Extra Sensory Expression

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mary Lynn Kotz's 1990 book "Rauschenberg: Art and Life" includes two photographs of Robert Rauschenberg as a child that suggest he arrived with his greatest gifts in full bloom. One image depicts him at 18 months, gazing into the camera as he sits alone on a lawn; the other shows him at 12, surrounded by a litter of puppies.

The remarkable thing about both pictures is the openness and optimism evident in his face; even as a child living in a desolate Texas town right next door to nowhere, Rauschenberg looked as if he saluted life with an emphatic yes.

Rauschenberg's indefatigable optimism has powered him through 50 years of art making, and he shows no sign of slowing down. "Anagrams," a suite of new vegetable-dye transfers on view at PaceWildenstein in Beverly Hills, is a lyrical celebration of the creatures, colors and textures of the physical world. He is also preparing for a retrospective that opens next fall at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and completing an exterior sculpture commissioned by Mercedes-Benz for Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.

Then there's all his philanthropic work. His varied charitable activities include Change Inc., a nonprofit organization he founded 23 years ago to provide emergency funds to artists, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, launched in 1990 to promote medical research and public awareness of global problems, including homelessness, hunger and the environment.

Rauschenberg also recently weathered some dramatic life changes, and he appears to have come through unscathed. Of his decision to end a relationship of several decades with the Leo Castelli Gallery, he explains in an interview at PaceWildenstein, "I didn't feel at home there." (Leo Castelli declined to comment.)

Legendary for his stamina and capacity for excess, Rauschenberg, 72, developed a creative methodology best described as a continuing wild party that miraculously results in freshly minted artworks among the debris of the morning after. For him to quit drinking, as he did several months ago, was no small feat. He merely shrugs his shoulders about all this and says, "I'm fine, except for a cold I got as a result of all the flying I do.

"The air is so foul in airplanes, and you don't choose the company you keep on planes either. I travel more now than ever, and though I accept it's part of my job, what I really enjoy is staying on Captiva," he says, referring to the island off the Florida coast where he lives with his four dogs. "My dogs don't travel with me, and I miss them terribly, but it's nice to have something to come home to."

Rauschenberg has covered a lot of road since he left Port Arthur, a small oil industry town on Texas' Gulf Coast.

"I don't remember longing for anything when I was growing up; I don't think I had desire then. I planned to be a preacher until I found out you couldn't dance in our church, which took a highly dogmatic view of the Bible," Rauschenberg recalls of his experiences with the fundamentalist Church of Christ.

"My mother was and still is devoutly religious," says the artist, who plans to visit her next month in Lafayette, La., on her 94th birthday. "I wanted to be a minister when I was growing up because I liked the idea of helping people, but when I discovered the hypocrisy of the church, I couldn't take it. Plus I was too reckless to embrace the idea of giving up everything in this life on the chance I might have a better time in my next one. I decided to just have a good time now.

"I was a loner as a child, and being dyslexic played a big role in that. Not being able to read helped me develop my visual skills, but it also made school pure hell. I was aggressive and very friendly, but that didn't hide the fact that I was miserable. School and the church didn't kill my spirit; what it did was compress it so much that when those restraints were removed, I just shot up into outer space. I think I'm still up there too."

One result of his dyslexia, Rauschenberg says, is its effect on his memory.

"I can remember moments very clearly," he says, "but I can't put those moments into any larger context, so I have all these flat, fragmented pictures in my head.

"I also don't have a good sense of time or space, and that's been a blessing in regard to my work because it's left me with no historic sense. I was never an avid student of art history--or of anything else, for that matter. I'm a student of life, but that's not something I study. It's more of a learn-as-you-earn situation," he says with a laugh.

"I was one of those kids who was always drawing, but I thought everybody could draw. There was no visual art or culture of any kind in Port Arthur, and I never even saw any art until 1943, when I was drafted into the Navy and stationed in San Diego.

"I didn't know anyone out west, so whenever I got a leave I'd just hitchhike up and down Pacific Coast Highway," says Rauschenberg, who served as a neuropsychiatric technician in the Navy and was deeply traumatized by the emotional damage he saw in the combat veterans with whom he worked.

