What sort of an artist, what sort of a person is Robert Rauschenberg? Walter Hopps, in the catalog he has edited with Susan Davidson, kicks off with a startling comparison: Rauschenberg’s “inventive skills and democratic spirit” recall those of Benjamin Franklin. It turns out that Rauschenberg admires Franklin and once described to Hopps a particularly beautiful experiment of his:
Franklin cut narrow sticks of a uniform size and material and painted each a different color along the visible spectrum, progressing from red to violet. On a clear winter day, he carefully inserted them to an equal depth in a snowbank and then observed their movement as the sun’s heat was absorbed by each stick. The sticks sank in the snow at varying rates, providing an artful demonstration of the physical properties of color.
A farther-fetched comparison strikes me as more apt. Rauschenberg, with his long record of theatrical work of all kinds, resembles Gianlorenzo Bernini, who, as John Evelyn tells us in an often quoted passage, “gave a public opera (for so they call shows of that kind), wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre.”1 Bernini, like Rauschenberg, was a great pusher-back of technical boundaries: in his productions one might see a fire on stage, or a realistic sunrise, or one might be threatened by a flood. He designed carnival cars and firework displays. In this turning of his hand to many different tasks, he resembles his artistic forebears of the Renaissance. But he was the last of his line. What strikes us today as novel in Rauschenberg—that vat of voice-activated bubbling drillers’ mud, that frieze of chairs which would only fully light up at the sound of the magic word “Om”—would have been comprehensible to Bernini as displays of ingenuity, like those musical fountains or devilish garden water-spurts.
When Bernini traveled abroad he was accompanied—just like Rausch-enberg—by a retinue. His arrival in France was treated as a diplomatic event of the greatest importance. One thinks of Rauschenberg with his ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) project, which he announced before ambassadors at the United Nations, and which gratuitously and voluntarily established him as an official artist to be met (in such countries as have them) by official artists and by dignitaries of state. Bernini, who prided himself on the friendship of popes, was graciously allowed to be on familiar terms with Louis XIV. It was his greatness as an artist that entitled him to such familiarity. When Queen Christina of Sweden, on arrival in Rome in 1654,
desired to honor him by going to see him at work in his house, he received her in the same rough and soiled dress he usually wore when working the marble and which, being an artist’s dress, he held to be the most appropriate in which to receive that great lady. Her Majesty, who, with sublime understanding instantly perceived this beautiful finesse, enlarged on his concetto not only in thought but in actually touching his dress with her own hand as a sign of her admiration for his art.2
Rauschenberg, dining in Cuba at the Palace of the Revolution, got on so well with Castro that Castro invited the artist and his entourage to spend the weekend at his personal guest house. Rauschenberg’s immediate response was to invite Castro to his home on Captiva Island, Florida. How Castro laughed! “This is the first time in twenty-nine years I have been invited to the United States,” he said. “But if I were to vacation on your island in Florida, what would I do there? Are there not tires and refrigerators and automobiles on the bottom of the ocean?” “No,” said Rauschenberg, “there are fish and I will cook for you.”3
It seems like the retelling of an ancient story—and so it is. The monarch, when he meets the great artist, must treat him like a peer, and expect to be so treated in return. Charles V picks up the brush that Titian has dropped. Queen Christina instantly understands the compliment that is being paid to her, and touches the dusty smock. Castro, if he invites Rauschenberg home, should expect the compliment to be returned. Or at least (since both participants know that the conversation is entirely unrealistic) he should acknowledge the beauty of the concetto.
Rauschenberg’s sense of his own worth (both as an artist and, indeed, as a cook) seems, from all accounts, to be something quite other than self-importance, and one is at a loss to guess where it comes from. Nothing in the early biography quite prepares one for it. Hampered during his early education by undiagnosed dyslexia, Rauschenberg was the nonachieving son of an intimidating, disappointed father. Of all the stories told about him (many of which are evidently tinged with his own benign brand of self-mythologizing), none stays with one so dreadfully as the account that has him returning home in 1945 to Port Arthur, Texas, at the end of his naval service, only to find that his family had moved house without bothering to tell him. Rauschenberg was not returning from the theater of war, but he had had a rough and mentally taxing job in a psychiatric unit. Now here he was confronting a houseful of strangers, and too embarrassed to turn to his other relatives to find out where his family had gone.
One is hardly surprised to learn that, having managed to locate his new home, Rauschenberg did not stay there long; nor is it odd to find him, in due course, changing his first name from Milton to Bob, and thereafter to Robert. Nineteen forty-five must have been a kind of Year Zero for him, when everything had to be begun afresh. And he was a classic beneficiary of the GI Bill, proceeding by leaps and bounds from the Kansas City Art Institute, to Paris, to Black Mountain—greedy for any education on offer.
