Roy Lichtenstein said Robert Rauschenberg’s combines “marked the end of Abstract Expressionism and the return of the subject.” The combines are radical for the way they fuse painting, sculpture, and everyday objects. More importantly, they also instantly absorbed photography. This is the alchemical ingredient that saves the combines from being merely souped-up assemblage. As Lorenzo Ghiberti fused illusionist space and materials in his miraculous bas-relief baptistry doors (1403–1424), Rauschenberg created a turning point in visual syntax and optical structure. If all representational images promise depth, the synaptic rhythms and rhymes of the combines create a new kind of visual poetry. As Rauschenberg put it, the combines offered him “a new kind of wisdom.”
Rauschenberg creates a place for uncertainty in art and destabilizes notions of objecthood and spectatorship. This enrages his detractors who view him as an artistic anti-Christ, the American most responsible for art going to hell. In 1967, Clement Greenberg, who had lost his eye but not his bullying ways, denigrated Rauschenberg’s work as “novelty art,” saying it was merely “far-out” and “not even up to Grant Wood.” Ever since, ultra-conservatives have followed suit. Recently, Lance Esplund wrote in The New York Sun that Rauschenberg was “to blame for art that is solely about reaction, confusion, nihilism, and reduction—art that doesn’t give a damn.” He went on to Rauschenberg’s work is colorless, muddled, mute, accidental, lifeless, faithless, glib, distant, boring, academic, cumbersome, and ugly. In addition to suggesting that someone should hide this guy’s thesaurus, it demonstrates how provocative Rauschenberg’s work still is.