Friday, April 23, 2021

Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz

Career retrospective of a twentieth-century master
Like my taste in books, my taste in art tends to run towards the antiquated, but there is one late-twentieth century artist whose prolific body of work provides an endless source of fascination and aesthetic pleasure: Robert Rauschenberg. Highly regarded by many as the greatest American artist of the twentieth century, Rauschenberg has created, through a diverse range of imagery and techniques, a staggering corpus of work that seems to encompass and comment upon the entirety of modern society. Due to his prolificacy and renown, there is no shortage of books on Rauschenberg, but many of them only focus on specific periods in his career. One of the most lavish and comprehensive biographies/retrospective catalogs of the past few decades is Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz. First published in 1990, it has since been updated twice. The third edition, published in 2018, is the one I am reviewing here. Rauschenberg died in 2008, so the third edition covers his entire life from cradle to grave and also provides an epilogue on the posthumous mission of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Kotz seems to have been friends with Rauschenberg, or at least interviewed him on a number of occasions. Her attitude toward the man is one of abject hero worship, which makes her a great guide to his artworks but not an objective biographer. While most critics would probably agree that Rauschenberg, like many artists, peaked early, Kotz refuses to admit that the work of the last three decades of his life fails to measure up to his game-changing combines of the 1950s and ‘60s. (To her credit, however, Kotz does quote a few unflattering exhibition reviews.) In Kotz’s view, it’s all pure unbridled genius from start to finish, with nary a failed experiment in site. In fact, in terms of both text and images, she seems to devote an inordinate amount of attention to the ROCI initiative of the 1980s and ‘90s (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange), probably because that was actively underway when the first edition of Art and Life was published.

The fact that Kotz treats all stages of Rauschenberg’s career relatively equally, however, does accomplish one important function. This book really helps to make sense of the countless series of works that the artist produced over the course of his career. One really gets a sense of his innovation in changing technologies over time, and how each phase of his artistic development led into the next in an ever-broadening scope of curiosity and experimentation. As a biography, Art and Life doesn’t really delve very deeply into Rauschenberg’s personal life. At times it reads more like an illustrated curriculum vitae chronicling his exhibitions, collaborations, and awards. The best biography of Rauschenberg is Off the Wall by Calvin Tomkins, first published in 1980, which also does a better job of detailing his interaction and influence among the broader art world. Off the Wall is a minimally illustrated book, however, not the sumptuous feast for the eyes that is Kotz’s Art and Life.

Since the original publication of Art and Life, few books have been published that can compete with its size and scope. Contenders include Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, published by the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 and the 2016 catalog Robert Rauschenberg, published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I haven’t seen enough of those books to fairly compare them to the Kotz volume. If it’s just the story of Rauschenberg you want, then Tomkins’s book is hard to beat, but if you’re looking for a heavily illustrated coffee-table volume showing the wide range of Rauschenberg’s artistic efforts, then Kotz’s Art and Life should amply satisfy your craving for this master artist’s unique and groundbreaking vision.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Booster, 1967, lithograph and screenprint on paper. To view hundreds of images of Rauschenberg’s work, see the website of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

No comments:

Post a Comment