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Robert Rauschenberg vs. Joshua Davis

Posted by Joshua Glenn  May 15, 2008 12:31 PM

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The death of Robert Rauschenberg, earlier this week, has helped remind us about the debates that once raged between proponents of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.


The art movement known as Abstract Expressionism, a postwar invention of the Partisan Generation (b. 1904-13), helped New York displace Paris as center of the art world. This made New York the capital of the 20th century itself, just as Paris had been (according to Walter Benjamin) capital of the 19th.

But American self-satisfaction isn't the only reason that Abstract Expressionism became such a dominant movement in the postwar era. The impression of intellectual, aesthetic, and perhaps most importantly, political freedom evoked by Jackson Pollock's psychologically intense "action paintings," Mark Rothko's spiritually overwhelming "multiforms," and David Smith's witty connect-the-dot sculptures, to name just three Abstract Expressionists, helped reassure Americans that we -- unlike the recently defeated Nazis and the ever-more powerful Communists -- were on the right side of history.

Uninterested in art history? Stick around! Because I'm going to talk about cutting-edge computer-generated artworks like this:


Thanks in no small part to Russian propaganda, in the early days of the Cold War, America was widely regarded as culturally barren -- "a nation of gum-chewing, Chevy-driving, Dupont-sheathed philistines," as one historian puts it. It seemed critical to educate Europeans teetering between a fondness for communism and capitalism about the spontaneous, free, emotionally intense art that was uniquely possible in the USA.

In the view of the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (a Partisan), the United States had become the guardian of "advanced art." Greenberg, a key early admirer of Abstract Expressionism, wasn't pro-capitalist, he was a Trotskyite; but he saw Pollock's work as vindication of his own theory that the history of art was one of progressive purification in form and the elimination of historical content. One thing led to another, and soon enough Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and other Abstract Expressionists (and Partisans) were thrust into global fame... thanks largely to funds supplied clandestinely by the CIA, through one of its front organizations, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.


This is not to imply that the Abstract Expressionists were super-patriotic, or even pro-capitalist. They certainly didn't realize that the CIA was using their work as propaganda in a cultural Cold War. However, the Partisans' typically super-patriotic, pro-capitalist juniors, usually known as the Greatest or G.I. Generation, but whom I've called the New Gods (b. 1914-23), swallowed Abstract Expressionism hook, line, and sinker.

And then along came a new generation, the Postmoderns (b. 1924-33). Like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Claes Oldenburg, to name a handful of the most prominent Pop Art pioneers, Rauschenberg reacted against Abstract Expressionism and pioneered ironic postmodernist art, characterized by themes and techniques drawn from advertising, comic books, and other areas of pop culture.


Rauschenberg -- born in Texas in '25 -- was a living link between the two worldviews and art movements. "He was a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, taking the brush work of expressionism and then doing subversive things, incorporating photographs, turning a mattress into a canvas and gluing things on," the former director of Minneapolis's Walker Art Museum told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Though Rauschenberg didn't reproduce kitsch artifacts directly in his work, he "helped break down aesthetic barriers between the exalted and the everyday," as Mark Feeney notes in a fine obituary. "Bed," one of Rauschenberg's most famous "combines," is an artwork created from paint, toothpaste, fingernail polish, and the pillow and quilt from his own bed.

I'll let Feeney explain Rauschenberg's resistance to Abstract Expressionism:

Mr. Rauschenberg was the creator of what was probably the most notorious practical joke in art history, "Erased de Kooning Drawing" (1953), which was just what the title said it was. "Erased" might be seen as emblematic of Mr. Rauschenberg's view of Abstract Expressionism, the school to which Willem de Kooning (who had given the drawing to Mr. Rauschenberg) belonged. Brooding seriousness and majestic aspirations were anathema to Mr. Rauschenberg and his art. "You have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself," he once said, "in order to be a good Abstract Expressionist."

Like other notable Postmoderns, Rauschenberg rejected the stark utopianism/anti-utopianism of the Partisans, and in doing so repudiated the archetype of modernity as a force for unmitigated progress. Greenberg and Pollock were among the last Modernists, the last to dream of a revolutionary and all-encompassing change in the human condition. Rauschenberg was among the first-born members of a generation that discovered and celebrated what they claimed was the eclecticism and hybridity lurking just beneath the modernist illusion of unity and integrity.

