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Robert Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg’s fifteen minutes: an assessment of the artist's impact as he takes over New York

After Warhol and Johns, it’s the turn of the globe-trotting

What looks to be the year (or season) of Rauschenberg, made up of exhibitions, book publications and the artist’s enduring strength in a contracting contemporary art market, may be entirely serendipitous, but it’s turning a man who has made a career for so long as the enfant terrible of the art world into an unlikely elder statesman.

Why Rauschenberg now? The ever-boyish Texan turned sixty-five last year, and while he has been overshadowed in the world of art fashion by the spirit of his late contemporary Andy Warhol and eclipsed in the market by another peer, Jasper Johns, it seemed inevitable, as one critic put it derisively, that Rauschenberg would sooner or later get his fifteen minutes of celebration. These days, as a declining economy makes the attention and high prices paid not so long ago to younger artists seem silly, Rauschenberg, with a career of four decades behind him, appears almost venerable, a classic. Another reason – Rauschenberg still owns much of his own work. For a decade, his travels and exhibitions of current projects around the world have distracted him from shows of earlier pieces, which depend on his cooperation.

Starting this autumn, Rauschenberg figured prominently among the handful of postwar artists deemed essential in “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” at the Museum of Modern Art, the near-universally maligned show that tried to chart the passage of subject matter and image-making techniques from popular culture to painting and sculpture.

Not much later, in the sluggish autumn contemporary auction at Sotheby’s, “Triple Time Painting”, a 1961 Rauschenberg combine work with a clock as its centrepiece, sold for $3.08 million (£1,621,000), far less than the Rauschenberg auction record set by the 1955 combine “Rebus” ($6.025 million, £3,171,000) at Sotheby’s a few years before, but underscoring the artist’s strength on the market, as bidders ignored works by Frankenthaler, Warhol and such members of the younger generation as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Even before the opening of the exhibition of silkscreen paintings from between 1962 and 1964 at the Whitney Museum in early November (a safe “serious” show in a place that many have called a showcase for the stars of the trendy downtown gallery scene), the first volume purporting to be a biography of Rauschenberg appeared. Rauschenberg: Art and Life (Abrams) is described by its author, the journalist Mary Lynn Kotz, as an appreciation – and it reads like one. Kotz offers no critical judgments of her own about Rauschenberg’s work and her tone is relentlessly worshipful, but sections on Rauschenberg’s upbringing and reminiscences by those close to him are informative.

The Whitney exhibition, curated by Roni Feinstein, concentrates on a moment when Rauschenberg abandoned his assemblages and three-dimensional combine paintings and turned to flat canvases in black-and-white and colour on which he clustered topical newspaper and magazine photographs, often divided by brush gestures inspired by de Kooning. The exhibition seems less determined to reaffirm Rauschenberg’s place as a pioneer of pop art than to anoint him as the godfather of image appropriation (a quality dear to the heart of the image-conscious Whitney and to the media-obsessed contemporary scene): the self-conscious reproduction and combining of media images to comment on how those images rule our perceptions.

If the Whitney show (as “High and Low”, at MOMA) presents Rauschenberg as a seminal figure of the 1960s, the forthcoming exhibition this spring at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, devoted to the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) salutes Rauschenberg the philanthropist. There viewers will see works from Rauschenberg’s self-financed decade-long peregrinations to China, Tibet, the Soviet Union, Latin America and elsewhere, to promote international understanding through the making and showing of art – much of which is the art of Rauschenberg himself, of course. Jack Cowart, curator of twentieth-century art at the National Gallery, says ROCI and “its polyglot festival bazaar notion that more is more”, gives that museum a chance to work with a living postwar artist and not just put on another retrospective. A number of the ROCI objects, which include videotapes, banners and kites, as well as paintings, will become part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery, which will also receive Rauschenberg’s sombre black-and-white silkscreen vision of industrial America, “Barge”, on extended loan after the Whitney exhibition ends.

Perhaps the most revelatory of the forthcoming Rauschenberg tributes opens this June at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and will show work from 1950 to 1953. Out of around 150 works – photographs, blueprints, collages and paintings – Rauschenberg made during these years, only ninety are known to have survived. That’s no surprise. The artist had a habit of painting over paintings or simply destroying works. Seventy objects, most of them from Rauschenberg’s personal collection, will be in the show, which will be organised by the artist himself and by Walter Hopp, founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston.

The exhibition, and its catalogue, promise to examine the shaping of Rauschenberg’s early work in collage, assemblage and ready-mades by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and Man Ray. Since most of the works will be coming from Rauschenberg’s own collection, the story of his early career will most likely be his own. Some of the works in the show, the rope and found object constructions he called “thought boxes”, will have to be reconstructed, since so few of them survive. Rauschenberg exhibited these pieces in Italy in 1953, sold a number of them, kept a few as gifts for friends and on the advice of a Florentine critic, who dismissed the work as a “psychological mess”, threw the remainder of the pieces into the Arno before returning home to the United States.

Over recent years Rauschenberg has been criticised for being too prolific; for overproducing and overexposing his work. That doesn’t apply to his works from the early 1950s and early 1960s, which in fact are rarely seen and should bring high prices if they show up on the market.

As the vitality of the New York art market (which for better or worse fuels the contemporary scene) declines, attention is likely to turn back to the early postwar period and, naturally, to Rauschenberg’s place in that era. The exhibition of so many works not normally seen may not necessarily work to Rauschenberg’s advantage, however. While his admirers are sure to find the roots of virtually every recent American art movement in Rauschenberg, his detractors may find something just as distinctly American – the quick, facetious recycling of conceits borrowed from Cornell and Duchamp, melodies that moved Duchamp, on examining a Rauschenberg work from the mid-50s to observe, “I’ve heard that before”.