Cream of the Jest

Robert Rauschenberg Early Bloomer Anagram (A Pun) 1998

No other artist in the last half of the 20th Century created a body of work that has influenced more painters than Robert Rauschenberg. His use and understanding of Duchamp and the DaDaists, AbEx painting and his wild man compositional style can still be seen in the work of artists from all over the world. Bob [Milton] came out of Port Arthur, Texas, a dirt poor southern city. And like many southern towns during the Depression there was grinding poverty, pernicious fundamentalist christianity and a lack of culture so severe it might be that Rauschenberg’s greatest achievement was getting out. But when you come from such a place [and there are still southern towns like this] – for certain folks – the only option is to get out – quickly – and never go back. Never.

RR Dante Canto XXXI 1960

“In 1960, Rauschenberg had retreated to Florida’s Treasure Island to complete a set of illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, an experience he later described as being to ‘my mature creative benefit’. But to many at the time it must have seemed an incongruous move for someone so strongly associated with the city. In 1965, when he mentioned the idea casually – and not yet entirely seriously – to art historian Dorothy Seckler, she commented: ‘I think that would be the cream of the jest for the art world: that the man who was…responsible for introducing the whole urban environment into painting…becomes a collaborator with the sun and wind and rain and flowers.’ ‘And beaches,’ Rauschenberg added. ‘I might move out there and find that all the work is finished. At that point I might just become a collector of vegetables…and I could be a critic on waves.’” [Maggie Gray on Rauschenberg November 30, 2016]

Robert Rauschenberg Axle 1964

“… I was in awe of the painters; I mean I was new in New York, and I thought the painting that was going on here was just unbelievable. I still think that Bill de Kooning is one of the greatest painters in the world. And I liked Jack Tworkov, himself and his work. And Franz Kline. But I found a lot of artists at the Cedar Bar were difficult for me to talk to. It almost seemed as though there were so many more of them sharing some common idea than there was of me, and at that time the people who gave me encouragement in my work weren’t so much the painters, even my contemporaries, but a group of musicians that were working: Morton Feldman, and John Cage, and Earl Brown, and the dancers that were around this group. I felt very natural with them. There was something about the self assertion of abstract expressionism that personally always put me off, because at that time my focus was as much in the opposite direction as it could be. I was busy trying to find ways where the imagery and the material and the meanings of the painting would be not an illustration of my will but more like an unbiased documentation of my observations…” [Rauschenberg in conversation with Dorothy Seckler]

Rauschenberg was not only determined to be an artist he was also a natural rabble rouser, a big personality. He must have seemed fearless to his friends and colleagues, and a bit of a pain in the ass to anyone who might not like what he was up to. Once Bob had arrived in NYC he quickly sorted himself through the New York art world. He got to know all the painters and many of the dealers. He connected with other controversial artists in other disciplines – John Cage and Merce Cunningham – who were trying to shake up their respective worlds. He was absolutely Promethean involving himself in everything – performance, music and art – and the focus of the NYC art world began to change quickly. Fifty years before in the South of France it was Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. Their work changed the visions and conversations about Art and painting in Paris. In NYC it was three Southerners Jasper, Cy and Bob and their influence is still all over the art world.

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