And quick to benefit, when one thinks that the first of his works to be acquired by a public institution were photographs dating from 1949 and 1951, bought by Edward Steichen in 1952 for the Museum of Modern Art. The earlier of these is a rich study in blackness, showing the interior of an old horse-drawn carriage. In common with most of his early photographs, the image is squarish—he used a Rolleicord and didn’t like to crop. As he said in a later interview,
Photography is like diamond cutting. If you miss you miss. There is no difference with painting. If you don’t cut you have to accept the whole image. You wait until life is in the frame, then you have the permission to click. I like the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full.
In the early photograph which Steichen chose, the blackness has almost filled the frame.
Another early success came with the blueprints which Rauschenberg made with his then wife, Susan Weil, in which a nude model was laid on the large sheet of paper, and sunlamps played over the body, creating lyrical and unpredictable effects of shadow and contour. It seems surprising that any of these immediately pleasing works should have survived in such fresh condition. Not only have they survived. The process of their creation was recorded by Life magazine in April 1951 (“Although the Rauschenbergs make blueprints for fun, they hope to turn them into screen and wallpaper designs”). Steichen exhibited one at MoMA, in a show called Abstraction in Photography, and Bonwit Teller featured them in a window display. The process might be considered as an art form, or as frankly commercial.
It belongs to a series of investigations of different types of work on paper, like the “urban frottages” on which Jasper Johns collaborated, or Rauschenberg’s This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (in which the woodblock was successively gouged away), or a project recalled by Robert Creeley, in which butcher paper was laid on the floor of the art school entrance, to be marked by the students’ footprints. The Automobile Tire Print of 1953 was made on a scroll of twenty sheets of paper mounted on fabric. John Cage drove his Model A Ford along the scroll, while Rauschenberg inked the tire as it proceeded. Rauschenberg: “He did a beautiful job, but I consider it my print.” Cage: “But which one of us drove the car?”
Already in these early works, many common future patterns are set: the delight in collaboration, the use of cheap materials (the blueprint sheets were bought on sale, being the ends of rolls), the incorporation of some extra dimension such as time. “Cy + Roman Steps,” a series of five photographs in which the body but not the face of Cy Twombly advances into view on the Spanish Steps, seems both an account of “the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full” and an amused variation on the wrongly posed tourist photograph. Seen at the Guggenheim in their chosen scale of 20 by 16 inches, the photographs contrast the Roman patina of the steps with the very American (particularly for the period when this style was not yet international) jeans-and-shirtsleeve order of the advancing figure, on whose midriff the camera ends up concentrating.
Rauschenberg has fun—he always seems to be having fun, and this quality is what was originally held against him. This is why, however early he might have attracted attention as a photographer, or in the commercial art of window-dressing, he had to wait much longer for success, or serious esteem, as a painter. It is not that the ambition wasn’t there from the start. On the contrary, the more the evidence is piled up in front of us, the stronger the ambition seems to be. This is something that is easy to miss in Calvin Tomkins’s 1980 biography, 4 which in turn takes part of its tone from Rauschenberg’s own way of depicting himself as a sort of holy fool. On the one hand, he must go through life not knowing what he is doing. On the other hand, somehow, he must know very well indeed what he is doing, or he wouldn’t have achieved what he has.
For an idea of the way Rauschenberg’s painting life began, one can turn not to the Guggenheim catalog but to Walter Hopps’s 1991 Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, which did a thorough job of reconstructing and documenting the first phase of his mature work.5 In the navy, he had made portraits of his friends, and it was English portraiture which had first inspired him to take painting seriously. Hopps reproduces a convincing Self Portrait from around 1948, which he likens in style to the work of Marsden Hartley. But anything of that kind seems to have stopped after Rauschenberg’s arrival at Black Mountain College and his studying painting and drawing, not so happily, with Josef Albers.
The earliest work, exhibited in a one-man show at Betty Parsons Gallery, is the product of a divided desire: on the one hand, he emulates the Abstract Expressionists (and is precocious in so doing); on the other, he cannot wait to mess around with found material. The former tendency seems connected with his residual religious feelings. Crucifixion and Reflection, a study in off-white (but with some Hebrew newspaper text showing through), may perfectly well be taken as just that: a meditation on the Cross. The latter tendency is seen in a collage since repainted, Should Love Come First?: a scrap of the title page of a magazine article (“my problem…should love come first”) with a footprint below, and below that a printed dance diagram for (Hopps admirably informs us) the progressive waltz, male position. This seems executed in a teasing spirit, and one suspects that several private jokes are embedded in the collage, as there surely are in 22 The Lily White. The next word in the song from which the title is taken is “boys”—but instead of boys the canvas features numbers. Phone numbers? Military numbers? Meaningless numbers?
