6. Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Welcome once again to the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog! As always, topic suggestions and other kinds of feedback are greatly appreciated, as are social media shares. I do hope you’re enjoying this project as much as I am.

Our last time out, we explored the connection between singer Janis Joplin and Churches of Christ. This time, though, we’re moving from music to the visual arts, as we discuss the religious sensibilities of noted pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. For the unfamiliar, an art critic usefully summarized Rauschenberg’s chief contributions to the art world as follows:

“…he was instrumental in reintroducing representational imagery into avant-garde art. In the 1950s, if you had ambitions of being a significant artist, essentially that meant that pure, abstract painting is what you were expected to do. And that’s not what Rauschenberg did…. [he also challenged the] very idea of purity contained in pure, abstract painting…. The combine paintings that he made were part-sculpture, part-painting, part-drawing, part-photography, part-printmaking. And essentially he smooshed them all together into these combines, which were like collages on steroids.” (1)

Rauschenberg’s work, particularly during the late 1940s and early 1950s, often incorporated religious themes and imagery, and though he does not seem to have been part of any religious body after his twenties, (2) the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has observed that Rauschenberg’s religious upbringing gave him “a solid understanding” of Christian theology. (3) So what was that upbringing like, and did Rauschenberg have any connection to Churches of Christ?

 

Robert_Rauschenberg_(1968)

(“Robert Rauschenberg exposeert in Stedelijk Museum, zit hier op eigen kustwerk 21 februari 1968” by Jac. de Nijs / Anefo is licensed under CC BY SA-3.0)

As it turns out, a single article in TexasMonthly gives us almost everything we need for our purposes. First and foremost, it reveals that Rauschenberg was indeed raised in Churches of Christ. Second, it informs us that Rauschenberg at one point wanted to be a preacher, but decided against it “‘because it was a sin to dance. And I was quite good at looking through the Bible and showing how many times they danced in the Bible.'” Last, the article implies that Rauschenberg did not always look back fondly on his time in Churches of Christ, even though (as mentioned above) his artistic output often reflected a spiritual worldview: “‘The Church of Christ made the Baptists look like Episcopalians,’ Rauschenberg recalls. ‘There wasn’t an idea you could have that couldn’t lead somebody else astray.'” (4)

One additional detail comes from Artlyst, which identifies Rauschenberg’s childhood congregation as the Sixth Street Church of Christ in Port Arthur. (The article does, however, mistakenly claim that the congregation was Pentecostal.) (5)

After two consecutive debunkings, it’s nice to be able to establish a link between our featured celebrity and Churches of Christ once again, even if it was only a childhood connection. Check back in a couple of weeks for a special twofer edition of the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog!

 

NOTES

(1) “Pop Artist Robert Rauschenberg Dies at 82,” PBS Newshour, May 13, 2008, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/remember-jan-june08-master_05-13/ .

(2) John Richardson, “Rauschenberg’s Epic Vision,” Vanity Fair, September 1997, accessed September 21, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1997/09/rauschenberg199709 .

(3) “Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed September 21, 2017, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.299 .

(4) Michael Ennis, “The Return of the Native,” TexasMonthly, March 1998, accessed September 21, 2017, https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-return-of-the-native/ .

(5) Jonathan Evens, “The Religious Impulses of Robert Rauschenberg,” Artlyst, February 12, 2017, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.artlyst.com/features/religious-impulses-robert-rauschenberg-revd-jonathan-evens/ .

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