In 1961, for the inaugural exhibition of Iris Clert’s new paris gallery, Les 41 Présentent Iris Clert, the artist Robert Rauschenberg submitted the piece pictured above: This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So, a telegram bearing the title, followed by his name.
It has been claimed that Rauschenberg simply forgot about the exhibition, or ran out of time, and so as a last minute idea sent the telegram. But regardless of the circumstances, with this one simple one line of text, Rauschenberg managed to create a work of art prefiguring the conceptual art movement by several years, and opening out new, and highly contentious possibilities for what art could be.
My question is: how important are the words “If I Say So” to the piece? If these had been omitted would the telegram still exhibit the same force in its assertion—or would its declaration be all the stronger for not being tied to the opinion of the artist? Without the “If I Say So” would the portrait become a kind of inverse Ceci n’est pas une Pipe? In the latter work the pipe is obviously not a pipe, it is rather an accumulation of pigment applied to a canvas in semblance of a pipe. It is a representation of a pipe, not a pipe itself—there is no arguing with Magritte on that one. So would solely the statement This is a Portrait of Iris Clert make it a portrait of Iris Clert, even without the authority of the “If I Say So”?
What are the implications of so bold a statement as “If I Say So”? It is clearly a strong declaration of authorial intent. When, only six years later, Roland Barthes would be declaring the death of the author, in this art work it seems alive and well. Whilst at the same time this statement itself could question the omnipotence of the author—why is it up to Rauschenberg to decide upon the validity of this telegram-as-portrait? What, in this case, becomes of the role of the viewer and critic in the validation of this as work-of-art? Who makes the decision over whether or not this is in fact a portrait of Iris Clert?
Answers on a telegram please.