- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

Robert Rauschenberg probably is the most over- and underrated artist of the past century.

The exhibit "Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture" at the Baltimore Museum of Art illustrates his breaking down of boundaries between the two mediums. It is his most original contribution.

The "combines" in the exhibit title acts both as a noun and verb. The artist says he was bringing together painting and sculpture into another kind of art, "the combine."

Mr. Rauschenberg, now in his mid-70s, plumbed the collages of Georges Braque and reliefs of Pablo Picasso for ideas. He also looked to the "Merz" constructions of German dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters created gigantic architectural structures out of street rubbish. Mr. Rauschenberg also considered Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades" part of his artistic heritage.

Mr. Rauschenberg made his first radical combines in the 1950s with work such as the exhibit's "Canyon" (1959). On long-term loan to the museum from the collection of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend, it is viewed as one of the artist's greatest pieces.

"Canyon" appropriately forms the centerpiece of this show of eight "combines," created between 1956 and 1981. It is a moving summary of Mr. Rauschenberg's forceful and unique art of the 1950s.

The artist collaged his favorite elements — a photo, sections of rusted corrugated metal, roughly brushed abstract rectangles — as a background for the menacing stuffed eagle that seems about to pounce.

Mr. Rauschenberg, like Schwitters, used castoff materials in new and sometimes brutal arrangements. "Canyon" is an ambiguous, violent image. It centers on the threatening bird that teeters on a paper box protruding from the canvas with a pillow hanging down near the floor.

The artist collected stuffed and mounted animals and fowl as other rejects of our urban society. He portrayed the eagle as both dead and alive, as victim and aggressor. Tensions such as these are what make the combines famous.

Mr. Rauschenberg created works he called combines between 1954 and 1962. Therefore, only four of the eight works the museum calls "combines" earn this designation.

The titles are only part of some misapprehension. "While the term Combine technically refers to works made between 1954 and 1962, Rauschenberg continued throughout his career to produce series of Combine-style works that deployed this strategy of radical collage and combination," writes curator Helen Molesworth in the exhibit brochure.

"Combine-style works" is the key phrase because Mr. Rauschenberg's art lost most of its punch after the 1960s.

Compare his 1977 "Rose Condor (Scale)" of mylar, silk, silk-screen, four electric light bulbs, wood and a pillow with "Canyon."

Gone are the raw, dark and brutal elements of the earlier combine. No longer are there compelling castoffs.

Mr. Rauschenberg used glittering, glistening materials of silky softness, reflecting polyester film and electrical gadgets. The contrapuntal pillow of the earlier work has become soft and plump. Departed are the bite and fascination of "Canyon."

Measure "Honorarium (Spread)" of 1981 against "Johanson's Painting" of 1962. The clear rectangles, squares and circle of the 1962 "combine" provide a strong structure for its collaged cut velvet remnant, tacked metal and tiered wood. The artist made an aluminum can hang as a contrapuntal element below the work.

"Honorarium," by contrast, has the flaccidity of "Rose Condor." Panels of solvent transfers on fabric seem to race against a blurred background. The plumped pillow is centered against a pink panel. Rectangles and squares are tilted aimlessly against one another.

Mr. Rauschenberg was a tough, talented innovator in the 1960s, and the exhibit shows this. His later "combine-style" works became glitzy and soft, and the show demonstrates this also.

Miss Molesworth points out that his "combines" coincided with emerging image-saturated forms of mass media and television. But she concedes there is a confluence of object and image that is not easy to sort out.

Mr. Rauschenberg has become an cultural icon in his own time — and it's always instructive to sort out what makes this happen. Visiting the exhibit can be a start.WHAT: "Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture"WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, BaltimoreWHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, until 9 p.m. the first Thursday of each month, tomorrow through May 27TICKETS: $6 for those 19 and older, $4 for seniors and members, and free for those younger than 19 and during first Thursday of each monthPHONE: 410/396-7100

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