When nothing in his first show sold, Rauschenberg moved into his black and white phase, in which several of the black paintings were obliterations of previous collages, while the white paintings tended to be fresh canvases with the paint so flatly applied that, when he wished to recreate them, Rauschenberg simply authorized Brice Marden to paint canvases of the same dimension with the same paint. The point was not the paint itself but what happened in the looking at it. “A canvas is never empty,” Rauschenberg later wrote.
I transcribe a letter from Rauschenberg to Betty Parsons, postmarked October 18, since it gives such a good idea of the young dyslexic artist’s enthusiasm for what he thought he was up to:
I have since putting on shoes sobered up from summer puberty and moonlit smells. Have felt that my head and heart move through something quite different than the hot dust the earth threw at me. the results are a group of paintings that I consider almost an emergency. they bear the contraditions that deserves them a place with other outstanding paintings and yet they are not Art because they take you to a place in painting art has not been. (therefore it is) that is the the pulse and movement the truth of the lies in our peculiar preoccupation. they are large white (1 white as 1 GOD) canvases organized and selected with the experience of time and resented with the innocense of a virgin. Dealing with the suspense, excitement and body of an organic silence, the restriction and freedom of absence, the plastic fullness of nothing, the point a circle begins and ends. they are a natural response to the current pressures of the faithless and a promoter of intuitional optimism It is completely irrelevent that I am making them—Today is their creater.
I will be in N.Y. Nov. 1st. and will forfeit all right to ever show again for their being given a chance to be considered for this year’s calender.
I think of you often Brave woman, Hello to Monica.
It didn’t work. Betty Parsons didn’t take these paintings, and in time, when he had had enough of black and white, Rauschenberg moved on to red—not pure pigment but reds applied with fierce freedom. And it was through that door that he entered the world of his famous combines, in which he allowed the two aspects of his nature to fight it out—the expressionist painter vs. the collagist devoted to image and symbol.
A friend who has worked with him draws a contrast between the intelligence of Rauschenberg and that of Jasper Johns. Johns, one feels, is a case of learning acquired with great effort and application; Rauschenberg’s intelligence is natural and spontaneous. Setting himself a problem of immense, willed complexity (in his technological works, the demands of the artwork were often way ahead of the state of technology at the time, and had to wait some years before the right solution was discovered), he will astonish his collaborators by his ability to visualize, say, the interactions of a proposed set of rotating, overlapping images. In Billy Klüver’s catalog essay, which is one of the most interesting (because most informative), we see some of the problems to do with Solstice being resolved. The piece is a system of sliding plexiglass doors, made at a time when these were not widely used in America. So much effort has gone into the technical design of the piece that after a while one of the collaborators begins to get nervous that Rauschenberg hasn’t yet shown any sign of choosing the images that will go on the transparent doors.
I mentioned this to him…and he said, “Yes, you’re right. Let’s get started with it now. Come along with me.” Well, he had these racks and racks of silkscreens downstairs in the cellar and on the first floor, and he started to systematically pull out screens. He put two into one pile, three in the next, stacking the piles along the wall. Then he’d say to me, “Hold that one up, Robby,” and I’d hold it up. And he’d say, “All right, move that one over to pile one, and take that one and move it here.” In a matter of two hours’ time, he had composed the whole thing as far as the selection of screens.
Two hours to choose around a hundred images, but how many hours and how much organization to build up the archive of images in the first place?
In around five hundred objects on exhibition in New York, it is impossible even to guess how many images are involved (quite apart from found objects:familiar pieces of packaging, exotic flour sacks, wrecked machinery). There are the early photos. Then there are works using collage, silkscreen, and solvent, transfers of found images (often from Scientific American). A proportion of them are the obvious icons of their time: Kennedy’s face, astronauts, the Statue of Liberty. And there are quotations from the old masters. But the majority of images, representing the unconsidered visual world in which we actually live and work, are not so easily classified. Brice Marden, when he was working for Rauschenberg, used to attempt to research images for him. Often a week of work would turn up a pile of offerings which were never used, whereas Rauschenberg himself, in a single evening, could turn up dozens. Then Rauschenberg returns to taking his own photographs, both for their own sake (as in the wonderful study of the plaster Botticelli in the sale room window, reproduced on page 12) and to enrich his stock of images. Today, much of that process of selection can be done with the help of a computer, but it was not always so. Even for an artist whose working practice is rooted in the instinctual and the aleatoric, there must be a fund of material from which to draw, an archive. Time and again, one wonders: How did he find that? For instance, one composition is built around the image of a smashed bicycle rickshaw on a dump. But in the places where they use such transport, a bicycle rickshaw is a valuable object, a means of livelihood in itself, and one would expect a smashed rickshaw to be instantly patched up and recycled.