Pop Art seemed unserious to Partisans and to those who think like Partisans, it still does. But the Postmoderns didn't, for the most part, wallow in nihilism and pure aestheticism; theirs was a vision of a heterogeneous, non-totalizing, chaotic and unfinished utopian social order, one whose hi-lobrow aesthetic cognate might look something like...


Rauschenberg's "Monogram," which involves a stuffed goat, a tire, a police barrier, a shoe heel, a tennis ball, and paint.


All of this might seem like water on the bridge. But it's not! The guiding impulses behind Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art are still in play, still in conflict.

A recent post by art-and-technology writer and curator Régine Debatty on her fascinating blog, We Make Money Not Art, points out that Jackson Pollock still has fervent admirers.

While visiting OFFF, the international festival for "post-digital creation culture," in Lisbon, last weekend, Debatty was floored by the influential web designer and new media artist Joshua Davis. Like Pollock, whom he admires, Davis regards art as the process of creation, moreso than the final product.

Davis, "Soundwires," 2007

Davis's work is, in its own way, as gestural as Pollock's. Because Davis designs software -- generative systems -- that create artwork. He sets certain parameters -- speed, rotation, indecision -- and the system maps drawings accordingly. The results are surprising even to him.

Davis, "Kimono Blue," 2007

They're beautiful! But can they be used as pro-American propaganda, one wonders? Well, they can certainly be regarded as pro-capitalist. In fact, the Davis drawing below was commissioned by BMW. "Until a few years ago, the design of the BMW Z4 Coupé was considered a dream that could not be realised. The lines are too expressive, the contours too defined," we read at BMW's website. "Achieving the unachievable is a situation American designer Joshua Davis is also familiar with. His complex computer-generated designs were considered unprintable. And so their passion for breaking new ground brought Davis and BMW together to produce a range of limited-edition prints inspired by the Z4 Coupé."

Limited-edition Joshua Davis print inspired by the BMW Z4

Also: Who is the Rauschenberg to Davis's Pollock? Help me out, readers.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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5 comments so far...
  1. Great piece. Don't know the answer to your question, but loved the post.

    Posted by Tor May 15, 08 01:38 PM
  1. I'm not sure I get the (blank) is to Rauschenberg as Davis is to Pollack equation, but two artists spring to mind who are engaging in more thoughtful explorations of generative art than Davis appears to be. One is Joseph Nechvatal (www.nechvatal.net), who "paints" using viral algorithms that attack his images progressively, after which a remote computer-driven robotic painting machine executes the painting. The other is Camille Utterback (www.camilleutterback.com), who creates interactive installations where the combined movements of the viewers of her work actually create the abstract images according to the set of software rules within the piece. See "Untitled 6" on her website. In both cases, the artists allow outside and uncontrollable forces, artificially intelligent computer viruses in Nechvatal's work and the gallery goers themselves in Utterback's work, to take over the creative act.

    My other comment is that the "art history" evoked here does not go back far enough. The ideological promotion of abstract expressionism as an American pure art form was not just a response to Russian communism. It was also a reactive response to social art in all its forms as practiced in the thirties and early forties in this country. Capitalists felt betrayed and attacked by social realism in all the fine arts. They fought back by promoting non-ideological art that had no perceived social agenda.

    As the character of Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) says in the movie, The Cradle Will Rock, after his disappointment with a Diego Rivera's mural which Nelson commissioned for Rockefeller Center, "Abstract Expressionism is the future to come: Colors and form, not politics."

    Posted by George Fifield May 18, 08 02:48 PM
  1. Exlent! no more comentary.

    Posted by Claudio August 21, 08 04:28 PM
  1. I invite you to visit my blog. you can find my last works of art at:


    yours Claudio Tomassini

    Posted by Claudio Tomassini October 17, 08 02:40 AM
  1. today everyone can say for himsalf thet he is "ARTISTA" (lat.) !!!......

    Posted by bojanagm June 11, 09 03:21 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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