"On one of my hitchhiking trips, I went to the Huntington Gardens to see the cactus gardens, and while I was there I wandered into the Huntington Library and saw [Thomas Gainsborough's] 'Blue Boy' and [Sir Thomas Lawrence's] 'Pinkie,' which I recognized from playing cards and cocktail napkins. It dawned on me that this was something other than magazine illustrations. I don't know how I stayed so stupid for so long, but it never occurred to me there was such a thing as painting--and I was 19 years old!"

Upon completing his tour of duty, Rauschenberg moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and got a job "as the guy in charge of buttons for the Ballerina Bathing Suit Factory."

"I started going with a girl from work named Pat Pearman, whose mother got sick in 1947, which meant Pat had to go home to Kansas to take care of her," he recalls. "By that point, Pat and I were inseparable, and she said, 'I don't know why you don't do something about it, but you're an artist. If I get you into the Kansas City Art Institute, will you come?' I said sure, and once I got to school I was so excited I took every class they offered and literally ran from class to class."

The following year, after splitting with Pearman, Rauschenberg went to Paris, where he attended the Academie Julian on the GI Bill.

"It's indicative of my ignorance then that I thought you had to go to Paris if you wanted to be an artist," he says. "Once I got there, it took me about a week to figure out I was 30 years late."

Of the wealth of art history in Paris, he says: "I wasn't looking at art by other people--I was looking at the world. I've never separated life from art or had a hierarchy of belief about what is or is not worth bringing into my work. Art history, of course, is completely governed by that kind of thinking--and that's too bad, isn't it?"

In Paris, Rauschenberg met artist Susan Weil, who led him to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a school that played a crucial role in the pollination of America's mid-century avant-garde.

"I'd never heard of the school or of [Josef] Albers," the artist says of the rigorous color theorist who ran Black Mountain, which closed in 1956. "Time magazine once described Albers as 'the world's greatest disciplinarian,' but having known him, I would've used a different word. I needed discipline, so he was good for me, but he was cruel and intensely intimidating."

Rauschenberg married Weil in 1950, and attended Black Mountain on and off from 1948 to '52. By 1949, however, he was spending most of his time in New York, where he took classes at the Art Students League.

"The school was out of touch with what was going on in art, and I spent lots of time in classes where they'd put a naked lady in front of you and you knew you had to do something about it because she wasn't gonna go home until you finished smearing the paint around," says Rauschenberg, who studied there alongside painter Cy Twombly, a longtime friend.

In 1951, Rauschenberg was included in a group show that featured the leading lights of Manhattan's Abstract Expressionists, whom he revered.

"I would've loved to make Abstract Expressionist paintings because it looked like so much fun, but out of respect I had to find another way of working," says the artist, who considers a canvas from 1950, "22 the Lily White" (a field of thick white paint inscribed with random numbers), to be his first wholly original creation. "Prior to that, everything was just slopping around."

As his creative voice emerged, Rauschenberg's marriage disintegrated, and by 1952 he was divorced, the father of a 15-month-old son and "living in an attic with 20-foot ceilings where the rent was $15 a month."

"When it rained or snowed, the rain or snow came in, but I never felt poor, because it was all I knew," he says. "I had a food budget of 25 cents a day and survived on day-old rye bread, peanut butter and milk and by accepting every invitation for dinner or cocktails. The only thing I really missed was plumbing, but I got good at going into anybody's bathroom and taking a shower without them knowing."

In 1954, Rauschenberg met Jasper Johns, and for the next five years the two artists were inseparable. As often happens in creative communities, however, once careers began to creep forward, the camaraderie that knits people together began to unravel.

"I don't think it's anything as simple as competition," Rauschenberg says of the factionalization of the New York art world in the 1960s. "Once people start having something to lose, their attitude toward what gave them that something changes, and the fear of losing whatever it is they've gotten tends to impede further development. I'm not nostalgic about any part of my past, because my focus is always on lurching forward.

"My focus on the future is what sustains me through difficult periods, and I look to the future with dread--and with hope for change for the better. John Cage used to say people are more frightened of change than of anything in the world, and that's certainly evident when we look at global politics."

