Robert Rauschenberg was one of the great pranksters of the art world, with a punk rock, wiseguy attitude decades ahead of his time. He got noticed in a big way when he purchased a drawing by de Kooning just so he could erase it. Throughout his career Rauschenberg loved to blur the line between art and garbage, turning art into garbage (as he did with poor de Kooning's work) and turning garbage into art (as he did with old bicycles, newspapers and other cast-offs he happened upon.) For a group show of portraits of gallery owner Iris Clert, Rauschenberg sent a telegram that really said it all about his approach to art: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” In a time when many artists and critics were spinning their wheels trying to figure out what art was, Rauschenberg's guiding principle – “It's art because I say so” – served him surprisingly well.
When you first see Rauschenberg's Cardbird series, it's easy to think that he has taken this “because I said so” stuff a bit too far and he has simply gotten lazy. It looks like he has just gotten some old cardboard boxes, squished them flat and put them up on the wall. Even for Rauschenberg, this is a bit much. Is it supposed to be some sort of a joke? Well, yes, of course it is… And it's a wonderfully subtle and subversive one. What looks like something the artist accomplished by stepping on a refrigerator box is actually the result of a tediously complex process involving photography, lithography and lamination. Rarely has an artist worked so hard to look like he didn't give a damn.
Robert Rauschenberg's “Cardbird Series”@ the Long Beach Museum of Art
300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA
Through Oct 19th.