Robert Rauschenberg

Irving Penn

08/01/08

He was an astounding innovator who changed the course of art. He was also a bit of a prophet. In honor of his passing, we revisit a 1990 interview full of insights that still sparkle today.

Up until May 12, 2008, if you polled the cognoscenti as to who was the world's greatest living artist, the winner would undoubtedly have been Robert Rauschenberg. But on that date, Rauschenberg moved into another category of greatness. And though his physical heart finally gave out after he chose to remove himself from life support, his spiritual heart beats on in his generous body of work and in the charities he founded — including Change, Inc., which has provided emergency funds for artists in distress for more than 30 years, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of the many issues with which he was involved.

While Andy Warhol may be more associated with Pop art, Rauschenberg was the prime mover of Pop and an enormous influence on Warhol. It was Rauschenberg who introduced the use of silkscreen printing, and it was his defection from the ranks of the abstract expressionists that signaled a new movement afoot. He quipped: "You have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself in order to be a good abstract expressionist."

Rauschenberg had better uses for his time, like inventing new art forms that combined in various ways painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. He collaborated with dancers, performers, and engineers. He isn't known as a conceptual artist, but one of his best-known works was erasing a de Kooning drawing; and in 1961, he submitted this work to a portrait show: "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so."

Although his body broke down, confining him to a wheelchair, his spirit was unconfined and his innovative energy never flagged. He produced great works until the end. He said, "The artist's job is to be a witness to his time in history." And to that end, he not only created work that stands as epic testament to his time, but he was always an activist and an instigator, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the struggle that is history.

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The following interview originally appeared in this magazine in December 1990. It was conducted by Paul Taylor, an important art critic who died of AIDS-related lymphoma two years later, at the age of 35. Eighteen years after it occurred, this conversation has lost none of its timeliness.  — Glenn O'Brien

PAUL TAYLOR: Apart from occasional visits here, you've left New York. How come?

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: It seemed to be a very changing time. All my friends were getting divorced; I was lonely. I didn't have time or patience for psychoanalysis, which doesn't interest me. I thought, I can find out what's going on in just one afternoon. So I went to [astrologist] Zoltan Mason, who was highly recommended by a number of people. You have to write down your profession, and I wrote "painter." He didn't know who I was, he assumed I was a housepainter. He said that whatever I do, I should stay out of the mountains. I have acrophobia, so that's a good idea. I feel fenced in when I see rocks that are too old, and that's what mountains are made out of — heights and rocks that are too old. He also said, "You should head for the water and the sun." I was born near the Gulf of Mexico, down in Port Arthur, Texas. And I had been going to Florida already. I'd just get in the car and drive. And every time I got to Captiva Island I felt a particular kind of spiritual affinity, almost a kind of magic, and so I started going there more frequently.

PT: What star sign are you?

RR: Libra, on the cusp of Scorpio. I make a joke that I keep my success in Scorpio, and I work in Libra.

PT: Nevertheless, I wonder how the NewYork art world seems to you today.

RR: Pretty incestuous. It's hard to go to a gallery in New York and see something that doesn't look familiar. And I don't mean just like my things.

PT: It's cannibalistic?

RR: I have quoted myself too often about this, but I always wanted my works — whatever happened in the studio-to look more like what was going on outside the window. I still feel that way.

PT: Are opportunities here for new artists?

RR: If they don't fall asleep with success, I don't see any reason things couldn't be as exciting as, say, the '50s or '60s were for American artists. But I think it's almost to a fault that there are so many galleries. My friend Brice Marden was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and on the first day he noticed that the only curiosity young artists expressed was to say, "Tell me how to get a gallery" and "Tell me how to get a loft." So he said, "If you want that . . . I'll tell you how to find a loft. But don't come back to school tomorrow if that's what you want." I think the focus on these things is premature, and it's eclipsed the curiosity about —and joy of-making artworks.

PT: It means that art has a different meaning now, doesn't it?

RR: I think so. I think collectors are responsible, dealers are responsible, auctions are responsible. By the time you establish your priorities, there really isn't any fun or need to interest yourself in what you're doing. And this I find disastrous.

PT: Do you think there are particular artists who helped bring about this state of affairs?

RR: I think it was the success of American painting.

PT: So you might be one of the artists who helped bring this about?

RR: I think there was a misinterpretation of what we were doing.

PT: By whom?

RR: The general public and the investors.

PT: How did they misinterpret it?

RR: Well, let's take paintings that you had to give away — which is the way I started. If you were lucky [laughs], somebody would take one. But those things gained an exaggerated value so quickly. This appealed not only to artists but also to people who were not that serious about art, as well as collectors. And this fed back into: "Maybe I'll get this one-a painting by this person — because it also might be very valuable someday." People did not experience a painting on a one-to-one basis. That seems to have been lost in dollar signs and investment. Something else that's happened in the last 15 years or so is that galleries have become artworks in themselves. The artist is almost the cosmetic of the gallery rather than the soul, which is the way it used to be.

PT: If you had your way, what would be the role of art in the world?

RR: It's an exercise for the artist to enlarge his or her vision as a way of proving that you are living.

PT: How do you want history to describe your association with Jasper Johns?

RR: Richly. [chuckles] We were the only people not intoxicated with the abstract expressionists. We weren't against them, but we weren't interested in taking that stance. Both of us felt there was too much exaggerated emotionalism around their art. My first break was that nobody took me seriously, even though I hung out at the Cedar Tavern and drove Franz Kline home when he was too drunk. Jasper wasn't taken seriously either, and I was considered a clown. We were friendly, harmless critters.

PT: We have previously talked about your relationship with Jasper.

RR: Well, I think I'd better just leave it alone. I'm not frightened of the affection that Jasper and I had, both personally and as working artists. I don't see any sin or conflict in those days when each of us was the most important person in the other's life.

PT: Can you tell me why you parted ways?

RR: Embarrassment about being well-known.

PT: Embarrassment about being famous?

RR: Socially. What had been tender and sensitive became gossip. It was sort of new to the art world that the two most well-known, up-and-coming studs were affectionately involved.

PT: I wonder if things are different nowadays.

RR: I think it's different. The '50s were a particularly hostile, prudish time.

PT: In 1970, only six years after you represented this country at the Venice Biennale, you withdrew from the same show as an act of disassociation from United States government sponsorship. That was a period of arts activism. Why do you suppose that now there is arts activism again?

RR: It's self-defense.

PT: Could it possibly indicate that artists are not out to make a buck exclusively?

RR: Well, that is a healthy thing right now. All kinds of activists are aggressive in spite of our present state of politics; it might tone up some of the muscles artists used to have. The Vietnam War seems so long ago. Still, I remember how passionately I was against it. Most of my life has been politically oriented. That's the reason that I had my big tax bust . . . There were only two artists on the list then, Andy [Warhol] and myself. The IRS said, "Bust these guys, no matter what it takes."

PT: Warhol had contributed to McGovern's campaign-

RR: And I'd given money to the Black Panthers.

PT: What do you think about that now?

RR: Oh, I'm proud of it. It cost me a fortune. An investigator insulted me, saying, "If you don't do this, I'm going to crack down on anyone who's ever been associated with you, just as thoroughly as I have on you. And, by God, if you don't agree to this, all your friends are going to be victimized, and I won't get my promotion." Out of my pocket I had to sell my big Twombly. I had to sell my early Warhol and Jasper's first color painting.

PT: How did you feel being part of the Soviet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year?

RR: I loved it. I thought it was a great compliment. I think that the whole form of the Venice Biennale is going to have to denationalize. Nationalistic competition, I think, is dead.

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