Rauschenberg’s Work Ethic

This week brought the passing of Robert Rauschenberg, and with it the customary obituaries. Some are obligatory chronological inventories of milestones, neatly encapsulated with birth and death date bookends. Most are kind and reverent, hailing Rauschenberg’s genius, describing an important work or two, and drawing a line in the family tree of art movements to help us understand his place in the lineage. (You can read pieces in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post). The week also saw a record-setting $14 million sale of Rauschenberg’s Overdrive by Sotheby's.

Amidst the flow of misty tributes are a couple of dissenting voices: Jack Shafer at Slate, and Jed Pearl at The New Republic. Both take on the less popular task of speaking prickly truth about the dead and questioning the significance and quality of the artist's work.

As I read through the reports, tributes and criticisms this week, what came through for me was Rauschenberg’s work ethic. He made art through fame, unpopularity, age, and the infirmity of a stroke. He showed up, even in a wheelchair. Good art or bad, hits or misses, he just kept making art.

It’s hard to know which version of Rauschenberg’s story will persist through time--the one that plants him firmly in the history books as a Dadaist innovator, or the one that elevates his failings as larger than his accomplishments. Whichever version persists, I hope that it includes the fact that he made art right up until he died. This, I think, is the essence of an artist.

(Photo: Reservoir, Robert Rauschenberg, 1961. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.