has far-reaching, profound implications for being human, way beyond the world of art.

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