Alastair Sooke celebrates the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who created a crucial bridge between the abstract expressionists of the 50s and the pop artists of the 60s.
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In 1944, a young man called Milton Ernest Rauschenberg
embarked on a journey that would take him a million miles away
from the sprawling oil refinery town where he'd been born
to working-class parents in 1925.
His escape from Port Arthur,
a cultural desert on the steamy Gulf Coast of Texas,
would eventually lead him to paradise.
By the time Rauschenberg came here in 1970
and settled on this beautiful and remote island of Captiva in Florida,
he'd completely transformed his life.
He'd even changed his own name.
Robert Rauschenberg, as he now called himself,
was by then a world-famous artist,
with a retinue of assistants helping him create some of
the most inventive and celebrated works of the 20th century.
Today, Rauschenberg isn't really a household name like, say,
Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol,
but he really should be because no-one else
came close in working with such a bewildering array
of different styles,
constantly experimenting with new and surprising materials
during the course of a career that spanned six decades.
Bob always was looking for the new.
As soon as he mastered one thing,
he would look for something else that would inspire him.
I'm not interested in doing what I know I can do
or what I think I can do.
Rauschenberg was a new type of artist,
one who embraced popular culture in all its trashy glory,
and expanded the possibilities of what an artwork could be,
from paintings and sculptures,
to paintings and sculptures combined.
He was able to break all these rules and dissolve all of these boundaries
because he wasn't afraid of the consequences.
From silk-screens and blueprints
to works on metal and glass.
Bob is the wind blowing through the art world for almost a century now,
From set and costume design to collaborations with musicians,
dancers and even scientists,
Rauschenberg's endless curiosity saw him rewrite the artistic rule book
and anticipate every major art movement from the '50s onwards.
Rauschenberg once said that the whole world was his canvas.
He was always a scavenger, collecting life's flotsam and jetsam
to create his wildly raucously inventive works of art.
And anything and everything could be a material for him -
socks, old bedspreads,
light bulbs, fans,
mangled car parts, metal signs,
even a common car tyre...
..made of rubber, made of petroleum,
made from crude oil.
However far he travelled from his home town of Port Arthur,
it was the product of those dirty Texan oil refineries
that would fuel the best of his art and keep him grounded.
He could make art from anything, you know, whether it's dirt or gold.
There was no such thing as low or high,
there was no hierarchy of art
or material or people.
By talking to those who knew Rauschenberg best,
I'm hoping to find out what drove this man
in his restless quest for reinvention,
which saw him come from small-town America
to become one of the first truly global artists.
Now, there is one person
who I've been really, really desperate to talk to,
and that's Rauschenberg's younger sister, Janet,
his only sibling.
Now, the only trouble is that she lives in Louisiana
and unfortunately she hasn't been able to fly out to meet me.
However - and I'm hoping that Rauschenberg
would've approved of this -
my solution to the problem is to try and harness
21st-century technology to talk to her via a video call.
So that's what I'm going to attempt to do now.
There we go.
There's so much that I want to ask you, Janet,
but the thing that I've been really trying to find out about is
a little bit about Port Arthur
and what life was like in Texas.
Port Arthur is a blue-collar city, for sure.
Not that there's anything wrong with blue-collar,
except that there was no art stuff going on.
Let me ask you about that because I wonder how easy was it
for a young man who wants to be an artist
to pursue his dreams in a place like that?
It was impossible.
And, of course, my daddy did not understand art at all, not ever.
People did that for a hobby.
He had no encouragement ever.
But Mother was always totally behind Bob.
She was a delightful little lady -
pretty and silly and just a lot of fun.
And, you know, Bob was silly.
I mean, he was silly-silly. We used to have the best time,
cos I'm silly.
If you couldn't have a good time then you couldn't go with him.
You had to just go by yourself, go do something else.
But I do think that Mother had a tremendous influence on Bob.
For all he'd learnt from his mother about making light of life,
Rauschenberg was determined from the very start to forge a career in art.
After a stint in the Navy, he used his GI Bill to get himself
to art school in Paris in 1948.
But by the early '50s, there was only one place to head to
if you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist -
which, by then, had taken over from Paris
as the centre of the world's avant-garde.
And the fact that he eventually managed to gain a foothold there
and make a name for himself was largely down to this woman.
