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September 1997

Robert Rauschenberg: 'Business sure screwed up the art world universally'

On the occasion of his Guggenheim retrospective, the artist talks about his globe-trotting approach to “the adventure of art”

Robert Rauschenberg

It sounds like the stuff of fiction: a poor, part-Cherokee dyslexic from a Gulf Coast oil port climbs to the summit of the international art world. But such is the rags-to-riches story of Ernest Milton “Robert” Rauschenberg. Born in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, he served in the Navy during the Second World War, then attended the Kansas City Art Institute, the Académie Julien in Paris, and Black Mountain College in North Carolina before settling in New York.

Among the Abstract Expressionists with whom he socialised at Manhattan’s Cedar Tavern, he established himself as the enfant terrible of the New York School, in one symbolic gesture erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning. His breakthrough style was a Dada-inspired assemblage, weaving together Abstract Expressionist brushwork with found photographs, newsprint, and objects into three-dimensional hybrids he called “Combine” paintings. Increasingly interested in photography and printing, he mastered techniques for transferring pictures onto various supports, juxtaposing popular culture with images from science, art history and his own Depression-era upbringing. These iconoclastic pieces attracted Leo Castelli, who from 1958 promoted the artist’s meteoric rise. In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American to win the grand prize at the Venice Biennale.

In 1970 Rauschenberg moved his workshop to Captiva Island off the coast of Florida and embarked on a series of journeys which resulted in 1984 in the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (R.O.C.I.), a self-funded seven-year odyssey that brought his work to places like Chile, Tibet, China, Cuba, the former USSR and Malaysia, culminating in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The huge Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim this autumn is the artist's first since 1977. According to its curator, Walter Hopps of the Menil Collection, it will “demonstrate that for the past 20 years Rauschenberg has introduced new techniques and media that have opened new areas for exploration.” Some 400 works by the artist take over the Guggenheim’s uptown and downtown branches. In terms of square footage, it will be the largest one-artist show in the history of the museum, spilling over into an installation at the Ace Gallery of the (literally) Quarter-mile piece (1981-present). Coinciding with this show, his black-and-white photographs will be shown at PaceWildensteinMacGill, and frescoes from his 1996 “Arcadian retreats” will be at PaceWildenstein (both until 25 October).

The Art Newspaper spoke with Robert Rauschenberg on the occasion of this landmark exhibition.

The Art Newspaper: First, can you describe the piece you are doing for Renzo Piano’s cathedral near Rome, which has been commissioned by the Vatican to mark the Jubilee year 2000?

Robert Rauschenberg: It is in the asymmetrical arch that is 45 feet high and 150 feet wide. The subject matter is supposed to be the Apocalypse, which is certainly a very rich abstraction. But because it is a place of healing, they want the artwork to be uplifting. I had to ask the Franciscan leader, “Are you reading the same book I am?” That is the major problem now: how to paint a positive Apocalypse.

According to some accounts, as an adolescent you wanted to be a minister. Are you still a religious person?

I gave that up because of the assumption that the world was evil, and I didn’t think that it was a good investment to give up your life on the earth for something quite as vague as Paradise. Also, I don’t like the idea of any spiritual activity being controlled by fear.

I like to give the idea that the world is a lot richer than we can comprehend—and a lot more varied and surprising than could be believed

I understand that for a commission from Mercedes Benz for Potsdamer Platz in Berlin you are installing a lifesize bicycle with applied neon lights hovering over a reflecting pool, something from the series you began in an exhibition at Knoedler gallery two years ago.

I like bikes and use them often in compositions, and I enjoy the visual wonders of neon with its unapologetic aggression. I am also working on a mural for the new music hall in Seattle. It is going to be about ten feet high and 60 feet long, in the lobby, but visible from the street through the glass. I thought I would make the theme as musically as possible about Seattle itself. I was just up there taking lots of photographs both on-site and all over Seattle. So while I am busy putting the Guggenheim show together, I am dealing with all these side projects.

The curator of the exhibition, Walter Hopps, tells me you have been thinking about making a sound piece.

I still am. It was going to be the piece for the atrium of the Guggenheim. But I haven’t evolved it yet. Talk about painting yourself in the corner, I painted myself out of the dome! By the time I had completed the technology for the audience to trigger the piece, it was so small there was nothing to see. And I refused to build an idol to stare at that was not part of the work’s function. I had lots of ideas about the sounds, mostly from real life: like what people do and don’t say in elevators in different parts of the country. Another idea was two minutes of the voices of the most important people in the world. But I really have not had the time to do the piece that I wanted to do.

