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Remembering Rauschenberg

05/22/08 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Filmmaker and Marlboro College professor Jay Craven remembers some Vermont connections as he reflects on the recent passing of artist Robert Rauschenberg.

(CRAVEN) Hugely energetic and free-spirited, Robert Rauschenberg bridged several generations of cutting edge art movements.  His work could be funny or somber.  One of his best-known pieces, "Monogram" presented a stuffed goat standing on a painted panel, a car tire around its belly. His conceptual piece, "Erased DeKooning" was just that-a mischievously conceived erasure of a valuable Willem DeKooning pencil drawing. The New York Times called it,"an act of both destruction and devotion."

Merce Cunningham's dance company has performed in Burlington, Lyndonville, and Hanover using Rauschenberg designs on stage.  The two collaborated often, starting when Rauschenberg made sets and drove Cunningham's company vehicle to far-flung venues during the 1940's.  Cunningham's newest dance, CROSS-OVER, was commissioned and premiered by Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College last fall.  It included a crisp and dazzling Rauschenberg set, mostly white and red, with images of a bicycle, fence, and industrial landscape.

When the Trisha Brown company performed "Set and Reset" here in 1986, the dancers performed against the artist's stunning multi-screen photo collages - and they wore nearly transparent Rauschenberg costumes suggesting weathered newsprint.  One of Rauschenberg's gifts was to take everyday objects and re-shape them, finding unexpected beauty.  

Northeast Kingdom dance pioneer Steve Paxton enjoyed Rauschenberg's early and continued support and Barnet-based painter Patty Mucha performed in his 1960's happenings, where artists were given free reign.  In one Rauschenberg Happening, huge turtles wore flashlights affixed to their backs as they navigated his pitch-black loft space.  Unexpected light patterns slowly shifted, inspiring any number of off-beat imaginings.

An occasional beneficiary of Rauschenberg's well-known generosity, I led a group of Peacham teens on a late 70's field trip where he let us stay in his six-story Greenwich Village town house.  The kids were amused to know that this cool living space and studio had once been an orphanage.  But nothing compared to the jolt one experienced when she stumbled downstairs to get some juice at 2AM.  In the faint light of the refrigerator, she turned to see one of Rauschenberg's giant turtles staring straight at her.

In noting how Rauschenberg expanded the language of art, the New York Times quoted painter Jasper Johns as saying that "no American artist invented more."  Musical pioneer John Cage added, "Beauty is now afoot wherever we take the trouble to look."

Never one to take himself too seriously, Rauschenberg's sparkling irony often provided insight. He told the New York Times, "Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can't read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea."
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