Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rauschenberg and the '60s

I am not extremely familiar with the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg, who died this week at the age of 82, but I do remember writing a short response to his silkscreen-collage, "Signs" (above) my senior year of high school.

Every year, my school would display a selection of prints borrowed from a wealthy art collector, and my senior year, my art history teacher had us choose a print from that year's art show and write about it. Out of all the interesting artwork on display, "Signs" fascinated me the most. I was amazed how it contains every image that we nowadays associate with The Sixties--the Kennedys, MLK, the space program, Vietnam, awesome music--yet Rauschenberg didn't have the benefit of much hindsight when he made the print, since it appeared in 1970.

Rauschenberg's prescience, his ability to distill a decade down to its essential people and its essential feelings--rage, grief, death coming before its time, the astronauts on the moon looking back at the Earth, that little conflict-ridden bauble hanging in the sky--convinced me that this was the work of a great artist. I first saw "Signs" in 2003 or 2004--now it's 2008 and I still don't know how I would visually sum up this decade in a way that would still resonate forty years from now.

Robert Rauschenberg grew up in the same Texas town as Janis Joplin, explaining her presence in this print. Evidently he created "Signs" as a magazine cover, though it was never used for that purpose. "It was conceived to remind us of the love, terror and violence of the last ten years. The danger lies in forgetting," he once said.

With memorials like these, I don't think there's any danger of forgetting the '60s.

I'm less certain about our own decade--which feels turbulent, too, but lacks the utopianism of the '60s, and so complex that it is impossible to distill things down to a few images. How would you describe the "look" of this decade, its symbols, its preoccupations? We can't even give it a name! And if naming something gives you power over it...well, then, we don't even have the power to take charge of our own era.

I said this to a friend the other day, who immediately retorted "The Aughts!" (He is an anglophile.)

"Half the people in this country don't know what that means," I said cynically. "And then what do we call the next decade? The Teens?--but then what about 2010, 2011? The Tens? No, I don't think things will get better till 2020. And then we'll still get depressed, because we'll realize it's been one hundred years since the 1920s, and we'll feel old."

On a more upbeat note, if you've got time and want to commemorate Rauschenberg, why not read Chuck Mee's exuberant homage, bobrauschenbergamerica? (Like all Mee's plays, it's available for free online). I had a good time at a student production of it last year. Rare to see a play that celebrates suburban Americana rather than denigrating or satirizing it!

Image from


Mike Ettner said...


I just came across your comments on (and appreciation of) Rauschenberg's "Signs." I too was entranced by the power of the piece when I first saw it. (For me, that was in 1976 at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.) I recently wrote a short essay on the piece. It's posted at

The two links in your post to, where you mention there's further information about the silkscreen, both lead to a "cannot display the webpage" notice (hate it when that happens!) Any idea if his site is still available, or what happened to it?



Marissa said...

Thanks for the comments, Mike! No, I don't know anything about what happened to was probably just something I found in a Google search while writing this post, not a web site that I regularly visited.