To understand what was happening in the art world of the Sixties, Hugh Kenner once said, it was enough to hear about it. And in that sense Calvin Tomkins' notations on the doings of Robert Rauschenberg and others in his orbit--drawn from Tomkins' writings for The New Yorker and the collections The Bride and the Bachelors and The Scene--constitute a faithful, albeit bland, report on the bumptious generation after Abstract Expressionism. But the art suffers from being treated as a phenomenon, and so does the artist. Tomkins picks up Rauschenberg at the 1964 Venice Biennale where, after a bureaucratic flap, he is awarded first prize (""I'm starting to get this sense of, well, how difficult is it going to be to stay in touch?""). Then we follow Rauschenberg from Port Arthur, Texas, ""misfit"" (running, incongruously, for senior class president) to his discovery of art (via lush British portraiture) to Kansas City, Paris, Black Mountain, and New York. He comes into contact with John Cage (""no-order, no-structure, and no-control"") and then Merce Cunningham (""no plots, no story-telling, none of Graham's psychological or ritualistic overtones""); and so acquires that ""freedom"" which Tomkins, defining by negation, identifies, along with ""a sense of design"" and a comic spirit, as the attributes of Rauschenherg's art. He also discovers his ""bisexual nature"" and has a long, fertile, violently-ruptured affair with fellow-pioneer Jasper Johns. Dealers put in an appearance; critics have their say; prices figure; and, indiscriminately, Rauschenberg takes up collage, makes ""combines"" (the notorious goat-in-a-tire; the ravaged quilt), turns to silk screens and lithographs--also ""combines"" of a sort--and finally to the ""spare, uncluttered"" works of the early Seventies, created away from New York. But it's the Happenings and the brouhahas that pick up the narrative; the art is better encountered altogether in Irving Sandler's The New York School (1978).