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Frame by Frame

Making ordered work out of lifelike wildness

GEVIRTZ-MNUCHIN PURCHASE FUND/ROSE ART MUSEUM AT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY

WALTHAM — “I want to give a really BAD party,” says Dick Diver, the great party host in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.” “I mean it. I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see.”

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was the Dick Diver of American postwar art. He understood intuitively the need for art, like social life, to get messy again after too many years of starchy self-importance and pomposity. That’s why I love him, and it’s why I particularly love this work at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

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It’s called “Second Time Painting,” and it is one of a series of three witty, brazen works Rauschenberg made in 1961. All three were made in a hurry, as part of a performance at the American Embassy Theater in Paris in 1961 (a great year for parties, I’m told).

Rauschenberg set up three canvases, turning their backs to the audience. With an alarm clock running down, he began working away. The audience could hear only his voice, and the sounds of his busy activity.

Various fabrics and clothing items were glued to the canvas. Paint was applied liberally and with Rauschenberg’s characteristic panache. Only when the alarm went off were the canvases turned around. (For good measure, the clock itself was also attached, though upside down.)

Rauschenberg famously embraced chance and arbitrariness as aesthetic principles. But never to the exclusion of all else. The guests at his pictorial dinner parties were all welcome, invited or not. What’s more, they could behave as they liked: This was the chance element.

And yet Rauschenberg, magnificent host that he was, was still there to make it all come together — to make the “bad party” memorable. If things went awry — if paint dripped, if sections of canvas were left bare, or if colors accidentally bled into each other — they did so with his tacit approval, and more often his encouragement.

For Rauschenberg, like Diver, the impeccable party host, still had such a preternatural feeling for order: for compositional balance, color harmonies, and visual rhymes. He could, and did, make even the sloppiest accident, the most unwieldy intrusion, seem natural and (retrospectively) desired. In this way he made painting feel like life as it is lived, and not like an over-rehearsed charade — which is how every good party should feel.

The critic Leo Steinberg famously wrote that Rauschenberg “let the world back in.” The idea was that recent art and its defenders had concerned themselves exclusively with formal values, relegating content to the dustbin, an absurd predicament for visual art to be in, especially in a socio-historical period that was so visually rich, not to say
cacophonous.

Steinberg was right: Rauschenberg was the grinning host at the door, letting in all comers, but always doing it with charm, wit, and the beautiful Southern manners he was born to.

Sebastian Smee can be reached atssmee@globe.com.
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