Pop Art, Raushenberg, Johns, Dine, Indiana, Demuth
Rauschenberg’s Combines, now at the Met, are rich and dense in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
* By Mark Stevens
* Published Dec 18, 2005
Rauschenberg's Canyon (1959), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Early in the twentieth century, artists began jumping out art’s window. The Russian modernists soared into the revolutionary sky. The Dadaists, arching an eyebrow, admired the cracked glass. The Cubists couldn’t stop blinking, beautifully agog. At mid-century, Robert Rauschenberg went through the window with American gusto. He had an appetite for the churning street outside, and he seemed full of jazzy slang. He was rude—vitally and impishly rude—in a way no American painter (except the de Kooning of Woman I) had ever been before him. He’d put anything in art: postcards, socks, street junk, paint, neckties, wire, cartoons, even stuffed animals. Especially stuffed animals. The absurdist taxidermy was funny as well as provocative. The goat-and-rooster shtick made wicked fun of both the macho posturing of the fifties and the holy pomposities then gathering around painting. Sometimes, art needs a good rooster squawk.
Once through the window, Rauschenberg had one of the great, decade-long runs in American art, which is now the subject of “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Nan Rosenthal oversaw the installation at the Met—the exhibit includes 67 works created between 1954 and 1964. Among them are both famous works (the goatish Monogram) and rarely exhibited pieces. Rauschenberg himself invented the term “Combines” to describe a pungent style of mix-and-match collage. In his oeuvre, this early decade of the Combines, especially the first five years, matters the most. It anticipates much that came later, and it raises an important question: Are the Combines less than meets the eye, a slapdash everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that ultimately just celebrates energy for energy’s sake?
They’re more than meets the eye. My first impression of the show—before looking at the imagery—was one of a controlled, formal richness. An artist in love with the hot and messy splash of inspiration, of course, but also one who’s knotty, thoughtful, and considered. Rauschenberg mostly worked with what Rosenthal calls a “syncopated grid,” a formal structure within which he weighted and composed lights, colors, and shapes. In an image like Canyon, for example, he calculated how the weight of the hanging bag sets off the strength of the eagle’s wings as it pulls upward into the image-laden sky. Reproductions don’t convey the tactile feeling of Rauschenberg’s color. His surfaces are rich, steeped, time-marinated.
As you draw closer to a Combine, its imagery begins to come into focus, and everything starts to connect and connect and connect. You find that not only do the blacks in Canyon rhyme with the bird’s wings; so does that ribbing in the upper right, which mirrors the tips of the outstretched feathers. (And there’s wt., the abbreviation for “weight,” within the same ribbed black.) Canyon takes its inspiration in part from a Rembrandt Ganymede that depicts an eagle pulling a heavy, bawling boy into the air, one who looks rather like the child in the snapshot in the Combine; the hanging bag evokes the boy’s buttocks. Connections zigzag across mental boundaries. Weight, for example, can be literal or illusory, a matter of words, images, colors, and shapes.
There’s an argument that art should probe deeply, that it should rigorously edit experience in order to reach some bedrock essence. Nothing wrong with that. Rauschenberg’s endless connections, some lighthearted and some not, do something else. He celebrates the floating textures of consciousness—the way the mind moves, wanders, and joins together. One of my favorite Combines, Hymnal, contains (among much else) a book, a piece of paisley that looks the way hymns sound, and some ill-tempered graffiti. It can be good to concentrate on the hymn alone. It can also be good, as you pick up the hymnal, to acknowledge the message scratched on the pew.
Robert Rauschenberg: Combines
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
December 20 through april 2.
Pop Art II, Warhol, Hamilton, and Licthenstein.
Johns. Painted Bronze. 1960
|Form: Bronze cast sculpture, painted realistically to give the
appearance of actual Ale cans.
Iconography: As a Pop artist, Johns was interested mainly in
taking items from his everyday life that held an importance for him and
reappropriating them into fine art. He was not bitter or trying to make
a political statement as Kienholz did, nor was he as flippant and free-spirited
as Oldenburg. Simply, he wate to make a statement about himself, what he
could create and what held as important. What makes his Painted Bronze
a work of art s the craft that went into making it. He had to sculpt and
cast the pieces from plaster into bronze, refine it, then painstakingly
paint every small detail onto it. The skill needed to create this piece
was the same skill that Degas used to create his 'Small Ballerina' bronze.
