At 74, Robert Rauschenberg has time on his mind. He moves a little slowly now, and 45 minutes are lost while he finishes getting dressed and takes the elevator to the third floor of his five-story building, a onetime church and orphanage, in Greenwich Village. After swallowing a handful of vitamins, Rauschenberg—his hair gray but his hazel eyes still bright—sits down at the kitchen table with a cigarette and a tumbler full of vodka on the rocks.
“I was talking to Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham yesterday,” he says, referring to the choreographers, his longtime friends, “and I was telling them that I really thought something was too slow about art. I keep feeling like I don’t have enough time. The thing that I envy most about dancers is that they use real time; time is not an abstraction. I was riding them about how lucky they are that they don’t make art—historic furniture.
“The fear that I live with,” he says of his own work, “is that it can’t be now enough.”
It’s an intriguing frustration for a man who, as virtually all art historians agree, has been the most influential artist of the last 50 years. What Picasso was to the first half of the 20th century, Rauschenberg was to the second. His innovations have been so numerous, their impact on other artists so complete, that sometimes we forget how much Contemporary Art owes him. The Pop, Minimalist and Performance movements all followed his lead. He did roundbreaking work with photography, mass media, technology and dance, as well as with found materials such as clothing and stuffed animals, which he incorporated in paintings and sculptures he then named Combines.
In a catalog essay for the Guggenheim Museum’s comprehensive 1997 retrospective, Charles Stuckey called the second half of the 20th century quite simply “the Rauschenberg era.”
Rauschenberg’s characteristically droll reply: “How do you spell era? If you spell it the way I do—e-r-r-o-r—then yes.”
His real response, though, has been to keep at it. Rauschenberg still works every day in his compound on Captiva Island off the coast of Florida, his primary residence since 1970. He has an exhibition, “Synapsis Shuffle,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 8 and another show of new work slated to open at Pace Wildenstein’s SoHo gallery November 16.
“It’s great for younger people to see work by an old master,” says Maxwell Anderson, the Whitney’s director. “So often an artist’s reputation is frozen in time. Rauschenberg’s latest work is so extraordinary because it’s completely of the moment.”
With Synapsis Shuffle, Rauschenberg intended to stir things up—and he did. “I wanted it to be a sociological game that would bring out the best and the worst in people,” he says. “And I wanted to share something that I think nearly all artists feel, and that is the intimacy you have with your work and also the kind of isolation that you and your work create for themselves.”