Robert Rauschenberg and David Smith: compelling contiguities.

Author:Potts, Alex

David Smith: A Centennial

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 3-May 14, 2006

Carmen Gimenez, David Smith: A Centennial, exh. cat. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2006. 460 pp., 175 color ills., 125 b/w. $85

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, December 20, 2005-April 2, 2006; Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles, May 21-September 11, 2006

Paul Schimmel, with essays by Thomas Crow, Branden W. Joseph, and Charles Stuckey, Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, exh. cat. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005. 318 pp., 170 color ills., up to 30 b/w. $75

This past winter, shows of two very different American artists, both of whom produced some of their finest work in the 1950s and early 1960s, were staged within a fifteen minutes' walk of one another in New York: a David Smith retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and an exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg's combines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (1) Both exhibitions stirred a good deal of interest, and both drew attention to facets of these artists' oeuvres that had been underexposed in recent years--the combines by Rauschenberg, and the more figural, welded and forged, open metal sculptures (as distinct from the more abstract and chunkier Zigs and Cubi) by Smith. For all practical purposes, however, the two shows existed in quite separate worlds. The artists concerned are assumed to represent two very different tendencies in twentieth-century art, one associated with the weightier convictions, or pretensions, of the Abstract Expressionist generation, and the other with the laid-back, experimental outlook of later neo-Dada or Pop artists.

The contingent nature of the occasion to look at Smith and Rauschenberg in relation to one another is worth exploiting precisely in order to break away from the increasingly abstract polarity between the modernist and the antimodernist or postmodernist that governs so much thinking about postwar art. This conjunction provides a good opportunity to explore afresh certain broader concerns shaping American and European art in the period between World War II and the countercultural activism and political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period that witnessed a dramatic, worldwide expansion of American-style consumerism, as well as Cold War militarism and threat of nuclear annihilation. What if we imagine for a moment that Smith and Rauschenberg were not operating in totally separate arenas, that they shared common ground in their commitment to an artistic project, their experimentation with assemblage and open-ended artistic process, and their concern with issues of imaging, reference, and signification?


The well-known photographs of Smith and Rauschenberg posed in their studios (Figs. 1, 2), Smith in 1937 and Rauschenberg in 1958, at first seem to offer diametrically opposed representations of self and artistic persona. Smith, in workman's clothes, stands slightly grumpily and awkwardly at the entrance to his workshop, Terminal Iron Works in Brooklyn, where he had just left off working on Sculptor and Model, a curious Picasso-like piece in which a standing female model dominates a diminutive, sexually excited male artist perched on the sculptor's stand. The relatively delicate filigree of the welded-metal structures to the left of Smith looks somewhat at odds with the uncomfortably confrontational, fairly thickset, and very masculine figure of the artist himself, and also with the large piece of aggressively projecting machinery at the right. This is the sculptor as worker artist, but shown uneasily situated between the brute facts of modern machinery and a body of work that hardly announces itself as toughly industrial in spirit.

Rauschenberg, by contrast, is posed leaning elegantly and nonchalantly against the vertical backdrop to his second, but not definitive, arrangement of Monogram, the piece that in its final form--with the stuffed Angora goat set on a horizontal base, or "pasture"--was to become his signature work. He is surrounded by his key early combines: Interview from 1955 on the left, then moving to the right, the autobiographical Untitled (or Man with the White Shoes) that probably dates from 1955, (2) then Bed, also from 1955, and finally the Odalisk (or Odalisque, as announced on the metal label just below the stuffed rooster), begun in 1955 and finished in 1958. But is he so nonchalant? The crossed arms and tight lips betray a degree of tension or awkwardness absent from the easefully leaning of the Praxitelean youths of classical Greek sculpture that Rauschenberg seems to be mimicking. These complexities are picked up in the visual interplay between the figure of the artist and two rather different "male" images--the photographs of a grieving man and of an elegant dandy in a white suit collaged to Untitled. A further juxtaposition adds a disruptively comical note: the pairing of the artist with the handsome white rooster standing atop the Odalisk, the only other full-bodied presence in the photograph aside from the Angora goat circled by a rubber tire--the artist's monogram--in the foreground.


