It’s always interesting to run across a writer, a painter, a politician in the flesh, not because they’re “like” their work, but because their walk, their talk, brings out certain unsuspected aspects of their work. I was standing in the Guggenheim Museum discussing Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed I think it was, when I heard behind me, drawling, Now you watch what you’re sayin’, boy. In retrospect I want to claim I’d said something perfectly stupid about Rauschenberg, but it was a warning, not a protest, the way you cough to let someone know you’re standing within hearing. I turned around and asked him if he’d like to comment on his own painting, but he just smiled and moved on.
Rauschenberg could charm the birds out of the trees and then serve them up for dinner. That’s true of most successful artists – the second part, that is. Like much recent art, Rauschenberg’s artworks had a way of making the viewer feel like a fool. But unlike, say, Damian Hirst, you didn’t feel like a fool for not getting it, with Rauschenberg you felt like a fool because it was all so joyfully possible: his system was not about inclusion and exclusion, it was about balancing one thing against another: the bed against the paint on the bed sheets, his sweet charm against the nastiness of art-world backstabbing, the lecturer’s Rauschenberg against his own. If art evolves, or at least if art moves dialectically, then Rauschenberg was the antithesis of the tense art critic and her tense protégés who cant about floating signifiers while waking up, as Baudelaire put it, screaming “I have to judge today.”
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. That should be easy.