Collage has played an important part in your art. Can you discuss this aspect of your work?

Well, I have done just as many things without it. But I think collage itself, and the activity of making collage, is the most direct way that you can relate diverse elements rather than their going through the transition of a translation. That is what I like about using real objects, as opposed to reproductions, like a painted image or a photograph. I like the directness, and the fact that it is not being soiled or diluted by my interpretation of it.

Found objects are very much associated with Dada and with Duchamp, whom you came to know.

I was in the exhibition Art and the Found Object organised by the American Federation of Arts in New York in 1960 and he was in the same show. He had the Bottle rack there. His sister had thrown the original out, so he called his friend Man Ray to get another. Man Ray couldn’t remember which bottle rack was the original so he sent him six or eight, and they figured out which one it was because it was well recorded. I was having dinner with the guy who was putting the show together and he just happened to remark that all the pieces in the exhibition were for sale. So I jumped to it and said, “What about the Bottle rack?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s for sale for three dollars.” So I bought it of course.

In 1960 Marcel and his wife Teeny came to deliver a “Green box-in-a-valise” to Jasper Johns, who was living in the same building as I was. Jasper and I were the first artists he went out to see when he was in that semi-retirement legend. When he gave the box to Jasper, he said, “Don’t you want me to autograph it?” And Jasper said, “Well, of course, if you would.” I understood the influence of the readymade on art history probably more than Duchamp, so I had been confused about whether to ask about the Bottle rack. So I turned to Teeny and I said, “I have the Bottle rack, and I have been staying up at night knowing that you were coming and trying to decide whether it would be ethical or an insult to ask him to sign it.” And Teeny said, “Oh, don’t be silly Bob. He’ll sign anything.” And he signed it, in French. So I have the most original Bottle rack—the one next to the one that was thrown out by his sister.

What do you mean when you say you understood the influence of the readymade better than Duchamp?

He didn’t have to understand all the repercussions. It is only with a historical evaluation that one measures what the repercussions were after the event has taken place. But his job was a lot purer than that. He just did it.

What was the art world like back then?

Most of my best friends were American painters. Franz [Kline] and Barney Newman were my favourite ones. And Bill [de Kooning] I always loved. I knew [Jack] Tworkov very well. And I knew [Ad] Reinhardt, and I met [Jackson] Pollock. It was an amazing time, a kind of education and possibility that doesn’t exist anymore. There were only five galleries in those days, and the artists really depended on each other socially, psychologically and even critically. It is impossible now. Business sure screwed up the art world universally, didn’t it? It made paying the rent easier, but the rent was cheaper then too.

Business sure screwed up the art world universally, didn’t it? It made paying the rent easier, but the rent was cheaper then too

Another constant in your work has been the use of photography. Why do you take pictures?

For a lot of reasons. One, it is a discipline, an excuse to look deliberately, contemplatively, at every shadow or every crack on the wall, or everything that is too baroque and confusing to see at once. I guess the closest I come to anything like notebook sketches, to making studies, is taking photographs. The reason that I started using found photographs early on was because I could not go everywhere. And now I’ve worked my life in such a way that I have already been almost everywhere, so I don’t have to have a secondhand viewpoint. For the last 30 years or so, I have mostly depended on my own personal observation and trusted it to be general enough to expose the obvious.

But photographic images function in my work as every other material. I respond to the materials. I am not the kind of artist who has an idea before I have something in hand. I’m already touching something before there is an idea.

The only time that I have drawings that are before-the-piece is when I have some architectural or physical construction that is necessary to be able to complete the piece. To execute a preconceived image would ruin my pleasure and excitement. It would spoil the adventure, because then I am just a labourer.

Do you watch much television?

I keep it on all the time. TV is just another window with an unknown subject. I think of it as a piece of nature. I don’t think it has an impact on society any more detrimental than life itself. Any window you look out can. It depends on the view. It’s your attitude about it.

Some critics say that your collage effect suggests overabundance. Do you wish to convey the idea that there is an overwhelming amount of information out there?

I like to give the idea that the world is a lot richer than we can comprehend—and a lot more varied and surprising than could be believed.

But do you feel, nevertheless, that through your life of travelling, you have found a way of looking at the world, a way of approaching the world, that you would like to teach other people?

Probably open-mindedly, if that is possible.

Robert Rauschenberg: a Retrospective, Guggenheim, New York (19 September to 7 January, 1998). It travels to Houston, where it will be jointly presented by the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts (12 February to 17 May, 1998); it then tours to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and to other venues in Europe and Asia. A 600-page catalogue is published by Harry N. Abrams: $75 (hb), $45 (pb)

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