FLESHY SURFACE :: a review of Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces at the Menil

Reference, meaning, order and authority are disconnected in Robert Rauschenberg’s Volon (1971, cardboard) or what I call LAY FLAT. DO NOT STAND ON END. The primary element of the work is its deconstruction. It is in this that Rauschenberg dissolves the three pale blue boxes, pressed flat and horizontally aligned on the wall, into a shallow, fleshy, sensual surface of repetition and altered meaning.

Repetition and difference, difference without opposition. Like Donald Judd, Rauschenberg explores the cube (rectangle) via the serial usage of industrially fabricated boxes mounted on the wall. They interact with the immediate space, incorporating the light and shadow. The artist’s unique gesture/mark of originality and authority is diluted by the fabrication process (Judd) or in this case the defabrication of the prefabricated (Rauschenberg). Rauschenberg deconstructs the box by cutting the tape, releasing the staples in the same manner you or I would; the gesture is not unique or original. In opposition to Judd’s work is the choice of cardboard over steel, cardboard over plywood or plexi. Judd’s materials are all permanent, ridged and cool to the eye and hand; Rauschenberg’s are temporal, pliable and warm. Furthermore, the placement of the boxes along a fixed grid is disrupted by the final box being placed along alternate coordinates of the y and z planes. This disruption not explored by Judd, further warms the work. Neutrality through repetition and difference is denied; instead the materiality of the objects is humanized, made fleshy.

The deconstruction of the boxes is much more in line with the organic nature of Eva Hesse’s work. Rauschenberg’s movement of deconstruction, his action of working the materials is laid bare for the viewer in the remnant tacked to the wall. As with Hesse, it appears as an intuitive interaction with materials and exploration without priori. Rauschenberg strips the boxes of endowed functionality and makes it apparent that signification is an attribute not of the boxes themselves but of the human activity of their making. What remains on the wall is simply an indexical trace of Rauschenberg’s actions. In this, the boxes become more full than empty.

The boxes’ culturally agreed upon functionality lies in their ability to contain, carry, and to be disgorged of content. Their meaning and value is dependent on content and cultural context. But this functionality of the box has been discarded and dissolves through the process of material deconstruction. Rauschenberg has ascribed his boxes with new value and meaning dependent on the context and language of the gallery viewer. As the boxes lose their premanufactured significance, the language preexisting upon their surface disassociates from the boxes identity as box. It is a refusal to be what mass culture has dictated. Meaning becomes contextual allowing the boxless box to become other. It has been made fleshy. It has been made man. For many it will be difficult to see beyond the box as box and to let it be other. Yet Rauschenberg has clearly made it other. Through the recontextuallization of the boxes the text printed on the surfaces of the boxless boxes take on human connotations. LAY FLAT. DO NOT STAND ON END. Which of course is exactly what I am NOT doing as the viewer. 1.) I am standing, not laying flat. 2.) I am vertical, on my end, not horizontal and evenly distributed. Rauschenberg has followed the texts’ command with his objects, his boxes, and yet I stand stuck in a position of opposition. He plays with me? Teases me? The piece is critically dependent on this play of deconstructed language that forces me, the viewer, to interact with the work.

Reference, meaning, order and authority are disconnected in Rauschenberg’s work by the deconstruction of concurrent art movements, materials, functionality and language. He has made me want to press my cheek tightly to the boxes’ surface, feel their fleshy nature. He has helped me disengage that which is signified by the box and alter its meaning. He has challenged me to lay flat to view his work, but my culpability to the artificial constructs of museum behavior inhibits me. Most importantly, though, he has made me laugh at art and my interaction or lack there of with it.

Kathryn Kelley. 2007.


4 Responses

  1. Fleshy? That term doesn’t work for me. Perhaps tactile? Recontextualized, flattened, deconstructed, I do want to re-examine the boxes, touch them, peer into their now closed (flattened) interiors.

    It’s the re-presentation that causes us to re-focus/re-examine our thoughts about common objects that appeals to me in the piece. Like photographers or the surrealist, his act of presentation (and deconstruction) causes me to look again, think again, imagine again. To see the beauty of the pastel blue and notice the box that jutts out of the 2-D plane.

    I also like the ordinariness of the piece. It’s a perfect “I-could-do-that” piece, but thousands/ millions will have seen it and not attempted it before and probably will not attempt it after….even though they could so easily do that. Perhaps it is a creative equivalent of the paper clip: simple, elegant, useful, mundane and yet never improved upon.

  2. BTW, I love your observation about the text, LAY FLAT. DO NOT STAND ON END.

    I’m not sure if it’s intentional or incidental but it’s definitely funny. Let me know if you go back to view it “as instructed”. I’m willing.

  3. Yes they are tactile and if we could get away with it we would all be touching the work. Fleshy = made human. Their surfaces are skin like. The desire to touch them is like the desire to touch a babies cheek…soft and subtle…FLESHY. Nope I wont take it back.

    So if we laid on the floor, you think the docents would freak.

    I do believe his use of text was intentional not incidental. Though it may have been more intuitive than preplanned.

  4. R’s work is transformative but not capable of transubstantiation. Has made cardboard a magical medium, but it remains cardboard.

    You can keep your word, but there is nothing that feels, smells, tastes like flesh, except flesh.