The difference is what the meaning is to the different artists, and the
reflection of the time they were living in. ballerinas and the ballet were
important to Degas, and Ballentine ale was important to Johns. The end
result for either artist was a beautiful piece of sculpture.
Context: (Originally published in Modern Painters (Summer 1996) "Johns's sculptures mostly date from a four-year period early in his career, 1958-61, suggesting a short-lived interest. But although Johns's enormous reputation rests on his painting and printmaking, the object is a crucial aspect of his work. His paintings often include a collage element, with plaster casts or found objects protruding from the surface, or the support itself being an actual, identifiable object, such as a crate or an inverted, stretched canvas. Furthermore, his sculptures, which are mostly in his own collection, often feature as subjects in his paintings or prints: Painted Bronze (Savarin) 1960, for instance, (brushes in a coffee tin which he had cast in bronze and then proceeded to paint, quite convincingly but in such a way that they look more like a three dimensional painting than the original) is a frequently recurring motif in paintings and prints. Of course, this begs the question (the sort of question champions of Johns find so pregnant and exacting): is he painting his own sculpture, Painted Bronze (Savarin), or is he painting an object in his studio, some brushes in a coffee tin, which hitherto just happened also to be the subject of a sculpture, Painted Bronze (Savarin)? Because Johns can offer seemingly little else by way of aesthetic consolation, this sort of epistemological tease can sometimes constitute the main interest in his work. And however spiritually removed he is from the aesthetic that followed in his trail, Johns was undoubtedly a prototype for the minimalists and conceptualists. Donald Judd's dictum that art has only to be interesting is
implicit in much appreciation of Johns." A short biography of Johns shows his life as an artist was connected to others on the PopArt scene of the 1960's and 70's, and helps to gives us an understanding of how popart as a whole developed along the lines that it did, with the shared ideas and idealism of the times." Born in 1930 at Augusta, Georgia. He grew up in South Carolina. He was drafted into the army and stationed in Japan. Between 1949 and 1951 he studied at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. From 1952 to 1958 he worked in a bookshop in New York. He also did display work with Robert Rauschenberg for Bonwit Teller and Tiffany. In 1954 he painted his first flag picture. He had his first one-man exhibition in 1958 at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. He was represented at the Venice Biennale during the same year. His picture Grey Numbers also won the International Prize at the Pittsburgh Biennale. In 1959 he took part with Rauschenberg in Allan Kaprow's Happening Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts. He was included in the collective exhibition Sixteen Americans in the same year at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1960 he began working with lithographs. In 1961 he did his first large map picture and travelled to Paris for an exhibition at the Galerie Rive Droite. In 1964 he was given a comprehensive retrospective at the Jewish Museum, New York. The catalog included texts by John
Cage and Alan Solomon. He was represented at the Venice Biennale in the same year. In 1965 he had a retrospective at the Passadena Art Museum, organized by Walter Hopps. During the same year he saw a Duchamp exhibition and won a prize at the 6th International Exhibition of Graphic Art, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. In 1966 he had a one-man exhibition of drawings at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington. In 1967 he rented a loft in Canal Street and painted Harlem Light using a tile motif. He also illustrated Frank O'Hara's book of poems "In Memory of My Feelings". He was Artistic Adviser for the composer John Cage and Merce
Cunningham's Dance Company until 1972, collaborating with Robert Morris, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Bruce Naumann. In that year he was represented at the documenta "4", Kassel, designed costumes for Merce Cunningham's "Walkaround Time" and spent seven weeks at the printers Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles. In
1973 he met Samuel Beckett in Paris. He moved to Stony Point, N.Y. He was given a comprehensive retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1977, shown in 1978 at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, Hayward Gallery, London, and Seibu Museum of Art,Tokyo. He was represented at the Venice Biennale in 1978. In 1979 the Kunstmuseum Basle put on an exhibition of his graphic work which toured Europe. In 1988 he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale." ( www.fi.muni.cz)
Jeff Koons. Puppy. c1985
|Form: Huge sculpture of a puppy, created out of stainless steel
and thousands of different plants and flowers.
