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Island Life

Robert Rauschenberg's legacy lives on at his former home and studio in Florida

‘Where can you go to find collaboration and exchange these days?’ I ask artist Stanley Whitney. ‘Why do successful artists leave New York?’ He responds: ‘Young artists need different things. They need the conversations. They don’t
mind sweating it out in the summer. Older artists used to retreat, if they could afford to. As soon as the money came, things changed: the art bars disappeared; the rich, older artists left because they didn’t need to teach anymore. I studied under Philip Guston and Al Held. Now, it is much harder for young artists to meet established artists. In the old days, Bob [Rauschenberg] just called Bill de Kooning and showed up at his studio. I was friends with Al Taylor, so Bob invited me along, too. I learned how to be an artist – not simply how to make art.’

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s residency on the island of Captiva, Florida, models what had formerly existed as informal exchanges in cosmopolitan city centres. With a behemoth US$350 million endowment, the foundation funds projects that aim to further the ways in which art can change the world; its dual mission is philanthropy and the preservation of Rauschenberg’s legacy. The artist’s son, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg, sums up the organization’s charitable initiatives best when he remembers an occasion in which his father was watching television. ‘An infomercial came on that said, for 50 cents, you could cure someone with leprosy. Bob called his accountant
and said: “With two million people infected, that’s a million dollars right? Let’s get the money.” And he did. He probably had to sell artwork to raise it. He wasn’t so much generous as he was a team player – he grew up dirt poor, lived without hot water, couldn’t give his paintings away – so, after he became wealthy, his vision was always to give back to the community.’ Christopher sees the foundation’s twin missions as being intertwined with his father’s deep investment in both artists and activism.

Preserving macroscopic thinking, cultivating the arts and charitable work were all part of Rauschenberg's plan for his foundation.

Down by Captiva’s Mucky Duck restaurant, there is a strip of land and a stretch of beach which reaches all the way to the 20-acre property that was formerly Rauschenberg’s home and studio, and now serves as the base for the artist’s official estate and the residency. You can see why Rauschenberg found his way to Captiva. The town still has some 1920s ‘cracker houses’ – built of cypress wood, painted white and made in a ‘shotgun style’ so air could circulate through the vents on swampy Florida nights. Rauschenberg found a home from home here. Looking west across the Gulf of Mexico, Captiva faced the artist’s birthplace, Port Arthur: a down-at-heel Texan town, from which he and Janis Joplin both hailed. He liked the simplicity of the houses in Captiva; on the property, he planted tropical sea grape and palms, instead of the evergreens favoured by earlier settlers. Initially a retreat from New York, Captiva became his main home.

Rauschenberg’s New York studio on Lafayette Street had a welcoming atmosphere. Yet, Brice Marden, his long-time studio assistant and friend, observes: ‘Bob wasn’t completely happy with his life in New York, which is probably why he went to Captiva.’ Rauschenberg’s unhappiness might have been related to what Marden describes as a ‘parade of visitors’. Whitney remembers a huge entourage. ‘I was there once when Jane Fonda called and he said, “No.” Ultimately, though, he couldn’t stem the tide of visitors.’

Participants of the Rauschenberg Residency,  2012–ongoing, Captiva, Florida. Courtesy: the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Participants of the Rauschenberg Residency,  2012–ongoing, Captiva, Florida. Courtesy: the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

His escape to Florida was initially in order to make art. MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, who co-curated the current touring retrospective of the artist’s work, notes: ‘Even when he was in New York, other artists came and worked there. Cy Twombly did. Rachel Rosenthal. Merce Cunningham. It was an open, collaborative space. He understood an expansive notion of the studio – not one that is closed or isolated.’ In Florida, Rauschenberg could interact with friends but retreat from uninvited guests when he wished. Dickerman also observes: ‘We don’t know exactly why he left [New York] in 1971, but friends and colleagues noted his dark spirit. In 1970, he made a body of work called “Currents”, in which he culled sombre headlines from newspapers.’ They read: ‘Anti-War Marchers Back GE Strikers’, ‘Panthers Brawl Rocks Court’, ‘More Police on the Streets’ and ‘Nixon’. In Florida, Rauschenberg worked diligently. He began making the ‘Cardboard’ series (1971–72), then the ‘Hoarfrosts’ (1974–76) and others that led to a resurgence of interest in his career. While his former partner and fellow artist Jasper Johns had continued to have museum exhibitions, Rauschenberg hadn’t had a large-scale solo show since his 1963 presentation at New York’s Jewish Museum.

Preserving macroscopic thinking, cultivating the arts and charitable work were all part of Rauschenberg’s plan for his foundation. Marden recalls: ‘He had planned so much by the time he passed away. But, remember: the foundation and Bob are different. He never intended to enshrine himself.’ Preserving an artist’s studio as a museum is different to running it as an artist’s residency – the latter being more akin to Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. It speaks to a different impulse: one not primarily focused on the theatre of the studio and the aggrandizement of the artist’s personality but, rather, driven by a continued dedication to collaboration, pedagogy and exchange. Tate’s Achim Borchardt-Hume, Dickerman’s co-curator, concurs: ‘Captiva has that workshop spirit, much like Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers’s training opened many different conversations about what is possible in the studio.’

As artist Charles Atlas recounts: ‘I didn’t know Bob well, but you saw him around. When I stayed in the Beach House, during the pilot programme for the residency, there was still that picture of Bob as I remember him: jovial and funny. That permeates the residency. He made money, but he also started all these charities. One was an emergency programme for artists. Another was for artists to have access to technology. Others dealt with the environment, activism. When Bob was alive, he supported artists and that is what the foundation still does.’

Rauschenberg left artworks and houses to his assistants, and Dickerman sees the foundation as continuing ‘a living legacy, understanding what values connect to the past, but also not making an ossified notion of who Rauschenberg was’. Yet, for Dickerman and Hume-Borchardt, the impetus of the current retrospective (which will travel from London’s Tate Modern to MoMA New York then San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) could not have come at a more fortuitous time. Dickerman states: ‘It is not so surprising that this is the moment for Rauschenberg. Every time you go into a Chelsea Gallery and see an artwork that is made of the stuff of the world, that is coming off the walls, that is a flatbed of information, that is interdisciplinary, that has attitudes which are affirmative in their implication – these are even more relevant for artists working today than those 20 years ago.’

The studio – as a lively, cosmopolitan space – speaks to a specific modern moment; one that has perhaps now passed, as established artists close their studios and sequester themselves away from the bustle. At their worst, artist residencies can feel like a perpetuation of some secret fraternal order. However, the best can offer the resources required to bridge class and status divides in the creative fields. With traditional ateliers and workshops becoming increasingly rare, social media can now provide access to ‘insider’ knowledge on some levels. Yet, I want to believe that more artist foundations will follow the Rauschenberg model and invite emerging artists to participate 
in their programmes in person – allowing eager talents to find kinship and a temp­orary respite from the financial concerns that perennially shadow artistic practice. 

Lead image: Robert Rauschenberg with his painting Casino/ ROCI MEXICO, Captiva Island, Florida, 1985. Courtesy: Untitled Press, Inc., Captiva Island

Andrianna Campbell is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA.

Issue 186

First published in Issue 186

April 2017
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