As a major survey of Robert Rauschenberg’s work opens at Tate Modern, Martin Gayford recalls an illuminating, if surprising, encounter he had with the artist (and his turtle) in 1997.
Image: Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964. Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago)
The world in his hands
Robert Rauschenberg had a bone to pick with Dante Alighieri. It was perhaps a sort of lovers’ quarrel across the centuries, since between 1958 and 1960 he produced a delicate cycle of works based on Dante’s Inferno. But, Rauschenberg told me when we met in 1997, he had almost failed to complete the project.
Rauschenberg had been appalled, he explained, by the hypocritical moralising by the author of the Divine Comedy. In particular, he singled out the episode in Canto XV when the poet encounters his old teacher Brunetto Latini among the sodomites, condemned to jog eternally across the burning sands of Hell. ‘Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?’ Dante exclaims in surprise. Or, as Rauschenberg freely paraphrased, ‘What a surprise seeing you here! I’m so sorry.’ But he immediately protested, ‘Dante wrote the fucking thing!’
It seemed, in a reverse way, appropriate that his New York home and studio – the place where we were talking – was housed in the former St Joseph’s Union Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, a Catholic orphanage on Lafayette Street in SoHo with gothic windows and its own chapel. The day I visited him there was full of surprises, the first of which was a notice in the lift warning the occupant to ‘beware of the turtle’.
I wondered – given that Rauschenberg was one of the foremost living adherents of Marcel Duchamp, whether this was a Dadaist leg-pull. But when the doors opened at the top floor, there was a genuine turtle. And behind, friendly and welcoming with outstretched hand – ‘Hi, I’m Bob’ – was the artist. He explained that his pet, whose name was Rocky, was inclined unless prevented to clamber, slowly, into the lift.
Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was a serial escapee from various faiths. He had been brought up in an austere Protestant sect ‘so fundamentalist that we made the Baptists look like Episcopalians’, but early on he had concluded that the purpose of life was not to give up life itself, nor to believe ‘that everything in the world was evil’. On the contrary, Rauschenberg’s art was dedicated to the idea that everything was good – or at least deserved a place in his combines, collages, silk-screen pictures and installations.
His creations of the late 1950s and early 1960s are a mixture of spattered Abstract Expressionist paint, with a wildly eclectic array of flotsam and jetsam from the urban jungle around him. Art historically, they came out of Dada and Jackson Pollock, and led towards Pop. One of Rauschenberg’s most famous works, Monogram (1955-59), contains, among other ingredients, pigment, canvas, the discarded heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, a rubber tyre and a stuffed Angora goat.
The latter two items, it transpired, were there to offset and complement each other. The tyre was wonderfully anonymous – yet it had, he felt, ‘an ominous presence, a stateliness, rivalling the goat… yet they shared the same world’.
There was, we were both aware, another interpretation of the piece, eloquently stated by the critic Robert Hughes. Why, Hughes asked himself, was Monogram so celebrated? The answer, in his view, was probably sexual. ‘Goats are the oldest metaphors of priapic energy’ and this one – ‘thrusting head and its body stuck halfway through the encircling tyre’ – was ‘one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture: the satyr in the sphincter’. Of course Hughes was hinting, not too subtly, at the artist’s sexual orientation.
Rauschenberg was equally trenchant in response, denouncing ‘the kindergarten idea that everything stems from sex’. In his view, ‘Most art critics, if you tell them they can’t use any sexual interpretations, go mute. They don’t know what they are looking at. It’s a cheap trick, but it cheapens the world.’ Freud and Jung were two more ideologues whose notions Rauschenberg preferred to disregard.
An affably laidback individual, Rauschenberg was temperamentally averse to grand systems such as the high Modernism he encountered as a student in 1948 at Black Mountain College. This remarkable institution – which had, among others, Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning and John Cage on the faculty – he recalled, was ‘almost like church’. And like the fundamentalism he grew up with, it revealed Rauschenberg to himself – by showing him what he was not.
For example, he was taught abstract painting in the solemn Bauhaus tradition by Albers and also Cartier-Bresson-style photographic ethics – ‘no cropping, black and white is the purest form, no retouching’ – so ended up with ‘probably the most fanatical set of rules that I don’t go by of any artist I know’.
Yet Rauschenberg did have an artistic ethic of his own, which was – essentially – keep your ego out of the equation. The most deadly trap for a creative person, he suggested, ‘is to think territorially, as if ideas are like real estate. That’s mine! That really stops change.’ The ideal was to forget about yourself, and let intuition work, ‘Just be aware and responsive to everything.’
As we talked, beside us images streamed across Rauschenberg’s television set, which was on even though the volume was turned off. ‘You don’t have to look for information,’ he remarked approvingly. ‘We’re swimming in it.’ (And this before the internet really got going.) Having the television constantly on, like his habit of sipping steadily at good white wine, was perhaps a method of switching himself off. Was his subject, I asked, the whole world? Rauschenberg’s reply was laconically direct: ‘Yeah.’ Doubtless Dante would have said the same.
-‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Tate Modern, SE1, 1 December to 2 April. tate.org.uk
This article was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Art Quarterly.
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