‘Dirt was as important as gold’: An Oral History of Robert Rauschenberg

Sara Sinclair’s new anthology of interviews recalls the parties, the poverty and the ongoing hero worship

I’m preoccupied, at the moment, with the generosity of Robert Rauschenberg’s art. This preoccupied his contemporaries, too, as John Giorno makes clear:

The most important thing I got from Bob Rauschenberg was just being with his mind […] when you spend a lot of time with a great person’s mind, somehow it has a profound effect on you. One sort of obvious cliché is that it has a radiation … a blessing effect.

In Sara Sinclair’s Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History (2019, Columbia University Press), a windy but pleasant book, pretty much everyone talks like this. It’s a polylogue of distinctive voices – from Laurie Anderson to Brice Marden to Yvonne Rainer – but, with a couple of exceptions (Donald Saff, Calvin Tomkins), there’s a lot of mooning over Rauschenberg. Handily, for the purpose of worship, the idol was inaccessible: he passed away in 2008, five years before Sinclair and her colleagues – the academics Peter Bearman and Mary Marshall Clark, amongst others – began to interview their 43 marks.

Sara Sinclair, Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History, 2019. Courtesy: Columbia University Press

Rauschenberg’s work, especially the ‘Combines’ (1954–64) and the several great series that followed, began from the principle of ego writ large. Thankfully, he never learned to see the world with acceptable taste. More than once, An Oral History throws up his old line: ‘I always wanted my works to look more like what was going on outside the window.’ Susan Weil recalls rooting through bins with him at Black Mountain College in 1948; Saff talks about using cardboard and sand on Captiva Island in 1973. ‘There was no hierarchy of material,’ Saff says. ‘Dirt was as important as gold.’

An Oral History is chronological, in the main, but keen to talk about Rauschenberg’s success. As such, the early days are riffled past, with the 25 years between bins and beach taking up just 30 pages in a book of over 250. These were tricky times for Rauschenberg and those he loved, like Jasper Johns: they were spent in abandoned New York buildings without water or proper locks. But for all the blurb’s promise of a ‘turbulent life’, the 1950s – the poverty, the rocky affairs – are gussied up into a highlights reel with disconcerting speed. All of a sudden, Hisachika Takahashi is rambling about a gathering at Rauschenberg’s loft, during which John Chamberlain, totally blitzed, sexually assaulted Helen Marden. (‘That’s a party,’ he somehow ends.)

Rauschenberg’s start was, in reality, slow. His first solo exhibition was at Betty Parsons in 1951, but he sold nothing, and kept selling nothing until 1958 when gallerist Leo Castelli bought one of the works that he himself had just shown. Nor did Rauschenberg sell a lot more for another couple of years. Only with the arrival of the early 1960s – not least 1964, and his anointment at the Venice Biennale – did he experience ‘the watershed of his reputation’, to borrow Tomkins’s phrase. It comes to the relief of the book as well.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Spread), 1983, solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas, 189 × 246 × 89 cm. Courtesy: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Rauschenberg kept saying that he ‘never wanted to be some kind of boutique artist’. Once established, he gave away money in arbitrary style – charity came easily by then. At one point, curator Anne Livet tells us that he offered to buy some friends at the airport – or maybe they were random people, it isn’t clear – tickets ‘to anyplace in the world, as long as it’s not Port Arthur, Texas’. (That’s the city on the Gulf of Mexico where Rauschenberg grew up. Captiva Island, his home from 1970 to his death, was on the Gulf as well: 1,000 miles of separation anxiety to the east.)

His most valuable gift was the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative (ROCI). He wanted to spread his work like a gospel, which led him to take it on a ‘world tour’, Saff recalls, but one ‘fashioned in [such] a way that it would do some good and maybe […] contribute, in some way, to world peace’. ROCI was also, it seems, a grand old time. We see Rauschenberg’s crew visit Chile, Mexico, Malaysia, Tibet. In Cuba, he play-fights Fidel Castro, and Castro doesn’t have him killed. In fact, the group heads off to lounge at Fidel’s expropriated beach resort. In Russia, they connive with the hotel waiters, who lard the table with caviar and champagne every night in return for the mountain of roubles that 20 black-market dollars would buy. ‘We had it made,’ Thomas Buehler sighs.

Like other people’s holiday stories, this collective travelogue starts to drag. Whether it’s Lhasa or Havana, the setting becomes yet another backdrop for its gang of visiting stars. Because Rauschenberg is the money – ROCI kept rejecting murky donations, until he decided to fund it himself – he seems to recede as well. But sometimes, just like money, he’s too vulgar to disappear. In Cuba, he gets drunk, inevitably, and humiliates a local dance group performing for him and his friends. (Full credit to Saff, who says he walked out in disgust.)

Robert Rauschenberg at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Santiago de Chile, venue for ROCI CHILE, Santiago, 1985. Courtesy: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York; photograph: Terry Van Brunt

Despite the ideological objections to ROCI, rehearsed in the art world for decades and wearily shrugged off here, Rauschenberg wasn’t on some cultural-imperialist kick. He seems to have found everyone equally deserving of his work – a truly American thought – and, besides, he was a pig to Americans too. At the final ROCI show, in Washington D.C., a young editor explains to him how their catalogues usually look. He cuts her off: ‘We’re not talking about ordinary.’ ‘He had very strong ideas about how he wanted things done,’ says his then-assistant David White, with what I assume is tact.

The spoken quality of these accounts gives Sinclair’s book an intimate grain, but it also betrays what speech can lose when inked: intonation, body language, a shift in atmosphere. Christopher Rauschenberg talks of his father’s goals for ROCI – in junior’s paraphrase: ‘world peace, people will understand each other, all that stuff’ – but several tones are vying for airtime in his summary of how people would respond: ‘Yes, Bob, yes, yes, yes.’ Does this sound like agreement to you? Emollience? Disavowal, or even disdain? Your judgement keeps lending colour, true or false, to what these interviews aimed to give in black and white.

Biography is a cheap guide to art. Still, the writer Mary Lynn Kotz makes a kind of intuitive sense when she describes Rauschenberg’s ‘entire body of work’ as ‘his autobiography’. You learn little about that work from An Oral History, and the technical aspects – installation, curation, logistics – are rarely detailed enough. But, if you still believe Kotz by the end, you’ll look again at one of Rauschenberg’s gorgeous, many-minded paintings and find them to be just as vexed, partial and overbearing as the demeanour of the man. Generosity is often like that, and like this book: both one thing and too many at once.

Main image: Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (detail), 1964, oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 2.4 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: © Leo Castelli, New York, and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Cal Revely-Calder is a writer and editor from London, UK. In 2017, he won the Frieze Writers’ Prize.

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