Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time by Calvin Tomkins

An outstanding biography of America’s Picasso
In the argument over who was the greatest artist of the second half of the 20th century, my vote goes to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was like America’s equivalent to Picasso because he was a central hub around which so many different movements interacted and revolved—dada, surrealism, and abstract expressionism which preceded him; pop art and conceptual art which followed him; to name a few. Another reason he deserves such a title is because he had a long, prolific career in which he worked in a variety of styles and media. Always experimenting, never resting on his laurels; his work remained relevant even into his elderly years.

There are at least several beautiful coffee table books available on Rauschenberg, but Calvin Tomkins’ Off the Wall isn’t one of them. Despite a couple dozen black-and-white photos, the text is the main attraction in this 1980 biography. Tomkins brilliantly surveys Rauschenberg’s life and work while chronicling the American art movement as a whole from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s. With the advent of abstract expressionism, New York replaced Paris as the center of the art world, a transformation which culminated in Rauschenberg winning the coveted Grand Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Tomkins doesn’t concentrate solely on Rauschenberg’s part in this watershed. He frequently deviates from the course of Rauschenberg’s life and career to provide mini-biographies of many of the influential artists from whom Rauschenberg drew influence or with whom he interacted, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella. Although best known as a painter and printmaker, Rauschenberg also did a lot of work in the performing arts, often collaborating with composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. The troupe of performers who worked under this triumvirate were often among Rauschenberg’s closest friends. The author himself was likely a personal friend of the artist, but Tomkins’ treatment of his subject is not entirely adulatory. He doesn’t shy away from pointing out instances of prima donna behavior or periods in which the art Rauschenberg produced wasn’t up to his usual standards.

Tomkins is a former writer for The New Yorker, which may explain why the chapters of this book read like brisk and engaging articles rather than art historical essays. This book demands that I haul out the old chestnut: “So good it reads like a novel!” In fact, it reads like an adventure novel, but an intellectual adventure. Anyone who’s an artist can’t help but be caught up in the contagious excitement of these painters who came from every corner of America, converged on the Big Apple, and created an American art that finally rivalled that of their European counterparts. Such creative explosions are rare, and they don’t last forever, as the end of the book indicates. Tomkins has a remarkable knack for clearly and concisely encapsulating the aesthetic theories of artists and movements. After reading this book, even those with no artistic knowledge at all can finally understand modern art (though “modern art” pretty much ended in the ‘80s, so you’ll still be thirty years behind the times).

Rauschenberg lived until 2008, so Off the Wall doesn’t cover his entire life, but what it does cover it covers beautifully. In a later edition published in 2005, this book was resubtitled to eliminate the “Our Time”. This new edition, titled Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg includes a new chapter which revisits Rauschenberg in the early 21st century.

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