Although his work is derided by many critics, Robert Rauschenberg, who died this past Monday, May 12 at the age of 82, eventually may become known as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. Primarily known for his “combines”— combinations of three-dimensional objects and paint—for me, Rauschenberg is best remembered as an artist of the abject. Abject commonly means “excessively humble,” or sometimes “contemptible,” but in this case I'm also using "abject" to refer to common, everyday waste, thrown away quotidian objects, “cast offs”—in short, “refuse.”
Perhaps his most famous work is Monogram (pictured), depicting a stuffed Angora goat standing atop a platform consisting of a collaged painting and amid objects such as a police barrier, a shoe heel, and a tennis ball. Oddly, the goat has a used automobile tire wrapped around the middle of its body. I read where Rauschenberg, raised as a Christian fundamentalist in Port Arthur, Texas, said as a child he suffered a severe emotional trauma as a result of his father killing his pet goat for food. He no doubt loved that goat, and in some sense, consciously or unconsciously, modeled his own creative method after a goat’s behavior, for after all, a goat finds everything, even the most banal refuse, interesting—and potentially edible. Rauschenberg said he would roam the streets near his studio in New York for things that he would subsequently incorporate into his art. We can therefore conceive of his entire creative output—and I mean this very seriously—as inspired by the relentlessly foraging behavior of that old, beloved goat. A goat is eclectic in its tastes; it finds everything equally interesting, even the most abject of objects.
I should mention that critic Robert Hughes finds Monogram to have an entirely different meaning, the title itself serving as a statement of personal identity. Hughes observes:
... the wonderful Monogram, the stuffed Angora goat Rauschenberg found in an office supply store on 23rd Street in the early 1950s and encircled with a car tyre. One looks at it remembering that the goat is an archetypal symbol of lust, so Monogram is the most powerful image of anal intercourse ever to emerge from the rank psychological depths of modern art. Yet it is innocent, too, and sweet, and (with its cascading ringlets) weirdly dandified: a hippy goat, a few years before the 1960s. Fifty years after its creation, it remains one of the great, complex emblems of modernity, as unforgettable (in its way) as the flank of Cézanne’s mountain, the cubist kitchen table or the wailing woman in Guernica.
While it is true that the goat is a conventional phallic symbol, it is also true that by the late 1950s, when Monogram was being created (1955-59), the most potent symbol of America—this at a time before Lady Bird Johnson’s “Beautify America” campaign a few years later—was a car tire. Used car tires were ubiquitous common objects that proliferated everywhere, like Wallace Stevens’ jars; there were, literally, mountains of them all around the country. While Hughes may well be correct in his interpretation of the meaning of Monogram, I should say that, in contrast to Hughes, for me the most famous emblem of modernity, and one of the most influential works of the twentieth century, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—an inverted urinal. Rauschenberg’s artistic works have frequently been characterized as blurring the line between art and modern life, and there is no more common emblem of modern life, as Jacques Lacan observed, than the public toilet. Hence Rauschenberg might well have understood that the definitive art work of the twentieth-century was a toilet—that is to say, an abject object.
So if, by chance, someday you hear the work of Rauschenberg being scorned, or perhaps the derisive observation that it impossible to determine whether his works belong in a thrift shop or an art museum, just think of the insatiable foraging activity of that miserable goat--who loved all things abject--killed for food, whose behavior became the inventive model for one of the more important artists--certainly the least pretentious--of the twentieth century.