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Image Entertainment presents
Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work (1997)

"I love drawing, and I was trying to find a way to bring drawing into the 'all whites.' I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and it just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. Or, you know, it was nothing. So I figured out that it had to begin as art. So I thought, 'It's got to be a de Kooning if it's going to be an important piece.' You see how ridiculously you have to think in order to make this work?"
- Robert Rauschenberg

Review By: debi lee mandel   
Published: June 11, 2001

Stars: Robert Rauschenberg
Other Stars: Sean Barrett, narrator; Merce Cunningham, Calvin Tompkins, Barbara Rose, Leo Castelli, various other art world pundits
Director: Chris Granlund

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 00h:57m:10s
Release Date: May 22, 2001
UPC: 014381926323
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ CB+B+ D+

DVD Review

Produced concurrent with a major retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim in 1997, Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work gives us that rarest of views behind the art world hype and the auctioneer's gavel that dominate the careers of late 20th century artists: the man himself, discussing his life and his work. In a welcome change from many of the other documentaries in the BBC/RM Arts series, there is no host consuming precious screen real estate (specifically, the ubiquitous Melvyn Bragg). Here, we have either art or artist, and various third parties that know him, personally and professionally.

Rauschenberg emerged at a difficult point in art's timeline. Picasso, very much alive and creating prolifically, was leaving nowhere to go within the picture plane. Rauschenberg arrived in New York in 1949, when Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists were in high gear; but he was not an Abstract Expressionist. He was where they were, and they accept him, but he was an outsider. He became fast friends with Jasper Johns (another friend, Rachel Rosenthal, a performance artist, backs his claim that he encouraged Johns to become a full time artist). Soon, the two are labeled "pop artists," but they have both outlived that era.

While Pollock and his contemporaries took the master's experiments as far as they could go, Rauschenberg, at least, brought innovation when he broke out of the 2D canvas and began using "found" substrates. Not exactly a painter and not quite a sculptor, he often transfigures random street scrap into art. He is still pioneering new ways to use ordinary (and extraordinary) objects: in the 1997 retrospective, he exhibited familiar items, cast in crystal: a pair of automobile tires in a silver-plated rack.

The artist discusses, in detail, his controversial work, The Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), which is exactly that. While some consider it destructive vandalism, he sees it as poetry. Interspersed throughout the program we visit his studio on Captiva Island, Florida, where he and an assistant layout Party Crashers (1997), a photomontage created by transferring vegetable dye print onto a water-wet substrate. Although it is not mentioned, I assume he discovered this process when needing to replace the deadly chemicals (i.e. lacquer and acetone) he once used in silkscreening. While this technique was interesting to see, if I were interviewing him I'd have asked about the "archival safety" of such a seemingly transient medium.

In this hour, we learn much about his personal history in Port Arthur, Texas (hometown of Janis Joplin, some years later) and that discovered art as an enlisted man when visiting the Huntington Gallery in Southern California (where he discovered Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Lawrence's Pinkie and realized they were more than decorations for playing cards). He eventually went off to Paris to absorb the art scene. but then realized he was "forty-five years too late."

Overall, we see very little of his work, and learn even less about his motivations and processes. In the last few minutes we watch him direct his assistants as they install his most ambitious work, The Quarter Mile or 2-Furlong Piece (1981-1997). Finally, as the credits roll, the camera flies through the various galleries of the exhibition at nauseating speed, perhaps representing the average time most museum-goers spend in front of his work.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original production quality of this documentary was of a much higher standard, comparable with that of the Jasper Johns program. As a result, this is another fine transfer in this series from Image, having had something quite good to work with. The colors are rich and saturated and the artwork seems to be represented accurately.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 track is sufficient and even. Dialogue, incidental music and narration are all presented at appropriate levels.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: No extra features are included with this series. A single menu screen activates a sort of "rollover" effect by which a small thumbnail for each of 12 chapters changes to match the content.

Previous discs in this series came in Snapper cases; Image honors Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work with the sturdier Amaray product, which will hopefully be their choice from now on.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

"You don't choose to be an artist. And I don't think you learn to be an artist, either."

Robert Rauschenberg is an innovative artist who almost single-handedly rescued us from the self-indulgent mire of Abstract Expressionism and brought us contemporary reflections of our own society. By both utilizing and creating icons of popular culture, he pioneered the path that led beyond the confines of "accepted" painting and sculpture, the Pop Art movement. (For more on this, see Image's Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.)


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