Iconography: (Taken from www.cavant-garde.com) "Jeff koons'
puppy is a staggering achievement of sculptural imagination, horticultural
dexterity and engineering skill. first created in 1992 for a temporary
exhibition in the german city of arolson, puppy was an immediate sensation
drawing huge crowds and critical acclaim. a symbol, according to koons,
of "love, warmth and happiness" this contemporary masterpiece is a triumph
of scale, colour and materials. rising 43 feet tall from the puppy's paws
to its alert ears, the sculpture is formed from a series of stainless steel
sections constructed to hold over 25 tons of soil watered by an internal
irrigation system. this floral giant is composed of over seventy thousand
plants, including begonias, impatiens, petunias, marigolds and lobelias.
once described as 'the seventh wonder of the world', puppy was installed
at the museum of contemporary art in sydney australia in 1996. once year
later puppy traveled to bilbao in spain where it became a permanent part
of the guggenheim museum's collection and an icon for basque city.
organised by rockerfeller centre in association with the public art fund,
this new york exhibition of puppy was made possible by the efforts of many
dedicated riggers, horticulturists and volunteers working over a period
of three weeks to install this monumental work. puppy at rockerfeller centre
is the first exhibition of this public sculpture in the united states.
born in 1955, jeff koons is one of the world's most widely recognised artists.
in the 1980's his sculptures and photography explored contemporary american
iconography turning popular kitsch into high art. koons signature work
most often uses strikingly simple imagery transformed into sculptures using
the finest of materials."
Context: Koons is notorious for taking innocent seeming objects and creating a new meaning for them by increasing their size, creating them out of different or unexpected materials, and sometimes filling them with double-meaning or messages. However, in the case of Puppy, it would seem that his only quest was to create something beautiful and decorative for the benefit of it being able to beautify a space. This could be just art for the sake of being art, nothing more or less, and like an Oldenburg statue is just a beautiful piece done on an enormous scale, but lacking the irony and humor found in Oldenburgs work.
Jeff Koons. Travel Bar. 1986
cast stainless steel
|Form: Stainless steel replica of a 1950's-60's travel bar set.
Iconography: "...an upper-class travel bar decanter for liquor
cast in stainless steel (the proletariat silver according to Jeff Koons);
part of the Luxury and Degradaton show. Liquor is sealed inside, but it
is withheld, since to break the seal would be to break apart the work.
Playing on status objects empty of soul that suggest an artificial luxury,
and artificial value, vanitas imagery. Koons uses the strategy of withholding,
sealing the liquor inside where one can't get to it without ruining the
work; desire always out of reach as a metaphor for the false promises of
advertising and the way even status objects of surplus can't fill the void
or lack of missing moral values..... imagery for an age of consumption
to excess; the use of status objects as support mechanisms for the individual
and signs of class power. The slick, shiny surfaces of the hyperreal, hollow
at the core. " (Taken from www.csulb.edu)
Context: As a consummate Pop Artist, Koons has taken a simple, everyday object and created a metaphor out of it. By making it all appear to be created out of silver he is emphasizing the upper-class status of those wealthy enough to carry their liquor around with them, putting a sheen on the fact that alcohol is often referred to as 'poor mans' cocaine.' It's possible that one of the underlying messages is the human reality of addiction and substance abuse, no matter how wealthy one may be.
Jeff Koons, Jackson and Bubbles
|Form: Life-size porcelain scupture, gold leaf.
Iconography: (Taken from www.sfmoma.org) "For Michael Jackson
and Bubbles, from the artist's Banality series, Koons directed Italian
ceramicists to create a greatly oversized figurine from a publicity photograph
of the celebrity and his chimpanzee. The performer and his pet are posed
as companions, wearing matching gold band uniforms and an excess of makeup
that stands in for genuine facial expression. Bubbles is nestled in Jackson's
lap, their limbs confused to the point where one of the legs of the chimp
could easily be mistaken for a third arm of the singer. They are instantly
recognizable and undeniably beautiful.Yet right at the cold, shiny surface
of their snow-white faces are rather disturbing issues of race, gender,
and sexuality that are often part and parcel of our fascination with
public personae. Over the course of rising from child stardom in the early
1970s, as the youngest member of The Jackson Five, to an unsurpassable
level of international fame in the eighties and nineties, this cultural
icon whom we know to be a black man has come to more closely resemble a
white woman. The three-dimensional sculpture inhabits our space, the space
of the general (albeit museum-going) public, but Michael Jackson himself
is a man that we can never know. No matter how much media attention he
receives, to the millions of people in whose consciousness he resides he
will never be more than the flat character of tabloid reproductions and
television. Koons' use of ceramic points directly to the hollowness and
fragility of celebrity status."
