Representations of the Everyday in the Art of Johns and Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were pioneering post-war artists who, through their use of everyday objects in their art, sought to subvert the myth of the artist as visionary creator, which had become part of the discourse of Abstract Expressionism. In doing so they anticipated the Pop Art movement.
The dominant trend in American art in 1955, when Jasper Johns painted Flag, was Abstract Expressionism. Within the realm of Abstract Expressionism, the painting was equal to the ‘unique’ identity of the painter, whose signature brushstroke or palette would alone compose the substance of a work, intimately connecting it to an artistic persona. Paintings operated on a level where they could no longer be perceived merely as objects but as the offspring of artists. This was, in many respects, a return to the notion of the artist as the romantic visionary. Following the tremendous effort by artist to deconstruct art, work had, once again begun to take itself too seriously.
In an effort to solve this problem, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg began painting works that performed an iconoclastic duty by removing from them the artists’ being. The main characteristic feature of this new artistic movement was the display of everyday objects in a confrontational yet nonchalant manner. The layers of implication embedded in these representations of everyday life varied throughout the works of the two artists, especially in their methodology. What remained constant was the transformation of artistic masterpieces into ordinary objects with indeterminate meaning.
When Johns painted Flag he started questioning, like many before him, what it was that determined the status of a work of art. Johns and others wondered if the act of painting alone produce a painting and if this ensured the creation of an automatic link between the painting as an object and its meaning? This was a serious aesthetic investigation into how an object's meaning could be constituted by their material and their making.
Johns wanted to observe the play between the image and the medium. This was the reason why he often repeated imagery, reworked it in different colours and different materials. Through this investigation Johns raised an intellectual point about how a mark, a simple textural incident could hold meaning. He questioned if a conventionally mass-produced object could become meaningful, or become for that matter art, when produced by an artist. If it was the artists’ hand that made the artwork into what it was, then why were the critics so outraged? Johns was cleverly mocking the Abstract Expressionists by wholeheartedly following their credo. The apparent lack of an idea behind Johns’ paintings, or the use of everyday objects as they are, was aimed at negating the artist’s hand.
In the meantime, Rauschenberg’s counter-Abstract Expressionist art started out as a series of experimental projects, slowly evolving into works he would call Combines – syntheses of painting and sculpture incorporating everyday objects. In contrast to Johns’ works, the objects in Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’ preserved their specific functional character. Though Rauschenberg and Johns both borrowed from the readymades of Duchamp, it can be argued that Rauschenberg did so to a lesser extent, as he was not necessarily interested in playing a pun-like trick with his objects.
Rauschenberg’s Combines remained messy and disorderly, refusing to resolve into a logical form that conveyed the aloofness of Pop. This was the chief difference between Rauschenberg and Johns. Though Rauschenberg was expressive, he believed in the inherent banality of expression; he objected to the supposed transcendence achieved through the existential conflict the artist has with his materials.
Rauschenberg’s method of removing himself from his works was a more palpable revelation of the creation process. His works, even in their final state, displayed the process by which they were made. An assemblage, or an automobile tire print, both exhibited first-hand how they had come to life. The kind of iconoclasm that Rauschenberg performed (beyond the rather conceptually self-explanatory Erased De Kooning Drawing) was one where he instigated the destruction of an artwork. This was destruction because as soon as it was created, it no longer belonged to anyone. They were a cluster of objects that, simply by continuing their existence as everyday objects, denied any connection to a creator. In this way, Rauschenberg proclaimed himself a liar every time he put together a Combine.
Rauschenberg and Johns differed with regards to the artist equals artwork equation; while Rauschenberg disregarded the artist, Johns got rid of the artwork. Rauschenberg did so by producing work that did not necessitate any particular artist, while Johns achieved his goal by creating art that, by virtue of its subject matter, was incongruous with its concept as a work of art. The artists remain similar for their mutual interest in the use of everyday objects to mark the disruption that arose between the object and its status as a work of art.