When I first saw one of Robert Rauschenberg’s famous solid-white canvases about 25 years ago, my initial thought was that it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen, and that any museum paying good money for such a thing was clearly a few tubes shy of the whole paint box. Subsequently, it occurred to me that it was less the question of painting a white canvas than it was of being the first person to think of doing this. (Realizations that these 1950s works had roots in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus and influences reaching as far forward as the Beatles’ “White Album” helped me rethink the whole thing.) So it was more than passingly interesting to see Chris Granlund’s documentary Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work, the latest in the series of films brought to town by Black Mountain College Museum focusing on the legendary school’s alumni. And in keeping with the iconoclastic mission of that school, it’s perfectly fitting that much of what helped form and inform Rauschenberg’s approach to art lay in his reaction to the instruction he received from Black Mountain art teacher Josef Albers, something that prompted Rauschenberg to do “exactly the reverse” of what Albers wanted. (If Rauschenberg was at loggerheads with Albers, he certainly drew positive responses from Merce Cunningham and John Cage.)
The film traces Rauschenberg’s life and the development of his art from the white paintings to his more complex “combines”—works of art that straddle the line between painting and sculpture—to his status as one of the forefathers of what would come to be known as pop art (Rauschenberg’s approach sometimes called “Neo-Dada”). It’s a richly compelling portrait, and Rauschenberg emerges as both endlessly fascinating and unstoppably playful, but always very human. Contrast, for example, his humorous travails in trying to incorporate a stuffed goat into his work (stubbornly refusing to be anything other than “art with a goat”) and his muted, painful response to the dissolution of his friendship with fellow artist Jasper Johns, and you start to get a picture of the man. A very worthwhile look at one of the most important figures of the art world of the second half of the 20th century.