IT is largely, if not exclusively, thanks to Robert Rauschenberg that Americans since the 1950's have come to think that art can be made out of anything, exist anywhere, last forever or just for a moment and serve almost any purpose or no purpose at all except to suggest that the stuff of life and the stuff of art are ultimately one and the same.
Stuff, in Mr. Rauschenberg's case, could mean a stuffed angora goat, like the one he picked up for $35 one day from a failing office-supply store on Eighth Avenue and girdled with an automobile tire. Originally despised, the "combines," as he called works like the shaggy "Monogram," gradually became fixed in the public imagination along with Warhol's Marilyns and Jasper Johns' flags as the classic symbols of what's American in American art.
There's no better proof of their exalted status than the current show of combines at the Metropolitan Museum, organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and installed by Nan Rosenthal. It is big and handsome almost to a fault. There's something weird about seeing once joyfully rude and over-the-top contraptions lined up like choirboys in church, with their ties askew and shirttails out. I happened to be in the galleries when "Monogram" was solemnly uncrated: swaddled in its custom-made shroud, it was gingerly unwrapped, inspected and primped before being slid into its protective vitrine.
But even enshrined, the combines still manage to seem incredibly fresh and odd, almost otherworldly. I thought of a medieval treasury - all the rich colors and lights and intricate details.
To say that for Mr. Rauschenberg everything came together during the decade from 1954 to 1964, when he was devising these hybrids, is just to speak the literal truth. The combines mixed up paintings with bits and pieces of tattered clothes, athletic socks, newspaper clippings, grimy postcards, broken umbrellas, saw-horses, taxidermied animals, comic strips, pencil-thin neckties, light bulbs and other junk that Mr. Rauschenberg had or bought or scavenged from the street - whatever caught his fancy, which meant just about anything.
"I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable," he has said, bringing to mind Whitman's remark, "I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse than I have supposed."
Whitman counseled veterans in hospitals during the Civil War, and - poetic symmetry - Mr. Rauschenberg did the same for draftees and soldiers with acute combat psychoses during World War II. This, he told the art writer Calvin Tomkins years ago, was when he "learned how little difference there is between sanity and insanity and realized that a combination is essential." Which isn't a bad starting point for describing the combines.
They had many sources. When he was a little boy in the 1920's and 30's in Texas, Mr. Rauschenberg has said, his mother used to make shirts out of scraps of fabric - collage shirts. She even made herself a skirt out of the back of the suit that her younger brother, Luther, was buried in, because she didn't want the material to go to waste.
Then, as a student on instructions from Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, that crucible of the avant-garde, Mr. Rauschenberg hunted for old tin cans and stones as examples of accidental art. (Mr. Albers came to hate Mr. Rauschenberg's art so much that in later years he pretended not even to remember his former pupil.)
Cubism, Dada and Surrealism laid a general historic groundwork, Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell particular ones. And friends - John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, among others - nudged Mr. Rauschenberg to transform what had been an elegant, sly, miniaturist mode of artmaking, namely collage, into something big and spectacular.
Arriving in the midst of Abstract Expressionism, the combines inevitably had the effect of a belch during a formal dinner party. But now it's plain how much they also owed to Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning. "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in it - drama, anger, pain, love, a horse, my ideas about space," de Kooning said, which Mr. Rauschenberg might have said himself. Instead, he substituted the stuffed goat, a bald eagle, a pheasant and a rooster for the hypothetical horse and situated them in paintings whose virtuosity is uncannily like de Kooning's.
Mr. Rauschenberg has told an instructive story about a woman spying the offending "Monogram" in a show at the Jewish Museum during the early 60's. "To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary - as though I could just as well have selected anything at all - and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly," he recalled. "So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she'd been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of 'The Blue Boy' on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand."
Art and life. Now, of course, it's easier to grasp the way these works weave teasing bits of autobiography with fragments of contemporary life and history to make images that can't be boiled down to a single message (academics are always trying to do this) or dismissed as a bunch of hooey (the conservative line). The sexual innuendo of the goat and tire is hard to miss. But then there are many other possible readings. Relying on the old Cubist grid for their formal armature, the combines invite decipherment without coming across, like Cubism, as homework. They provide access on many levels at once, favoring none, anticipating the mental processes of a generation of multitaskers. Half a century later, you might say, the culture has finally caught up to the combines.
The most beautiful of them tend to be the early ones: large but delicate, with a subtle, fugitive emotional pitch. They resemble elaborate quilts or shadow boxes, extrapolating from exquisite, bite-size collages that Mr. Rauschenberg had earlier devised. Sometimes, as "Levee" and "Hymnal" do, they strike a wistful, almost heartbreaking note.
Dense and self-referential, packed with insider art gags, they then become more general in their allusions, looser, airier and, by the end, formulaic. The last combines are deft but go through the motions, pointing toward the sort of big, empty, well-meaning projects that would increasingly occupy Mr. Rauschenberg as he was transformed from an impish troublemaker into the unofficial ambassador of American art.
But up to the 1960's, at least, it's like watching a ballplayer on a roll. Mr. Rauschenberg makes it all look so incredibly easy, until you look harder, and then you realize why there's nothing more difficult than making something look easy.
How, for example, in "Interview," Mr. Rauschenberg creates balance, implying weight and counterweight, by the juxtaposition of a hanging brick and a levitating softball. Or in "Small Rebus," how photographic clippings of track athletes, a bullfighter, the head of a horse and Mr. Rauschenberg's mother and sister lead the eye up, down and around in circles, in keeping with the clock face that Mr. Rauschenberg slyly paints at the picture's left edge. Or in "Dam," how he devises a cascade of letters, like a waterfall, from which leaps a skydiver, whose legs point toward the figure of a man in a photograph on a tower facing what looks like a giant turbine, which seems to stir the water.
Like paper boats, these visual connections bob and float across the surface. Deeper down, as in "Bed" (quilt, sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, framed on the wall), there is the suggestion of darker moods. A few of the combines look almost charred, blood red, with strips of fabric, akin to bandages, from which paint drips. Past the blithe comedy, the works are suffused with loss. It's there in the clocks and calendars, marking time, in the solitary figures, downtrodden, rapt in thought, long gone and far away, in the dead animals and discarded objects.
Some art tries to transcend messy reality. The combines celebrate it. They gladly barge into our world, incorporating our light and shadows, beckoning us to sit in their chairs, toss coins into their cardboard boxes, check our watches against their clocks and see our reflections in their mirrors. They're in the trenches, where real life happens.
It's beautiful down here. Just look around.
"Robert Rauschenberg: Combines" will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April