Change has never fazed Rauschenberg, and he made a quantum leap into the unknown in 1955 with the creation of "Bed," the first of about 60 "combines" he made through 1959. These brilliant twists on the principles of Assemblage intermingled painting with the three-dimensional detritus of urban life, thus allowing the chaotic glory of real life to penetrate the sanctity of high art. Ever hungry for the new, he also devoted considerable time and energy in the '50s and '60s to designing sets, costumes and lighting for experimental theater and developing innovative approaches to lithography.

"It rarely happens that I'm confronted with something that makes me say no. I can't do that, and I've always had a self-confidence that came early on.

"It's not so much that I'm wildly brave," he explains. "Rather, I started out with nothing, so I've always felt I had nothing to lose by taking a risk. And I look forward to risking playing the fool again."

As the '60s wound to a close, Rauschenberg found himself in Malibu trying, as he puts it, "to make the world's largest watercolor."

"The series was called 'Currents,' " he recalls, "and I wanted it to be really up, but when I looked at the information I'd collected for transfers, I realized I had a lot of depressing material on my hands.

"There was so much personal destruction going on in the late '60s," adds the artist, who moved to Captiva in 1969. "People who'd been living together all their lives were breaking up, the country was in upheaval; it was a big mess and I don't know what caused it. A misunderstanding of freedom maybe. Freedom was a new idea then, and in retrospect it seems people spent it in the wrong places. I think we've regained our balance from that period; in fact, I think we've overshot the mark, because there's a tremendous rigidity now that is probably a result of that period."

That the social upheavals of the '60s further politicized Rauschenberg was evident in his next major project, ROCI. The Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, begun in 1984, took the artist to 12 countries, where he immersed himself in the native cultures and collaborated with local artisans. The resulting body of work is massive and involves just about every material imaginable.

"The world is getting more complicated," he says, "and we have to learn to think globally and eliminate all these arbitrary boundaries. Traveling with ROCI, it became clear that many barriers erected by man may initially have served a purpose but now must be broken down because we can't afford this kind of isolationism--we can't afford it environmentally, financially, politically or spiritually."

Although Rauschenberg has always approached his own work as a tool for social change, he says, "All art isn't obliged to address social issues, because there's a full range of needs art can speak to, and as a spectator I enjoy it all. I can't imagine an artwork I'd dismiss as decadent or immoral, although I don't like phonies or liars. Art can lie too, and when it does, it stops being art and becomes nothing more than a man-made fake."

Asked to describe a few of the most beautiful things he has ever seen, he immediately names the aurora borealis, then pauses.

"I'm reluctant to tell you the next thing that came to mind, because it could easily be misinterpreted, but I'll say it anyway: Mary's house. I mean the Mary. I was in Turkey in a car on the way to see some Greek ruins, and our guide said, 'Do you want to see Mary's house?' I said, 'Mary?' He said, 'The Mary. It's a big thing around here; in fact, they still have archeological digs trying to find her body.' I said, 'Haven't they read the book? She went to heaven bodily.'

"I've always been flippant about all those Bible characters and suspicious of the writers, but I said, 'Sure, let's go,' and we went up a hill leading to this simple, stark house. I thought I was too sophisticated for any of this, but I was extremely moved by it. I remembered that when Jesus was on the cross, he told Paul to look after his mother because she was in the same trouble he was. So Paul hid Mary, and this was the house where she hid and where she died. The idea of a son asking a friend to protect his mother made it all so real to me."

Included in his current show is "Mary's Turkiye," a work inspired by the experience.

"Generally, this work grew out of a curiosity as to whether the process would work," Rauschenberg says of "Anagrams." "This is the first time in 30 years I've made work that didn't involve any toxic materials--and that was lovely--but vegetable-dye transfer presents a different challenge in that it's very unforgiving. If you make an error, you can't rework it and bring back the light you just blotted out. I'm stubborn, though, so the worse an image gets, the more determined I become to make it work.

"I haven't finished with this process yet and plan to do more of them. Lately, I've also been thinking about architecture and about all these ridiculous buildings that exist only to satisfy the ego of the architect or so some country can brag about its economy or aggrandize somebody's name.

"I've worked with ceramics and have been thinking that a whole city of ceramic buildings with pictures on them would be nice. I'm not sure how to go about this," he says, "but I plan to investigate."

And he surely will.

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* "Anagrams," PaceWildenstein, 9540 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Through Jan. 18. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (310) 205-5522.

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