Smith and Rauschenberg were formed as artists in two very different worlds. Smith embarked on his career in the highly politicized era of the Depression, New Deal, and early years of World War II, during which time there is evidence that he may briefly have joined the Communist Party. (3) Rauschenberg came to maturity during the subsequent boom and Cold War years, beginning with a period when he was drafted into military service at the very end of World War II that helped to shape his pacifist convictions. If they were born nineteen years apart, however, Rauschenberg's meteoric rise to fame and David Smith's slow advance to prominence, interrupted by the war, radically compressed this separation. Smith's work first attracted widespread critical attention with his show at the Willard and Buchholz Galleries in New York in 1946, and it was quite soon afterward that Rauschenberg had his first solo exhibition, at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1951, followed by a show at the Stable Gallery in 1953, where he began to gain critical notice. Smith had to wait until 1957 for his first retrospective, held at the New York Museum of Modern Art, while Rauschenberg's took place only six years later at the Jewish Museum in New York, when he was thirty-eight years old. The combines, on which the Rauschenberg show focuses, almost all date from the period between 1954 and 1962, after which time he switched to silk-screen painting. This period roughly corresponds to the one during which Smith produced much of his best-known large-scale work--though one of the revelations of the recent exhibition was the amazing versatility and vital originality of many of the earlier, more modestly scaled post-Surrealist works of the 1940s and early 1950s.

The two artists' understandings of the imperatives driving their artistic projects were anchored in very different values and priorities characteristic of their different generations. Smith envisaged his work as activated by inner conviction and incessant struggle against the dominant values of modern society. Rauschenberg's commitment, by contrast, was to a radical noncommitment, to an openness to what he described as the "richness and complexity" he saw around him. (4) Smith repeatedly stressed the "belligerent vitality--and total conviction ... which goes into a work of art." In his view, the artist's "inner conviction and drive" needed to be "so great that he will not settle for anything short of the fact of being an artist." (5) As is clear from a public statement he prepared for a forum held by the New York City Board of Education in 1950, he believed that such assertion of artistic autonomy had a vital political dimension. "The freedom of man's mind to celebrate his own feeling by a work of art," as he put it, "parallels his social revolt from bondage." (6) To the very end of his life he maintained that the integrity of purpose driving his art was anticapitalist, and that if his art was at odds with "contemporary socialist society" as well as with "present capitalist society," the ideal public for it would be an as yet unrealized "true socialist society." (7)


Rauschenberg saw the priorities guiding his work very differently. In an interview with the critic Dorothy Seckler published in 1966, he said he was trying "to find ways where the imagery, the material and the meaning of the painting would be, not an illustration of my will, but more like an unbiased documentation of what I observed, letting the area of feeling and meaning take care of itself." (8) He repeatedly asserted a studied uncommitment, claiming in an interview with a French critic conducted five years earlier that his work, by contrast with Dada, was inclusive rather than exclusive: "If you were to ask me whether I wish to please or displease, provoke or convince.... I would be obliged to say that it is precisely all this together. Half my reasons would be negative and the other half positive." (9) Seckler summed up this position as Rauschenberg's wanting "to say both 'yes' and 'no' in order to say 'yes.'" (10)

Andrew Forge, the English art critic and painter who was the most perceptive of Rauschenberg's early critics, recognized that in this studied avoidance of assertion, this "distracted, apparently non-committal posture," he was still "engaged" by something. If the "radical non-commitment" gave rise to an art that spoke to the "vernacular glance" of modern consumer society--to use the phrase later coined by the Irish-American writer and artist Brian O'Doherty to describe the looking invited by Rauschenberg's art--it still had an ethical dimension. It represented a calculated negation of what Forge described as the "swollen self-projection that sustains the run of modern art," (11)...

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