ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG is admired as one of the most inventive artists of our day. His financial success allows him to travel around the world and make art by combining objects and images found abroad. Rauschenberg hopes to promote international understanding by exhibiting these works, which present mass-media imagery and impressions of everyday life from many countries.
His interest in discarded materials and printed images began long before he studied art. As a child he built what he calls a "collection wall" in his room, by assembling crates and planks that he had found. The wall must have looked like an array of glass cases in a museum, and Rauschenberg used it to display such objects as plants, insects, and stones.
In his collection, art was represented by drawn, traced, and cutout pictures. The rectilinear arrangement, the illustrations recycled from newspapers and magazines, and the variety of materials Rauschenberg collected, natural and artificial, are prominent features of the artwork he has done as an adult.
If a single idea can be said to run through all of his work, it is that any material, and any procedure, can be used to create a legitimate work of art. In 1953 and 1954, to test conventional attitudes about materials, he undertook to make similar abstract paintings of tissue paper, dirt, and gold leaf.
Although the abstract imagery would be much the same in each painting, the material would vary. Rauschenberg predicted that people would value his gold paintings most highly, because the material was considered valuable in itself, and would devalue those made of dirt or paper.
As things turned out, he was right. None of the tissue-paper paintings have been preserved, and only one of the dirt paintings, but the gold-leaf paintings have been kept and admired.
Since the 1950s many other artists have used lowly materials. Compared with more recent avant-garde art, Rauschenberg's one surviving dirt painting now looks acceptable and even rather elegant.
Two of his most famous works explore the possibility of creating an artwork on paper without drawing, painting, photographing, or even making an assemblage of pre-existing objects. One was his "Erased De Kooning Drawing" (1953), a sheet of paper bearing the dimly visible lines of a drawing.
Rauschenberg was playing with the idea that artists like Willem De Kooning began work without any preconceived idea of the final image. The critic Harold Rosenberg had called this procedure "action painting" in a much-discussed article published in 1952. Brush in hand, the artists improvised, and the completed painting was only a residue of the true work of art, which was the improvisatory act itself.
But if a process rather than an image was the true goal, then perhaps the process of effacing an artwork could be just as artistic as the process of creating it. Although De Kooning hardly liked the idea, he liked Rauschenberg and gave him an unusually dense drawing, so that erasing it would be an ambitious project in itself. The erasure was not complete; traces of the original can still be seen on the otherwise blank sheet of paper.
Neither Rauschenberg nor De Kooning regarded the erasure as an act of personal hostility or cultural vandalism. It was a way of taking a fashionable idea about art and following it to its logical conclusion.
"Automobile Tire Print" (1953), executed in collaboration with the composer John Cage, was almost equally provocative. Rauschenberg applied black paint to one tire of Cage's car, while Cage drove the tire over a 23-foot-long strip of paper.
The result was similar in spirit to a Japanese scroll painting, an analogy heightened by the fact that the work is normally exhibited as a scroll would be in the home, with only a short length of the image visible at any one time.
In the seeming randomness of its pattern, "Automobile Tire Print" suggested the style of many Abstract Expressionist paintings. Its parallel lines, made up of stick black squiggles, might have been calligraphy in some unknown non-Western language.
What made "Automobile Tire Print" upsetting during the 1950s was that Rauschenberg had produced an object that resembled, at least in its formal characteristics, some of the most highly respected art of the time. But his method, printing the tread of an automobile tire, did not show respect for the deep emotional struggle thought to underlie Abstract Expressionist painting. Rauschenberg's tendency to play with ideas about art was one major reason for the criticism he received early in his career.
Almost universal hostility greeted his first museum show, in 1963; I myself felt outraged at the time. American artists had only recently won their long battle to be taken as seriously as Europeans were, but here was Robert Rauschenberg doing the worst things he could possibly do in those high-minded years - he smiled and he played.
He also made some handsome objects. Nevertheless, he seemed to have the wrong attitude. The most fashionable critics believe that abstraction was the highest and purest form of art. Rauschenberg, whose work was not always abstract, and often looked as impure as a New York City street, appeared to be mocking his elders and betters.
Now that the controversies of an earlier day are behind us, it is possible to see that Rauschenberg was not really mocking. He was trying to extend the domain of art into a new territory. Such artists as De Kooning and Jackson Pollock had struggled to find a personal style, and their paintings were commonly seen as records of private experience.
Rauschenberg admired the generation that came before him, but he wanted his work to reflect general ideas about art and the world of ordinary things, not just the emotions of a few talented individuals.
He also wanted to report the news. Mass-media images of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Apollo astronauts have occurred in his work together with abstract patterns reminiscent of a painter's brushwork.
However outrageous he once seemed, Robert Rauschenberg has taken his place in art history as an unusually resourceful experimenter with ideas and humble materials. No other artist since World War II has done more to expand our concept of what a work of art can be.
The early work of Robert Rauschenberg was the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by Walter Hopps for the Menil Collection. The Guggenheim Museum SoHo in New York will be showing additional Rauschenberg work from Oct. 23 to Jan. 15, 1993.