It’s hard to read about Robert Rauschenberg without encountering a Great American Image: a uniquely American hero in modern visual art. It seems to me rather that he was more like the Slavoj Žižek of the art world of his time. That is, far from being an (uniquely American) original, he was one of the greatest synthesizers of (visual art) ideas and attitudes circulating at his time, ideas and attitudes that were both historical and international in scope. He blended Kurt Schwitters-style assemblage and a de Kooning-like painterly gesture with the impishness of Picabia and the cool head of Duchamp. To be sure, there is a lot of the big open space of Texas in his collages and combine paintings, full of American images. But the core ideas and forms that undergird his art didn’t come straight from the spit and dust of Port Arthur; they had deep European roots.*
I shall not venture a guess into the reasons for the myth-making surrounding Rauschenberg, which I am trusting is obvious enough to anyone who has read about him. Doing so would be a purely negative project. But I think it’s worth noting how dependent the myth is on Rauschenberg’s own statements. So, putting aside the question of why the myth has been constructed, one can say something about how it is done and this examination has its own rewards.
Writers on artists often play fast and loose (or simply disregard) an artist’s statements. But writers seem to love Rauschenberg’s. Above all, they love that “working in the gap” line. It is irrevocably tied, like a hashtag, to Rauschenberg. Just google it. It’s everywhere. And it’s worth wondering why. Is it the very ambiguity of the statement that appeals? Does the fact that its exact meaning is not fixed mean that it is ideal to meld into the Great American Myth? Does it serve handsomely in taking Rauschenberg out of history and world art, kind of like Washington chopping down the cherry tree?—it doesn’t have to be true and interpretations will vary, but the important thing is it’s American.
But is it all-American, and is it really as vague as all that? No, not under close examination.
The statement comes from the catalogue of a group show from 1959:
Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)
In the 1973 film, Painters Painting he called the “gap” a “hole” and added that it is “undefined”. He said that working in the gap between art and life creates the “adventure of painting”:
This begs the question: one can understand the statement that life cannot be made, but isn’t one of the basic definitions of art, that which is made? Certainly when one embarks on the adventure of painting, a painting is made. Does Rauschenberg make a distinction between painting and art? Or is it between what he does and what others have claimed to do when they claim to “make” art?
In the same interview in Painters Painting Rauschenberg talks about letting the materials “do what they do” and says the artist is “almost a bystander” and emphasizes that his paintings are “invitations to look somewhere else”. He means not only to look somewhere else than in art (“you don’t paint with one foot in the art books”) but somewhere else than in the painting that he has presented to you. He wants to encourage you to see the world.
So when he says “art cannot be made” he is making a philosophical argument that is wholly Duchampian. He is saying that art is not in the object and is therefore not “made”. Art is in the relationship between what the artist does within his adventure in the gap and what the viewer does when he or she confronts it. Art isn’t a thing. It’s an encounter, a spur, an invitation to see the world. We don’t make the world and we don’t make art—we participate in them, we act within them.
It’s interesting to note, parenthetically, that in the Jasper Johns interview in Painters Painting, Johns is happy to point out that while he had already begun his encaustic paintings of flags and targets before he had heard of Duchamp, Rauschenberg already knew about Duchamp. By 1973 Johns and Rauschenberg had become rivals and just as you might begin to feel that Johns has scored a point he seems (but not really) to take away the possibility of a boast not only by declaring that all work [art work] comes from other work (while this is almost the opposite of what Rauschenberg has said it happens to be another of Duchamp’s ideas) but that after learning about Duchamp and finding his work “very interesting” Johns was not embarrassed at all to have his own subsequent work compared to it.
But can we not say anything about the gap itself, other than that it is undefined? Indeed we can. And we can use Žižek to do it.
Žižek uses the word “gap” repeatedly in the first part of The Ticklish Subject. He says repeatedly that we are always/already engaged with the world even before we are conscious of the fact. But after becoming conscious of it we can never catch up with the residue always within us of disorder, the unknown, of the Hegelian night of the world. Not only is there always a gap in our understanding, but we are defined in our humanity by that gap. We work in the gap because that is how we are constructed. It is not something we make, it is how we are made.
* Another example: The French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet said that, “The nineteenth-century narrative considers reality closed while the modern narrative sees it in a state of continuous creative flux…. a reality that will never be finished.” [The Target, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jasper Johns, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006, p 95] Rauschenberg’s work was open, not the closed circle of a neat classical unit. His paintings were indeed discrete objects, but like an open window: the story goes on over there, one looks away—to the world. I have chosen this quote almost at random. It is something I happened to have come across recently. My point is not to claim that Rauschenberg was directly influenced by Robbe-Grillet, but to suggest that one could find countless statements that point to a deep European context for the kinds of ideas that appealed to Rauschenberg.