“When I first came to Los Angeles, I was in the Navy, and I thought, this town is great. It’s like they built it around a railroad, but the train didn’t come in,” artist Robert Rauschenberg said, dredging up a 55-year-old memory as he perused a vast array of color photographs of the city, to be used in a new edition of prints.
An internationally acclaimed painter, sculptor, printmaker and photographer--currently being honored in a traveling retrospective exhibition organized by New York’s Guggenheim Museum--Rauschenberg rose to prominence in the 1950s with constructions that formed a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.
For his L.A. project, the 72-year-old artist took hundreds of pictures over four days in December. Back home in Captiva, an island off the Florida Gulf coast, he selected about 70 images, scanned them into a computer and printed them in water-soluble vegetable dyes. Last week, he returned to Los Angeles to transfer the images onto paper. Working at Gemini G.E.L., an artists’ workshop and print publisher in West Hollywood, he combined several pictures on a single sheet for each collage-like composition. Master printers at Gemini will use the original artworks to produce a limited edition of prints.
As he planned the final print in his 12-piece series, Rauschenberg surveyed the photographs spread out on a big table. Having already used dozens of images in the first 11 compositions--and several others in four “Quattro Mani” works done in collaboration with his companion, photographer Darryl Pottorf--Rauschenberg was in a quandary.
“I don’t want to repeat myself, and I don’t want to steal from the ‘Quattro Mani,’ ” he said.
Another challenge was to catch the flavor of a sprawling city that he loves precisely because it defies concise definition. During his expedition he photographed in Venice, Boyle Heights, Hollywood, South-Central and downtown L.A., recording everything from oil wells, Watts Towers and a lifeguard stand to a Marlboro billboard, graffiti and a lone red rose.
“L.A. is not an easy place,” Rauschenberg said. “There is no typical L.A. But that’s what’s exciting about it for me. It’s the closest place to New York in that sense. New York is a place you can’t organize, and I don’t think you can organize L.A. either. There’s nothing to build around. I always feel like San Francisco has taken its shape, and all it has to do is grow old. But L.A. can change any way. It’s soft and malleable and flexible.”
A frequent visitor to Los Angeles--often in conjunction with projects at Gemini--he has watched the city grow enormously while retaining the amorphous quality he finds so compelling.
“Even if the train came in now, I don’t think it would change anything because it’s too late,” he said, bursting into the infectious laughter that punctuates his rambling conversations.
Sidney Felsen, who founded Gemini in 1966 with Stanley Grinstein and master printer Ken Tyler, initiated the L.A. project last year by suggesting an edition that would celebrate the 30th anniversary of Rauschenberg’s first Gemini print, “Booster,” a 1967 work featuring an X-ray of the artist’s body. When Rauschenberg decided to shoot pictures all over town, Felsen arranged for two retired Los Angeles policemen to accompany him as drivers, guides and security officers.
“I used to go by myself, but people tried to discourage me,” Rauschenberg said. “I don’t have that kind of paranoia, but then I don’t know what the situation is. If you have a good camera and look like a stranger in the neighborhood and you are by yourself, you are an attractive target.”
He and Pottorf told their escorts they wanted to go “where it was down and dirty.” As it turned out, the only trouble they encountered was an irate Chinese chicken merchant who feared that pictures of his caged birds would implicate him in the outbreak of a deadly virus in Hong Kong that had led to the slaughter of thousands of chickens.
They also ventured into tony areas, but with relatively little success. “The only thing we could find to photograph in Beverly Hills was the swans at the Bel-Air Hotel,” Rauschenberg said.
One print includes an image of a swan and its reflection, but most of the pictures Rauschenberg elected to print were taken in less affluent neighborhoods. Still, he found vignettes of surprising beauty--including hand-painted commercial signage, details of murals and shop windows.
One picture portrays a truckload of lumber tied with yellow bands and bows as if it were a gift. “Only Los Angeles would think of that,” he said.
Marveling at how the city’s ethnic neighborhoods move and intermingle, Rauschenberg said at one point he realized that he hadn’t shot any signs in English for two days. “That’s when we stopped by the Farmers’ Market. That crowd hasn’t changed,” he said.
But distinctive as the city may be, he found the process of shooting pictures in L.A. quite similar to his more ambitious international project, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange. On a quest for international peace and understanding in 1985-90, he visited developing countries and created a massive body of work in collaboration with local artists.
“It was clear that there was some correlation between talent and poverty,” he said of his Los Angeles experience. “The signs and the originality and the imagination in poor areas is pretty good competition for my artwork. But you always see that as a photographer. In areas of stress or extreme poverty, you get a richer picture. You get more of a story than you do in an organized neighborhood where you just have to open the door and go in. It’s a juxtaposition of more interesting variety.”
In Los Angeles, as elsewhere, residents often wonder what Rauschenberg finds so interesting in their communities. “My favorite trick is to show people what they already know,” he said. “When I took pictures for ROCI, I found that people discover where they are by watching what you are looking at. People’s sensibilities rot when they get used to where they are, and they don’t see even dynamic changes. If you don’t have respect for where you are, then you can’t have respect for being there. It’s just as simple as that.”