Not long ago in these pages, Karen Wilkin described the standard history of American art as “freeze-dried.” Rarely has a critic pointed up the confines of art historical discourse as pithily. Even the casual student of art knows what such a history entails, with its litany of movements and artists. It is one that extols novelty over aesthetics, style over vision, Barnett Newman over Fairfield Porter. It is a history that exalts an avant-garde, no matter how moribund, over the rigors of tradition. It is a history that has attempted to elevate Marcel Duchamp to a status equal to that of Picasso and Matisse and, for the most part, succeeded. It is a history as blah as it is blind—blind, that is, to the arts of painting and sculpture. Within this fast and flavorless telling of history Robert Rauschenberg plays a pivotal role.

As an art student, I first learned of Rauschenberg as the artist who erased a...


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