From the Archives: Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg has been making art and influencing generations of artists for 50 years. Now his one regret may be that he doesn’t have 50 more.


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.”

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.”

The show got a surprisingly poor review from the New York Times, which found the collaboration gimmicky. Glimcher, who brokered the sale of Synapsis Shuffle to Whitney chairman Leonard Lauder (as a promised gift to the museum) for a reported $9 million to $10 million, says the critic missed the point of the work “I think Synapsis Shuffle is as good as the Combines,” Glimcher says. “I really do. It lays the question on the table for discussion: Who completes a work of art? Does the work of art exist without an audience?”

It’s a theme that Rauschenberg has been exploring at least since the Fifties’ “White Paintings” series, in which viewers cast shadows on the work as they walked through the gallery Collaboration also has been important to Rauschenberg since his earliest days as an artist, when he and his wife, Susan Weil, experimented with blueprint paper. He went on to collaborate with Cunningham and the composer John Cage and in the 1980s formed the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI)to make art with local artists in 11 different countries, including Cuba and Tibet.

While most artists are fiercely protective of their work, Rauschenberg says such territorialism “bores” him. He gladly shares not only ideas but also money; his Change, Inc. has given tens of thousands of dollars in aid to artists over the last 30 years.

Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, Rauschenberg never went to a museum and never fit into the small town. Young Milton (he changed his name to Bob after spending a night in a Kansas City coffee shop with nothing to think about but alternatives to the name he hated so much) was neither social nor an athlete, and his dyslexia made reading difficult. Worst of all—in his father’s eyes—he was gun-shy and an animal lover who refused to go hunting. He brieflyentertained thoughts of being a preacher (but he liked to dance too much) and a veterinarian before joining the Navy in World War II. In boot camp, he brazenly declared that he would refuse to kill anyone, so the Navy sent him to San Diego to work in a psychiatric hospital. That’s when he discovered that he could draw.

After the war, he eventually made his way to Paris, where he met Weil. (Their brief marriage in the early Fifties produced a son, Christopher now a photographer.) “We were a great comfort to each other,” he says, “because each of us thought the other was the lousiest painter in the wodd.”

They returned to the U.S. to study at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Rauschenberg hoped to learn discipline from the Bauhaus painter Josef Albers, whom he describes as “a real control freak” Albers took an instant dislike to him, but Rauschenberg shrugged it off “It didn’t take long for him to try to break my spirit,” he says, freshening his drink. “But he obviously didn’t.”

Instead, Rauschenberg began to define himself as the inverse of Albers. The teacher’s reliance on color theory, for example, later inspired Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The student’s rebelliousness changed the course of art history.

“Rauschenberg was one of the first to show the way out of the trap of Abstract Expressionism,” says Close. “The interesting thing was, he didn’t turn his back on Abstract Expressionism; he incorporated it into what he was doing. Symbolically, he did it when he asked de Kooning for a drawing and then erased it. In a funny way, he paid homage to de Kooning at the same time he was moving away from him.”

Financial success was not fast in coming. Not a single painting sold at his first solo show, in 1951. Divorced by 1953 and living in an attic on Fulton Street in New York, Rauschenberg was paying $15 a month in rent. Once, when he was broke, he took a painting to a wealthy patron in Greenwich Village who had admired it.

“I wouldn’t even waste my money on the subway, so I walked from Fulton Street—with the painting,” he remembers. “I said, ‘You know that painting that you said you couldn’t live without? I brought it to you. But I want $5 for it.’ And she said, ‘The painting is too good for that. So I’m not going to take it.’ I had to walk all the way back with it. Don’t think I didn’t think of just destroying it.”

That painting, Untitled (Night Blooming), circa 1951, is now in the Menil Collection in Houston.

Rauschenberg later moved into a studio a floor above Jasper Johns’; the two conferred daily and subsisted on window-display work until their art could pay the rent. Their creative partnership evolved into a personal one, despite their radically different temperaments. Close recounts how he photographed them individually in the Nineties-30 years after the two had parted company—for a series of paintings of Contemporary artists. He simply could not get the stone-faced Johns to smile convincingly, while the happy-go-lucky Rauschenberg could not do anything but.

While much of his early work was considered scandalous and often raised the ire of critics and the public, Rauschenberg says it’s more humiliating when “somebody comes to see you to look at your work, and they say, ‘Oh, love that,’ and you give it to them, and they forget to take it home. I hate when that happens.”

Of course, that hasn’t happened lately, and he is comforted little by the fact that those people must he kicking themselves now. “Yeah,” he says, “but for the wrong reasons.” Money was never Rauschenberg’s motivation, and he is still annoyed to think they exaggerated their admiration for his work. “When you are a starving artist, just a little praise is dinner.”

Praise is one thing he never had from his parents. He tells how, after earning acclaim as an artist, he went home for a visit, and one night after supper his father asked to have a talk with him. Rauschenberg puts on a heavy Texas twang as he imitates his father saying, “Now if you ever wondered why me and your mother didn’t want you to be an artist, well, we were wrong.” As Rauschenberg awaited what he envisioned as a dramatic movie moment—the emotional father-son rapprochement—he remembers his father adding, “You know what? We never knew you could sell that shit.”

His mother, who died this year well into her 90s, never did come around to his style of work either. Once, when a hurricane was headed for her home in Lafayette, Louisiana, she hoarded up the windows with paintings Rauschenberg had stored in her garage. The real punchline: When he asked her which way she faced them on the living room’s picture window, she told him, “I turned ‘em inside. You think I want the neighbors to know what you do?”

Rauschenberg ends each story with a burst of laughter. “All ego in me somehow—between my father, my mother and Albers—it’s just disappeared,” he says.

That absence of ego is perhaps what has made the artist fearless. “He is not afraid of making a lot of work,” Glimcher says. The question of whether it’s good, he adds, “doesn’t really come to him. It’s work; it’s part of the process of living.”

Today Rauschenberg isn’t just an artist; he’s practically a conglomerate. He has a studio on Captiva and a warehouse and staff in New York. He also has a foundation, which last spring promised to donate more than 100 major works to the Guggenheim Museum, provided the proposed new Guggenheim in New York is built.

He’s finished the work for his new show, called “Apogamy Pods.” The paintings, on irregularly shaped canvases, are named for a type of reproduction that occurs without contact fertilization. Rauschenberg’s goal was to keep the parts of the painting from relating to one another, so, for example, a pencil line is used to separate, not to connect, images. The canvases are largely blank, in stark contrast to the busy Synapsis Shuffle.

Glimcher says he expects the show to be “astonishing,” but he doesn’t expect everyone to get it. “Very often the toughest work is the best,” he says. “But that can’t be seen at the time, because the artist’s perception is in advance of the public’s.”

Whatever the reception at the opening, the one certainty is that Rauschenberg will be back making more art the next day. He’s already antsy, in fact. He mentions the possibility of doing a music project, and he’s begun a series called “Ruminations”—using old photos of his parents, Johns painting a flag and Well pregnant with Christopher—now hanging in a room off the kitchen. Photography is his favorite part of work. “I’ve always said that I’m more a reporter than I am a painter,” he says.

And there’s always more to do on 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, a sort of visual autobiography that Rauschenberg began in 1981; at last count, it had more than 380 components. “I need to illustrate myself,” he says.

Will he ever finish it?

Rauschenberg pauses. Then he gets the familiar gleam in his eye and laughs, ‘Well, yeah, one day. If you get my drift.”