Rauschenberg at Play
by Naomi Falk
Here is an artist who has departed the recognizable ground of his artistic practice, searching the shoals and valleys of that which he has not tried and does not know. In the wake of abstract expressionism’s emotive intensity came Robert Rauschenberg’s reductive White Paintings. So reductive, in fact, that they brought—and still bring—into question how we define art.
My feelings about the artist’s work are inextricably tethered to the risks the artist takes. As I stand before an artwork, as the gentle, initial impressions form a cohesive thought, the first question I ask myself, is how does it make me feel.
In August 2017 when the exhibition Rauschenberg: Among Friends was on view at the Museum of Modern Art, I finally saw, in person, his famous White Painting [Seven Panel] (1951) in which seven rectangular canvases comprise the larger rectangle of the painting, all rolled with white enamel paint. The demarcations where the canvases are joined are the only obvious inconsistencies on the surface of the monochrome (canvas covered more or less uniformly by the same color). In an absence of color, gesture, representation, I confronted a blank slate. I felt smitten upon first glance, that familiar warm rush to the head. How absorbing to experience an artwork I’d only considered theoretically in reading about abstraction.
A white painting, white light: at the end of the tunnel, or death. White is nothing. It is empty space to be filled. But, emptiness is a vast loneliness, expressing nothing, suggesting everything.
White are our canvases. White are the museum walls of our time; unreflective, unobtrusive, they seem unfeeling, but minimize distractions and reinforce focus. But white can be spilled on, destroyed. White invites shadow, exposing a particle of dust floating around the air in this room, where I become hyperaware of my own spectatorship as my presence, perhaps imperceptibly, changes the light. What would the painting look like if I left?
Much to my chagrin, the two friends I’d giddily brought to the museum that day stood craned over their phones. Their reactions were, however, not unusual. One inevitably hears attempts at humor in front of a piece that any given audience has deemed impenetrable. Perhaps, “I could paint this” or, “a child could do this.”
Rauschenberg completed a series of six White Paintings in 1951, comprised of one to seven panels. They’ve become some of my favorites, but my initial interest in them was piqued by a lack of understanding of what it was that made—and still makes—monochromes such a popular type of painting for artists and spectators alike. Some people dedicate years of study to them; others impulsively reject them. That art can be so polarizing surely makes it worth our curiosity.
There is an urgent need to find the mutual ground within larger disagreements, to transform disconnect into debate. When we poke fun at a painting by questioning its status as a piece of art, we are on the threshold of curiosity. Whatever it is that keeps us from wanting to know more is unnamable. That even the discussion of a particular painting by a particular artist is not considered digestible for a “general audience” gravely underestimates the extent to which that audience can learn from expanded exposure to both old and new work. It is perhaps the case that a general audience is inured by the prevailing media to become content with sound bites and pre-summarized information. This is not meant as an insult and is certainly not revelatory; I am saddened and deeply angered by the idea of a life lived without knowing the emotional and psychological transformations that wonderful works of art provoke. I recall the times during which a painting transcended my waking hours and drifted into my dreams: I saw a friend who’d died perched aside Louise Bourgeois’s Quarantania the day I first encountered it at the Whitney, and I gave birth to a girl on the humid, heavy summer evening I read of Stella’s pregnancy in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. There is an uncanny shiver that courses down the length of my spine when I encounter another person with the same favorite artists. How quickly empathy blooms when people meet each other after independently being moved by the same photograph or story or sculpture. The curvature of my world is bent by art. My experiences of it operate beyond my control.
Some art’s worthiness is rarely, if ever, questioned by the public, like Bernini’s sculptures or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. We have absorbed them into our DNA after decades (or hundreds of years) of our consideration have deemed them some of the greatest pieces of art in the Western canon. An aversion to thinking is evident more often during encounters with monochromes. I resist the impulse to say I empathize with this tendency, although I empathize with the frustration of confusion, with sensing, that a painting holds more than it is revealing. I also empathize with the feeling that the path to thinking about art is paved by impenetrable texts and buffered intellectual communities. But, a refusal to explore on the basis of stubbornness is a common practice that one could argue has led to a large bundle of our contemporary and historical world’s brute violence. It is too easy to look at abstract art and resign oneself to feelings of alienation, stifling the mind’s potential for surprise. I think part of this resignation is due to what one expects out of art when she approaches it. Rauschenberg does not turn stone to flesh like Bernini, to be sure. The resemblance of Bernini’s works to the three-dimensional human form is immediately recognizable. This ability to sculpt, to master representational detail, is the obvious product of talent and practice and was, for many centuries, the highest achievement of art. Only recently have we reconsidered the application and meaning of representation.
Decontextualized, Rauschenberg’s painting would not suggest a particular mastery of form, in the classic sense. Even other monochromes are more sensual. Robert Ryman’s Untitled (1960) gives us texture, border, a glimpse of the artist’s canvas and a gentle suggestion of color some layers within and behind the white paint. Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome (1961) is delectable, the blue so blue you can taste it on your tongue, if you stand close enough.
Most people, given a white roller and white paint, could mimic Rauschenberg’s painting and no one’d know the difference. The artist, in fact, once gave a curator a paint sample and the work’s dimensions in order for him to recreate it for an exhibition overseas. That the White Paintings have been displayed at the most well-regarded museums and galleries across the world is, to me, a knee-slapper, as I’m always one for harmless antics, particularly when they foster questions about the purpose and role of art.
Rauschenberg’s seven-panel White Painting is not dazzling (like Klein’s blue). A child could likely do it, as so many people suggest about monochromes. A child with little art-making experience could likely recreate the painting, certainly if she were given a set of instructions and materials. Roll the paint onto the canvas, make it smooth, cover the surface. The child has the tools to recreate the artwork, but her replica lacks the intent of the original object, just as she, most likely, does not bring the perspective, gleaned from study and practice, that Rauschenberg did to his White painting series. This comparison is worthy of discussion, but it does not serve to indicate the merits of either work. Alternatively, a White Painting look-alike produced by a child without any prompting would be a different work entirely for the simple reason that—contrary to formalist readings, in which the painting is separated from its context—a painting’s artist matters to me. The landscape of a life cascades meaning into the work.
When I think about the painting now, I envision its single white color, its even white surface—both serious and a humorous affront, inviting both play and the need for intellectual work. Studying the White Painting has made it less important to me whether I like the painting or not, for, I can no longer consider it clearly without the layers of meaning and association that pool in my mind when I see it. The process of discovering is one of creating. The impulse to create—the origin of Rauschenberg’s painting—is shared by anyone who has ever hummed a tune to herself while alone in a room, softly breaking silence with a thought which, during its passing through the mind, caught hold and became action.
When Rauschenberg was a young challenger of Modernism, artists decided they were sick of their worth being measured and calculated by the standards set by their dead predecessors. They wanted to banish routine, find a way to communicate how they felt about their contemporary world. They reacted to and expressed human experience. They reshaped and redefined the materials they found around them in daily life.
In creating, I become a devotee to free-thought. I exceed patterns of dichotomizing and voyeurism. This is not just about loving an artwork; it is about adopting patterns of thinking on my own terms, letting the world become a boundless ocean into which I’ll plunge.