In the local press, Blake Gopnik claimed that Rauschenberg's best moments happened well before he created his first combine; Gopnik prefers the white canvases, the Erased deKooning drawing, and the scroll imprinted with a long continuous line courtesy of the tire treads on John Cage's Model A Ford.
These are all marvelous pieces, but I've always thought of them as a point of departure--bold, formative works by an artist whose career would culminate in his discovery of silkscreening and his subsequent relationship with printmaking. Moreso even than the combines, it's the silkscreened pieces of the early 1960s that I think of as Rauschenberg's high point. In that body of work, images of everything from athletes, to random urban flotsam, to Velazquez's Rokeby Venus are endlessly shuffled and recombined, framed and punctuated by random expressive (or not-so-expressive) stabs of brushwork. These pieces best embody Leo Steinberg's description of the new sort of pictorial space in which Rauschenberg was operating:
The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards—any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.I was pleased with Tyler's corrective, drawing attention to Rauschenberg's homosexuality--something that so many of the obituaries and appraisals that have appeared did seem to touch on lightly. But I do wonder about reading an artist's works through her or his own biography too much. Christopher Knight did a wonderful job considering the artist's career; when it came to Monogram, Rauschenberg's infamous goat-and-tire combine, he chose to draw clear parallels between the man's life and his work:
Like Rauschenberg rummaging on the streets of the city, the goat is grazing in a field of ordinary debris, prepared to consume just about anything...The outrageous interlace formed by the goat and the tire astride a landscape of cast-off debris dates from the conformist social atmosphere of the Eisenhower years, when an anti-Communist "Red Scare" was accompanied by an anti-homosexual "Pink Scare." Critic Robert Hughes described the unforgettable "Monogram" as "one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture"--the complement to Meret Oppenheim's famous Surrealist sculpture of a phallic spoon in a fur teacup.
That's a nice image--of the goat as the artist himself, both picking his way through the random stuff of the urban landscape and declaring his own sexuality. Jerry Saltz said something along those same lines back when he was assessing the combines show at the Met:
A sort of gargoyle or ravaging scavenger guarding over and also destroying art, this cloven-hoofed creature is a shamanic manifestation of Rauschenberg. In early Christian art goats symbolized the damned. This is exactly what Rauschenberg was as a gay/bisexual man and an artist, at the time. A dingy tennis ball behind the animal suggests it has defecated on painting. Allegorically, Rauschenberg is a bull in the china shop of art history, a satyr squeezing through the eye of an aesthetic/erotic needle.
But is the goat really Rauschenberg? How personal was the artist's work, anyway? Rauschenberg, after all, had little or no patience for the alienation and tortured self-analysis that the AbEx method seemed to demand. His slashes of dripped, marbled paint seldom expressed anything interior; they were more parodic references to an earlier generation of heroic painters. This was an artist who wasn't interested in his own preferences or aesthetic judgements; in his work, he didn't particularly want to favor one color over another, preferring a sort of "pedestrian color" or chance operations.
So I've always bought into the idea that Rauschenberg didn't believe in Romantic notions of the artwork somehow revealing or embodying the artist's subjectivity. For that reason, I've always preferred Berkeley English professor Charles Altieri's guess as to the identity of the goat in Monogram: It's Jackson Pollock.
Here we have the fundamental expressivist ideal, Pollock's "when I am in my canvas...," caught in all its pathos. Our goat either eats the canvas or paints with its nose, so hungry it is for the direct presence that the painting promises the repressed psyche. But the more the artist figure manages to enter the canvas, the more it is confronted with the passivity and loneliness of whatever achieves that immobility...The artist's subordination of the canvas to his or her own needs and demands transforms the fluidity of the real into the eternal halo of self-mockery that may attend all postures of self-possession, so stylizing is the fantasy life that establishes identity on these theatrical terms.