Context: "... in a series of works he called "Banality", Koons creates sculptures of dimensions and details monstrous and absurd.These works, like Michael Jackson and Bubbles, demand attention by virtue of their size and seductive porcelain surfaces, yet they disturb as well. The dead white of Jackson's skin, his glamorous pose with Bubbles in matching clothing invites a chilling range of questions about celebrity and image making." (www.broadartfoundation.org)
||Form: A sterling silvr tea set surrounded by slave shackles.
Iconography: Fred Wilson is an African American artist
whose Pop Art Influence is mainly political and concerned with exposing
the racism found not only in the art world at large, but also in the musuems
and institutions America holds as paragons of artistic virtue and knowledge.
This section of his work is 'found objects', that is to say objects 'found'
in the storerooms and catalogue shelves of museums and for some reason
never displayed. He felt that people needed to be aware of the oppression
forced on minorities and slaves in decades past, and how their labor helped
to shape what American society, and art, has become. Written in the UCSF
newspaper was this excerpt about his show ".....The exhibit was rich with
the unexpected, from cigar store Indians turning their backs on viewers
and reward posters for runaway slaves to a whipping post surrounded
by period chairs of different styles and slave shackles set amid ornate
silver serving vessels. Many of the objects had been stored for decades
and never displayed, let alone allowed to shine or shatter any illusions.
Others were moved around and mixed in a sly or provocative fashion. All
were used to restore context and create a new chemistry between the objects,
their display and the viewer." (www.ucsf.edu)More was written as well in
Maryland where the exhibit was first shown,(Taken from the Contemporary
Arts Museum,)"....Wilson shook the art world with his landmark Mining the
Museum exhibition at the MarylandHistorical Society (MHS) in Baltimore.
The MHS gave Wilson carte blanche, allowing him to research the Society's
collection, its history and its place within the community. Wilson proceeded
to reinstall the third floor galleries in a way that revealed the latent
racism that existed there.3 Thousands of museum professionals saw the exhibition,
and its run was extended by popular demand.4 With this installation, Wilson
brought a fresh eye to the MHS, reconstructed its presentation of Maryland's
past in a new, more encompassing manner, and exposed how a seemingly neutral
institution might unwittingly reinforce racist attitudes. Since then, Wilson
has been invited into museums all around the world to explore their collections
and practices and to offer a startling reappraisal through his own reinstallations
of their holdings." www.camh.org
Context: "On December 8, 1991, Fred Wilson gave a gallery talk at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.1 He greeted his audience in the lobby and had lunch with them in the museum's restaurant. He then excused himself, saying that he needed to change into a costume and that they should meet him upstairs at the entrance to the exhibition for his gallery talk. Wilson changed into a Whitney guard's uniform and stood in the gallery where he was to meet his group, waiting next to a sign with his name on it that marked the point where the tour was to begin. Though they looked for him, no one "saw" Wilson. The artist's worst suspicions were confirmed-as museum guard, he had become invisible. Wilson eventually revealed himself to his audience and proceeded to give his gallery talk Earlier that same year, in the spring of 1991, Wilson had presented a two-part exhibition at Metro Pictures and Gracie Mansion galleries in New York. For these exhibitions, Wilson created a series of faux museum installations that addressed cultural exploitation and the underlying racism in museums. Utilizing such tools of the trade as pedestals, vitrines, and wall labels, Wilson demonstrated how ethnographic art, when removed from its proper context, wrenched away from everything that shaped its origins, is essentially neutralized. For example, in Friendly Natives, skeletons are laid out for view in Victorian-style mahogany vitrines with such labels as "Someone's Mother," and "Someone's Sister."With Guarded View, Wilson came at museum racism from a different angle. Four mannequins are lined up in a row, displayed together on a pedestal, each wearing, as the labels indicate, the uniform of a different New York museum. From left to right they are: The Jewish Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art .2 Wilson, who grew up in and around New York, is an avid museum-goer, and is himself of African-American and Caribbean-Indian descent, also
worked briefly as a museum guard at the Neuberger Museum of Art while he attended the State University of New York. He carried away from the experience a dichotomous sense of both being on display and yet being invisible. Years later, speaking to other artists who had held similar jobs, he heard stories of guards and other museum staff working together for decades without exchanging so much as a hello. Wilson therefore set out to create a work that would make viewers aware of this institutional racism." www.camh.org