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Robert Rauschenberg, Bed

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955, oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art) © 2013 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) Voiceover: We're on the 4th floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and we're looking at Robert Rauschenberg's, "Bed." This is a combine, not quite a sculpture, not quite a painting, from 1955. Voiceover: So, combine means a combination of painting and sculpture? Voiceover: Well, Johns and Rauschenberg were actually thinking about their art as between art and life, and what is that narrow space between the two? Voiceover: Instead of thinking about it between painting and sculpture between these two things that symbolize fine art in the grand tradition, inserting life into that conversation. Voiceover: Life and wit. What we're looking at is, in fact, the stuff of a real bed. We're looking at a real pillow. We're looking at a real pillowcase, and a handmade quilted blanket, sheets, but if you look closely, you're also seeing pencil and paint. Of course, all of this has been taken out of the horizontal where you could lie down on this, and put up on the wall. Voiceover: I'm reminded of Pollock, of Pollock painting on the floor, and then those pieces of canvas being picked up and put on the walls of a museum or a gallery. The other way I'm reminded of Pollock is in all the drips that we're seeing here. Voiceover: This is a reference that Rauschenberg wanted you to come to. Voiceover: The Pollocks are just 5 years old, the great drip paintings. Voiceover: That's exactly right. This artist wanted you to be thinking about Pollock. This is really a confrontation with Pollock, with abstract expressionism broadly. That was the dominant contemporary art of this moment in 1955. Pollock would die the following year. Voiceover: When I think about abstract expressionism, I think about the personal subjective experience of the artist on the canvas. I guess it makes sense to me that this is a bed, a place of our unconscious, of our dreams. Voiceover: I think it's also tongue-in-cheek. This notion that the abstract expressionist canvas was somehow the manifestation of the internal state of the artist. Rauschenberg is saying, "You really believe that? "Well let me give you the actual arena of the dream. "I'm going to give you my bed." Voiceover: So, you think he's making fun in a way? Voiceover: Absolutely. Art historians sometimes talked about the kind of Oedipal relationship between Rauschenberg or younger artists, and the abstract expressionists that he was friends with at this time. Voiceover: That makes this a kind of in-joke. Voiceover: 1955, in the work of people like Johns and Rauschenberg, is the moment when art moves from being modernist in its sincerity to a kind of post-modern attitude that is responsive and that is self-aware, a kind of hyper self-awareness. Voiceover: We could understand that as a switch between modernism to post-modernism. Voiceover: Or sincerity to irony. Voiceover: It is true that when I think about abstract expressionism, there is this attempt by each of those artists, Newman, Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, the great artists of the abstract expressionist movement, each one of them has a very distinctive, individual style. You can't say that there's an abstract expressionist style because it's completely dependent on the individual. There is that idea that the painting is this manifestation of their personality, their psyche. Voiceover: What happens here, is we have an artist who is self-consciously imitating that idea of the authentic. If you look closely, the drip had become, by 1955, almost a kind of emblem of the authentic experience of the authentic moment. Here, that is being replicated. There's a kind of irony that's built into it. I think of stepping back from buying that notion that art can be this true internal thing. Voiceover: By virtue of copying what is supposed to be someone else's individual style, there is a kind of irony, a kind of self-consciousness there, a kind of adopting for another purpose. Voiceover: But then, all of this is [laid over] the found objects or objects from Rauschenberg's bed. There's something incredibly personal, but also absurdist here. That's why Johnson and Rauschenberg are sometimes referred to as Neo-Dadist, because they picked up the mantle, the flag of people like Duchamp, who are interested in irony, in playfulness, in a reprising of ideas, and reconstructing of a vocabulary of meaning. Voiceover: Well, it is true that Duchamp took on the tradition of Western art and all its seriousness and high-mindedness. I can see that here with the Rauschenberg in that commenting on the sincerity and seriousness of abstract expressionism. (lively piano music)