As "Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends" opens at MoMA, Wayne Koestenbaum responds to a little-seen record of the artist at work
In the studio, Robert Rauschenberg rolls his shirt sleeves above the biceps. Elbow dimples and chunky arms add up to charm, success, the luxury of being beheld. Brice Marden, assisting today, beholds him. So does Mel Bochner, the unseen photographer. Twice-beheld, Rauschenberg refuses to smile. Images emerging from his squeegee catch the 1968 sunlight and send it into convulsions.
Rauschenberg’s shoes—black leather—veer toward nance, respectability. His pants—are they jeans, or mere slacks?—stay above the fray by being rolled up to expose the ankles, clad in “dress socks.” His hair, like Johnny Cash’s, takes a loose, soulful stand. Rauschenberg’s hair will permit pugnaciousness—for ceremony’s sake—but would prefer to take a pacifist route by lying down, a protester, in the middle of the highway. I place my body, a potential victim’s, on the road of art history, the hair of Rauschenberg might say, if it confessed. The volubility of Rauschenberg’s flannel shirt fills the vacuum of his hair’s silence; untucked, the shirt has the stalwart élan of a Paul Bunyan theme-park memento—purchased for a squalling boy who suffered motion sickness on the merry-go-round. Rauschenberg’s flannel shirt proposes a neutral, forestry-oriented consolation.
The artist, like Mount Rushmore, occupies a vast, lonely space
The artist, like Mount Rushmore, occupies a vast, lonely space; his studio is a chapel of the former St. Joseph’s Union Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, on Lafayette Street. Many virgins live on Lafayette; Rauschenberg is not among them. Capable of sexual acts we can’t sketch here, he solves the mystery of the immaculate conception by conceiving his art with Marden’s assistance. Marden—hidden, like a bodhisattva, in a corner, lest his beauty overstage the prima donna’s—holds God’s seed in a headband wrapped around his sweaty brow. (The headband will appear, a year later, in Easy Rider, or will threaten to appear, but then fail to show up.) Sewn inside this headband, a thimble-sized vial holds the blessed seed, which triggers the conception of anything you wish to occur.
A squeegee, when it rubs against a screen, exerts a steady, hard pressure whose ineffable physicality kills off any imagery that the silkscreen itself will depict. Rauschenberg’s unwavering hands enjoy the squeegee’s pressure. We pretend to be governed by images; we pretend that images seduce and construct us. But the squeegee dominates and subsumes any image it creates, even if, later, it vanishes from the scene of conception. Stained and nude, the squeegee will have no biographer. Rauschenberg doubtless loved this squeegee above all others, even if he gave it no proper obsequies.