When Robert Rauschenberg moved to New York City in 1949, Abstract Expressionism was at the height of its art-world prestige. What that means, of course, is that it was ready for somebody to kick it in the pants. Enter Rauschenberg, with his new shoes on. It wasn't that he hated Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. To a man of his unbridled disposition, their vigor, their free gestures on the canvas were bound to appeal. But within a few years he would arrive at something in his own work that was more loose limbed and encompassing—and a lot less solemn—than even the most tumultuous drip painting. Eventually a Rauschenberg could happily include slapdash washes of paint, old shirts, a discarded sock, newspaper headlines, pictures cut from magazines and—why not?—a stuffed angora goat.
That is the work you get in "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," a sumptuous, witty survey that continues through April 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and then moves to Los Angeles, Paris and Stockholm. Combines was Rauschenberg's term for the big, hard-to-classify works—were they paintings? sculptures?—that he began making around 1954 and focused on for the next 10 years. With every one of them, he blithely exploded all remaining assumptions about what a work of art was supposed to be by making it into a container for everything.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg, now 80, arrived in New York by way of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the training ground of the '50s avant-garde, where he had befriended the composer John Cage. Cage's ideas about chance and randomness fascinated Rauschenberg, who began scavenging the streets of New York for junk to incorporate into works like Satellite, in which a stuffed pheasant presides atop a canvas patchworked with fabric and photo images and covered with washes of paint.
Rauschenberg was hardly the first to apply real-world materials to a canvas or to jam disparate things together. Collage had been invented by Pablo Picasso, perfected by Kurt Schwitters and fetishized by the Surrealists. But they all practiced it on a more intimate stage. Working in the era of the Abstract Expressionists and their jumbo canvases, Rauschenberg built his works to a larger scale and gave them that industrial-strength name: combines.
Although they could appear at first to be indecipherable, on a closer look the combines turn out to be a balance—a combination, let's say—of sense and nonsense. Take that goat, for instance, the one that appears in one of his most famous works, Monogram. The distinguished beast, standing on a platform that is actually a Rauschenberg painting, is ringed snugly around its middle by a rubber tire. Goat equals sex drive. Tire equals bodily orifice you choose which one. Monogram turns out to be a logo for the male libido.
Legible or not, that kind of thing was not to everyone's taste. If you were a formalist, dedicated to the ever more stringent purification of color and form, all those goats and chickens were dumb and demoralizing. Hadn't this guy ever heard of the sublime? But if you were a young artist looking for permission to do something utterly new, Rauschenberg's interlocking serendipities, his big yes to everything, were a key that turned in your brain. All kinds of subsequent art—Pop, installations, even performance art—would owe something to the combines.