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Interview with Paul Schimmel

Interview with Paul Schimmel, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angelel.

Rauschenberg: Combines has made conquests in the USA and in Paris, and now the turn has finally come to us. Monogram – the centrepiece – is returning back home. Paul Schimmel, curator at MoCA and the organiser of the exhibition, is contageously enthusiastic about the exhibition and his experiences along the way. And the same goes for the artist himself. At the opening gala dinner, overwhelmed by seeing his combines all together, he had burst out: “I’ll be back!” If he could be reborn, he would, says Paul Schimmel over the phone to the Friends of MM Bulletin.

This is the first extensive exhibition of Rauschenberg’s Combines. What was your driving force?

It’s the first time it has been done, but not the first time it has been discussed. Until now, Rauschenberg has been somewhat reluctant to the idea. He seems to have a fatherly feeling towards his works and seeing them all together has been rather overwhelming, almost so that he had a fatherly jealousy about them. Seeing them together is almost too overwhelming. But the time is now ripe to present his Combines. Partly because he has accepted the idea, but also because he is aware that this is probably their last chance of being exhibited while he is still alive.

Many people see Rauschenberg as a predecessor of pop art. What is his essential contribution to art history?

His works are the start of something. All the discoveries he made in his oeuvre, for instance the silk screen paintings and his Combines, are quintessential to pop art. In that way, Rauschenberg defines the beginning of a movement. The more I studied his works, the more I realised how painfully autobiographical they are. They reflect who he was and what he thought, his love and his passions, his entire life. He is excruciatingly honest in his works, which were produced at a time when art in New York was very impersonal and macho. The photos and letters in his works prove how personal they are – they delve deep into himself and everything is so carefully selected. A lot of thought has gone into the choices, about his own psyche and life, and this is revealed in a way that is far from random or haphazard.

Most of the Combines were produced in the post-war era, 1955-61. In what way do they reflect the age?

They include fragments from life at the time, such as newspaper cuttings and photos, references to everyday life. They say a great deal about American literature. Rauschenberg earned his reputation while still in his twenties, which is typical of the 1950s. He was part of the first young generation when the USA deposed Europe as the centre of the art world.

The fascination for Rauschenberg seems to be never-ending. Why do you think this is?

The fascination is multi-faceted. The fact that this artist could create such seminal works while so young is remarkable. He is like a cat with nine lives. He has done so much and has so many constantly topical influences, such as the press and other media. He is something of a Renaissance Man! He had a strong impact on young artists whose careers started round about the time of his Combines, which is impressive. Rauschenberg has changed our culture both then and now.

What position does Monogram have in his oeuvre?

If you close your eyes and think of combines, Monogram is what springs to mind. The painting is the floor, but the animal isn’t captured in it. He battled with this work a long time, from 1955 to 1959. It was the beginning and the end of his Combines and was completed in a period when he had really stopped making them. It is more mythically explorative than the other works: historicising. It made his Combines into classics, and you could even say that without Monogram this exhibition would not have been possible.

Paul Schimmel, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

More about this exhibition