Jesters do oft prove prophets.
— William Shakespeare: King Lear
In almost half a century of serious writing on the works of prolific Port Arthur-born artist Robert Rauschenberg, the notion of its populist appeal is a common tenet: an understanding that his works—voluminous paintings, sculpture, performance and every combination thereof—use the flotsam and jetsam of civilization as their media, junk that didn’t have a place in fine art before he came along. There’s a philosophy there, to be sure, one that can be pointedly argued or tossed-off, criticized or analyzed until God is found among the magazine cut-outs, Coke bottles and cardboard boxes, and common man has been granted immortality. And perhaps this next observation is merely an extension of its accessibility, but have you ever noticed how funny Rauschenberg’s art is? Visual jokes and wordplay abound. Maybe this is because the artist didn’t see a real painting until he was 19 years old and chooses to recall this humility in humor, or the fact that he’s so dyslexic that words can easily swap letters and become gibberish, communicating to everyone but him. No matter where it originates though, the hidden witticism and surface slapstick found across the board in Rauschenberg’s art does its own part to relate to everyone’s sensibility. Like a poem one finally ‘gets,’ or an inside joke we’ve been let in on, the feeling of communication through art is as powerful as any profound truth.
So toss aside all the hoity-toity notions that one of the greatest American artists of all time should indeed inspire, and take the tour of the retrospective in Houston—one so big it takes up space in all three of the city’s museums—laughing. With this in mind I suggest you stir things up by going through the exhibit backwards and topsy turvy, starting upstairs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), on to the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM), and then back to the MFAH for the downstairs exhibit of Rauschenberg’s most recent works. Be sure to look beyond the colors and read between the lines for, well, just for fun.
Begin the tour upstairs at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH)
Gallery of the subconscious
I suggest you start here, upstairs at the MFAH, at The 1/4 mile or 2 Furlong Piece , because it serves as an incredible timeline of Rauschenberg’s work, and you can preview an overview of his progression as an artist before you take a deeper look at the separate stages of his career. The 1/4 mile or 2 Furlong Piece is as yet unfinished (when done it just may extend beyond the 1,320 feet that its title implies), but it occupies an impressive space already, weaving mazelike down one wall and up another, leaving street signs, traffic lights and stacks and stacks of library books in its colorful wake.
The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece
© Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Rauschenberg began the piece in 1981, and continues to work on it between other projects. Furlong has a calculated autobiographical nature: Rauschenberg has been making art since the late 40s, and has recounted his own history here by going back in style and subject farther than the year of the work’s inception. How is it funny? It’s as silly as a red trough filled with what looks like milk, a jug floating atop the white liquid; the physical humor of a fat ass plopped down and spread across a bench, and as awkward as the rudimentary human forms we trace of ourselves in kindergarten class. A friend described the work as a gallery of the subconscious, a playing out of the noise in your head you never listen to. It forces us to examine the things we cast aside. Rauschenberg offers a soundtrack to this chaos, suggesting we should be open minded to the combination of many elements in his art, voices and songs coming from everywhere and yet apparently without source. There are no titles or explanations provided, allowing Furlong to speak to each of us individually.
Andy Warhol was inspired by Rauschenberg, and in Rauschenberg’s use of cardboard boxes, coke bottles, newspaper clippings, patterned fabric, and lithograph collages of celebrities and politicians of the times, it is easy to see how. But Rauchenberg merely lets these things interact with each other without elevating them to star status. Library books do just what they’re supposed to, lay around in stacks until someone picks them up for a read. But maybe they’re laying around because they’ve been intentionally unreturned to the library whose name is stamped on the edge of every single one. There’s a sense of the mischievous implied here, a vision of books that with Rauschenberg’s help, have escaped their dusty shelves in a stuffy little library to participate in a grand visual showcase of culture. And they’re chuckling at how their ordinary bindings and dated titles are forming towers that people are craning to view, their pages full of words suddenly less important than the smooth lines and regal height created by their assemblage. The only thing that may be onto them is the silkscreened image of a rooster juxtaposed throughout the piece. I doubt either will ever go back to their ordinary selves.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston. 713-639-7300
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Tuesday, Wednesday: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Thursday: 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Friday, Saturday: 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.
Sunday: 12:15 p.m.-7:00 p.m.
Closed Monday, except Monday holidays
Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day
On to The Menil Collection
Goofing in the Fifties
The Menil collection houses Rauschenberg’s earliest works, and now that the Furlong Piece has presented us with the artist’s rendition of where he came from and where he’s going, it makes sense to go back for the non-revisionist history. The maturity with which Rauschenberg interjects humor into his work from the very beginning, both slapstick and profound, is remarkable; hilarious visual imagery and word play are mutually essential