An attraction of life in a university town is the multitude of cultural opportunities. Recently, I drove twenty minutes from Chapel Hill to Duke’s Nasher Museum to see the opening of a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. First, I attended the keynote address, delivered by a Duke professor, a Rauschenberg devotee.
“Bob would be so pleased you’ve all come out,” she said, to the audience of several hundred.
Apparently, her friend “Bob,” who died in 2008, would have enjoyed the evening on several levels, particularly the bar at the post-talk reception. “Bob,” sadly, struggled with dyslexia as a child and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life.
Late in life, though he had achieved professional and economic success beyond his wildest dreams, Rauschenberg was plagued with ill health. His struggles were often reflected in form-negating images. One renowned series of canvases, for instance, were all white. When he finished with that, Rauschenberg produced a series of compositions that were all black.
“I work in the area between art and life,” Rauschenberg is quoted as saying. “In the crack.” Indeed. Not a surprising self-image for an artist reportedly told by his father on his deathbed: “I never did like you, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Though Rauschenberg is known for his monochromatic canvases, among other thought-provoking (head-scratching?) creations, he also produced legions of humorous and whimsical works over a half-century career. Fire hydrants, for instance, are a recurring image, as Rauschenberg is said to have considered them sexually evocative. He’s correct, if one looks from a certain perspective, and ignores their actual function. In addition, experts contend that Rauschenberg is important because he “anticipated” several trends in modern art.
Generally, I’m receptive to abstraction. Miro is among my favorite artists. Our walls at home support a mixture of realistic and non-representational art. And, though I’m not certain I understand what the artists tried to convey, I enjoy the bizarre work of artists like Dali and Magritte. But I have difficulty appreciating the artistic value of a piece I saw at the Rauschenberg exhibit consisting of the photograph of newspaper in front of a Van Gogh masterpiece, or the one where he hung a piece of scrap metal on a wall.
According to the speaker, Rauschenberg admired the work of Willem DeKooning. He manifested this by requesting one of DeKooning’s canvases and erasing it. The negation was creativity itself, asserted Bob. Reluctantly, DeKooning had played along, though he had the good sense to hand over a lesser work, one deemed unlikely to find a buyer.

“One does not make art,” Rauschenberg said, in a televised interview, while his inquisitor looked on, her facial expression as though she were hearing the most meaningful pronouncement in world history. “One does art.” Oooooookay.

Clearly, I didn’t become a Rauschenberg fan during the course of the evening. I admit finding the refreshments table to have been the highlight. However, I am not ignorant of the ways of the world. If I were offered a Rauschenberg or two to put in my living room, I’d leap at the opportunity. Then, after a couple of months, I’d call Sotheby’s and see what they think.