WHEN ARTIST ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG died last week, America lost one of its most inventive visionaries. While Rauschenberg was not as overtly literary as someone like Robert Motherwell, Rauschenberg's work was notably poetic. Like no other painter, he fused collage and lyricism, visual culture and high culture, pastiche and poetry.
Rauschenberg's work was important not simply because of its artistry, but also because one could see the artist grappling with the increasingly prevalent and provocative pull of popular visual culture like television, advertising, and film. In this sense, he resembles some of the New York poets like John Ashbery and in particular, Frank O'Hara, who were also interested in the iconography of contemporary American culture. In a piece like Retroactive I (1964), the artist juxtaposes symbolic imagery of JFK and the Apollo space mission while also manipulating their color, detail, and meaning. Ashbery does something quite similar in his classic poem "Farm Implements and Rutabaga in a Landscape," when, in a very painterly manner, he plays with the ubiquity and popularity of the characters of the Popeye cartoon within the framework of a classic still life painting. Just as Rauschenberg juxtaposes seemingly unrelated images in Retroactive I and Untitled (1955) (to the left), so, too, does Ashbery. Playing with icons, taking them out of context and re-presenting them forces us to think about language (both visual and verbal) in new ways. Similarly, in "Ave Maria" and "Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed)," O'Hara goes Rauschenberg, funking up icons, undermining expectations, and de-poeticizing poetry.
Rauschenberg's poetic leanings don't stop there, though. Like a poet, Rauschenberg pays close attention to grammar. In fact, in many ways, his work turned on linguistic structures. Graham Coulter-Smith argues that Rauschenberg utilizes "linguistic abstraction" rather than visual abstraction. Indeed, like many of the poets from the 1950s and 60s who moved away from abstract poetry in favor of writing about real people, celebrities, and social issues, Rauschenberg 's images tell a story rather than simply express.
Persimmon (1964), is arguably his most famous piece. Riffing on the iconic painting, Venus at Her Toilet, by Peter Paul Rubens (not Pee-Wee Herman), Rauschenberg participates in an early form of sampling, mixing in the old with the new. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others made this practice the most important part of their poetry, and Rauschenberg imports that tendency into his own work. Here, he plays with high vs. low culture, a lot like Eliot in The Wasteland, when he mixes in folk songs, German, and slang.
Along with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg put post-Abstract Expressionist American Art on the map and gave us a new kind of abstraction that helped bridge the always precarious gap between high culture and popular culture. His passing is a loss, but, perhaps it will now refocus a new generation on his revolutionary work.