Robert Rauschenberg: the leader of American art’s great ménage à trois

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The dazzling, haunting ‘combines’ at the heart of Tate Modern’s forthcoming retrospective were part of a private game between Rauschenberg and his peers and sometime lovers, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns

Robert Rauschenberg

Generous, big-hearted and political … Rauschenberg in front of his picture of President Kennedy. Photograph: Burton Berinsky/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

 

Robert Rauschenberg’s 1954 work Untitled is an upright wooden box supported by a white, colonial-era table leg over an open stage-like enclosure in which a stuffed Dominique hen struts next to a nostalgic photograph of a tall man in a white suit. Walk around this oddly compelling array – every surface of which is covered in old pictures, newsprint and smeared paint – and you find a pair of shoes, painted white. Do they belong to the man in the portrait? Who was he? Why does this constellation of stuff trigger such an undeniable, unforgettable sense of mystery?

Visitors to Tate Modern’s Rauschenberg retrospective, which opens on 30 November will find themselves puzzling over many such haunting, complex and allusive objects and images. They will be dazzled and moved by the richness and poetry of his art, while always feeling it harbours a secret just out of reach. That’s because, as well as being one of the most powerful bodies of work of the 20th century, Rauschenberg’s “combines” – the paint-spattered assemblages of found stuff he started making in 1954 – and the silkscreen montage paintings in which he later mourned the Kennedy era, are part of a private game played between three friends who happen to be the most important artists of the past six decades: Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.

They were a conspiracy of outsiders: three southerners in Manhattan, gay men in the straight 1950s, disciples of Marcel Duchamp in an era dominated artistically by Jackson Pollock. They were to develop in different directions, on different time lines – while Johns was the first to make it big with his 1954-5 replica of an American flag in which half-visible newspaper clippings hang in waxy paint, the slower-maturing Twombly would only win fame for his passionate, painterly graffiti from the 1970s onward. Yet all three share an obsession with hinting at stories they never quite make explicit. Their art rejoices in teasing, with their own lives hidden in its sepia paint-stained depths.

Rauschenberg was at the heart of the group and the centre of the game. Johns and Twombly were, at different times, his lovers. It was on a European holiday with Rauschenberg that Twombly would discover Italy, where he was to spend most of his life. Rauschenberg is, at his very best, the greatest and most ambitious of these intertwined artists. His combines are as formidable as the most challenging cubist paintings. They are the first completely open works of art, moving off the wall into the gallery, incorporating movement and space into their very nature. You walk around them: when they were first seen, Merce Cunningham’s dancers sometimes danced around them.

The difficulties of love … Bed, 1955. Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

The difficulties of love … Bed, 1955. Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

 

Pioneering installation art and anticipating interactive art is just a side effect of the brilliance of Rauschenberg’s free-flowing assemblages of tyres, taxidermy and furniture that come together like people meeting in a crowd. All their influence would just be academic point-scoring if his art was not so profound.

The game of coded private allusions the three friends played – for instance, in Rauschenberg’s 1955 work Bed, the pillow is covered with Twombly’s scribblings, so their relationship is for ever commemorated by this modern masterpiece – is far more than a shared secret joke. It is a sustained meditation on the elusiveness of experience and memory, and the difficulties of love. The artists resemble novelists in their acute and detailed evocation of what it is to live in the modern world. They are difficult but rewarding ones – and Rauschenberg is the most epic of the three.

All the art movements that have appeared since the 1950s were anticipated by Rauschenberg and co, often in collaboration with their composer friend John Cage. Rauschenberg helped to invent conceptual art when he borrowed a drawing by Willem de Kooning and promptly erased it. His 1961 “portrait” of the gallerist Iris Clert is a telegram that simply states: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”

Rauschenberg was generous, big-hearted and political. God knows what he would be thinking in the current American election – he’d certainly be campaigning for Clinton, as he campaigned for many Democrat candidates and liberal causes. In later years, his art lost energy, but that doesn’t matter any more, for he is one of America’s creative titans, the leader of its greatest artistic triumvirate, the author of great American novels made from chair legs and pictures of astronauts.

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