Remembering Rauschenberg

If you draw a line from Shinro Ohtake to Joseph Cornell, and another from Ed Fella to William Harnett, you will find yourself at a monumental, unavoidable intersection. At this great pinnacle sits Robert Rauschenberg, who died yesterday at the age of 82.

I would have liked to have known him. His sincere appreciation for the pedestrian, which energized modern art, ultimately came to inform a major theme in modern typography as well. “I really feel sorry,” he once said, “for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly.” This sentiment applies equally to the once-maligned universe of vernacular lettering: how many of our typefaces born of humble origins would have happened without Rauschenberg?

Most especially, I think I would have enjoyed his sense of humor. His famously Erased de Kooning Drawing merely hinted at the wickedness in store: the obituary in today’s Times describes a fine exchange with fellow troublemaker John Cage. Once, while staying at Cage’s apartment,

“[Rauschenberg] decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired, as a kind of thank you, painting it all-black, being in the midst of his new, all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.”

Maybe this was a prank born of the same exuberance that inspired his earlier work, with its bicycle tires and taxidermied eagles, or maybe it was a concise way of unseating a highflown comrade’s hypocrisy with a couple of merry brushstrokes. (It was probably a little of both, which makes it all the more delightful.) Whatever it was, I’m glad that it nourished the decades of unforgettable work that followed. —JH

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