He did so by making 52 distinct panels, each a fast-paced melange of photographic images—fire hydrants, flowers, city scenes, Coke bottles, children, signs. Then he invited 12 guests from different walks of life—but all well known—to meet at a Long Island City warehouse on a Monday night in May and put the pieces together in individual compositions. Among the dozen were Merce Cunningham, artist Chuck Close, former Talking Head David Byrne, opera singer Renee Fleming, Hollywood powerbroker and art collector Michael Ovitz and “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace. The collaborators picked numbers out of a hat to determine the number of panels they could choose (from three to seven) and the order in which they would take turns selecting—the metaphorical shuffling of the deck.
Then Rauschenberg let them get to work “I just hung out with the band,” he says with a devilish grin. “I wanted them to be put on the spot and share the difficulty of making up your mind, which is what all artists are forced to do.”
The rules permitted the guests to trade panels, and Rauschenberg was amused by some of the negotiations. Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, for example, first selected a panel with a picture of a lobster. Then she wanted the panel with an image of an icebox, but she was foiled by Byrne, who snatched it up first and adamantly refused to swap.
“I don’t know if this is cartoon thinking,” Rauschenberg laughs, “but I think that Martha Stewart actually needed the icebox because she had the lobster.”
Close, always the nice guy, was more amenable when Wallace asked for one of his panels. First, though, Close extracted a promise from Wallace—in writing-that he would prevent his “60 Minutes” Colleague Morley Safer from airing anymore hatchet jobs on Contemporary Art. When Safer got wind of the deal, Close says, “he wrote me a letter chastizing me for not being appreciative enough of his support of my work I said that doesn’t mitigate the damage he’s done to the art world.”
While Ovitz says his role in Synapsis Shuffle was “the most fun I’ve had in five years,” and Byrne describes the evening as “a lot of testosterone and creativity,” Close is still disappointed that he didn’t get to put together the exact composition he imagined. But he understands why.
“It makes perfect sense that Rauschenberg would construct a frustrating game involving horse trading instead of just making it about taste,” says Close, who met Rauschenberg in the early Sixties and has been a friend of his for a decade. “It actively engaged all of us and made us all deal with each other—instead of just individuals being there at the same time.”
After it leaves the Whitney, Synapsis Shuffle will travel to other museums—and at each stop, it will be reshuffled by a different group of collaborators as a kind of ongoing performance piece. “Bob has a very interesting philosophy,” says Arne Glimcher, chairman of Pace Wildenstein. “It’s not that everyone is good. You’re not going to put it together well each time. That perversity is always in the work, and that idea of chance is always in the work—that kind of Duchampian mischievousness, mischievousness that is questioning the very nature of art.”