One turns from such bold, legible compositions to those soft, mysterious, and scarcely fathomable works such as the illustrations to Dante—an exhibition in themselves, although not all of them are on display. Rauschenberg uses a technique where solvent, probably lighter fluid, is applied to the image source (for instance, a magazine illustration), which is then placed face down on the paper, and it would appear that a blunt pencil is then rubbed along the back of the image source. The effect of this is to produce a calligraphic line, as in a drawing, which is also a vehicle for a faint photographic image. I went back again and again to these, but it seemed impossible to concentrate in the context—if concentration were indeed required. Perhaps a casual going back again is more appropriate. Here is Rauschenberg trying to do in prose what he does in a picture:
I find it nearly impossible free ice to write about Jeepaxle my work. The concept I planetarium struggle to deal with ketchup is opposed to the logical community lift tab inherent in language horses and communication. My fascination with images open 24 hrs. is based on the complex interlocking if disparate visual facts heated pool that have no respect for grammar. The form then Denver 39 is second hand to nothing. The work then has a chance to electric service become its own cliché. Luggage. This is the inevitable fate fair ground of any inanimate object freightways by this I mean anything that does not have inconsistency as a possibility built-in.
And the statement ends: “It is extremely important that art be unjustifiable.”
This was written in 1963 for an anthology called Pop Art Redefined, and it was composed while on the road with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—the inconsequential words coming from signs or sights seen along the way. It is impressive to see that, at this stage in his career when his reputation is about to be confirmed by the 1964 grand prize at the Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg is not simply collaborating from a distance (as one might design a set, which others would build) but on the road day and night, stage-managing the performances, creating sets out of objects found along the way, and prepared to commit himself for a six-month world tour. This was when Rauschenberg was perfecting his Bernini-esque uomo universale act. He had become a lighting designer, a choreographer, a performer even. He had taught himself to rollerskate and had created the performance piece, Pelican (part of which can be seen on film at the SoHo Guggenheim), in which he skates so memorably with a reversed parachute fixed to his back.
And so it was that he arrived in Venice on the eve of the Biennale as a stage manager. But when he won the prize, he made the mistake of giving an interview in which he said that “the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is my biggest canvas.” This did not go down well with Cunningham. Cage said later: “I didn’t think it was proper for Bob to say that. In all my connection with Merce, I have given him the stage and I have stayed in the curtains. Bob didn’t do that.”
There is a faint echo of the smoldering row that followed this remark, and that led in the end to Rauschenberg and his friend, the dancer Steve Paxton, leaving the company at the end of the tour, in the article that Paxton has written for the Guggenheim catalog. Paxton describes how Rauschenberg, in the days before black plastic dance floors, would conduct a very thorough survey of the condition of each new floor they encountered. “He said that it was for the sake of the costumes. We knew better. He loved this company and shuddered if one of the dancers got a staple in mid-move.” He describes the self-effacing quality of the lighting Rauschenberg designed, his unrivaled knowledge of the Cunningham repertoire, and his control of every aspect of how it was seen.
A Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance is a well-orchestrated noncollaboration. The thesis is that the music, the dance, and the decor each exists on its own terms, and they are shuffled into the experience of the audience, each “hand” being unique. The planning for the presentation of this thesis was thorough, and the curtains rose on time, even if Rauschenberg had to be up all night.
One can see from all this what the problem would have been. It was the insatiability of Rauschenberg’s vision. What he had said to the interviewer was not incorrect: his attitude to the performance was the same as his attitude to the canvas, and no doubt that was his strength, but it was a strength which was not in the habit of perceiving any boundaries. Rome was never big enough to hold two Berninis, and neither was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Paxton quotes Rauschenberg as saying, “I tend to see everything,” meaning that he sees in a different way from the way we normally see. He does not see just a line of text, he sees a whole paragraph which he must somehow sort through. As if he lacked the mechanism of visual attention, as if everything he sees appears equally important. And that is the effect, in particular, of the grander paintings such as Barge, which aspire to the condition of murals, and in which every part of the composition seems equally demanding. As if in life he simply can’t stop seeing things—and wouldn’t want to, either, if he could.
November 6, 1997
Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, edited by William Bray (London: Henry Colburn, 1850), Volume 1, p. 122. ↩
Baldinucci, cited in Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn (Norton, 1963), p. 270. ↩
See Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/ Art and Life (Abrams, 1990), p. 37. ↩
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Doubleday, 1980). ↩
The Menil Collection/Houston Fine Arts Press, 1991. ↩