-It's great to meet you.
-Thank you very much.
-I'm in the right place.
So this is your studio, right?
This is my studio.
VOICEOVER: Susan Weil, who, at the age of 86,
continues to paint in her New York studio,
met Rauschenberg in the late '40s.
And it was she who led him to a place that would stimulate
the unique way he went about making art.
This is nice and natural now, isn't it?
Let's start at the very beginning.
I mean, how did you meet Rauschenberg?
Well, when I graduated from high school,
I was young, 18, very juvenile,
and I was enrolled in the Academie Julian in Paris
and in the pension where I was living,
there was a very huge laugh that boomed out now and then,
and it was Bob.
He had the biggest booming laugh you could imagine.
Do you remember what you found so attractive about Bob to begin with?
Well, he was so easy and friendly and wonderful
and I loved his enthusiasm about art and his wonder at it
because he grew up with people who were horrified about art
and we kind of explored about art together in Paris.
In late 1948, when Susan returned to America to continue her studies
at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg followed her.
Nestling in the remote hills of North Carolina,
Black Mountain was a haven for progressive minds,
offering interdisciplinary classes to those who wished to experiment
and expand the boundaries of art.
It had that feeling at Black Mountain
that you could do anything you wanted to do -
you just tried to do it in your own way.
So I'm so glad he found Black Mountain
because Bob grew up so fast about art, he really did.
I think that was the first place he had ever been where
his nonconformism was echoed in almost everybody else.
He was in a nest of nonconformers,
and I think he loved the place,
he absolutely felt supremely happy there.
But while Rauschenberg took to Black Mountain immediately,
his stern art teacher, Josef Albers,
a former member of the Bauhaus,
didn't think much of his new student.
Bob always said that Albers was the most important teacher
he ever had and he was sure that Albers felt
he was the worst student that he'd ever had.
He started every class with saying,
"I don't want to know who did that."
And everybody would turn and look at me.
Josef Albers recognised ego when he saw it.
And he didn't think we had any right to an ego,
as we were young students, and so he had to wrestle with Bob
in the best way he could, which was to put down his work and so on.
But he was also a very powerful teacher.
Albers was incredibly expansive in what he thought
could be included in a work of art, so his students at Black Mountain
would run out and gather natural materials,
they would gather cigarette butts, they would gather trash from
the dump heap and all of these things would become a work of art.
In fact, in Albers' classes, the word "combination" was a mantra,
so it was a kind of tutoring in collage procedures.
Along with Albers, Rauschenberg met two men at Black Mountain,
choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage,
who'd become instrumental in helping him forge
a collaborative approach to art.
With the help of Cage and his Model A Ford, his wheels were inked black
before being driven over 20 sheets of paper laid on the road.
Rauschenberg created a piece of conceptual art
that marked him out as a pioneer.
And together, the three friends would go on to produce
some of the most ground-breaking performances of the '50s and '60s.
With Rauschenberg providing the sets and costumes,
Cage the music...
..and Cunningham the choreography.
But it was an earlier collaboration with Susan,
who Rauschenberg had married in the summer of 1950,
that first got him press attention.
This is Life magazine with an article about our blueprints.
-So this is the collaboration that you did together?
And it got featured in Life?
I mean, that's quite a big deal to begin with.
I know, we were still students.
I mean, it was crazy to get that attention.
Well, maybe you could just describe how it worked.
So, this is one of the big blueprints and the thing,
whether it's a person or a flower, is covering the sensitive paper
and when she gets up, you put it under the shower and it turns blue.
-And what about these photographs. This is you - and him!
-And this is your bathroom, basically?
And we had to share the bath and share the kitchen. It wasn't easy.
So when we did blueprints, our neighbour was fuming around,
because he couldn't go to the bathroom.
And, of course, 60-odd plus years on, these are major masterpieces.
Do you feel proud?
Well, I mean, what I feel is the wonder of finding a new way to work.
It was exciting, you know?
And when you were making them, you were just so anxious
to see how they came out. It was just very exciting.
The editors of Life magazine weren't the only ones
to spot the originality of these works.
One was bought by the Museum of Modern Art
and included in their Abstraction In Photography exhibition in 1951,
providing both the money and recognition
the young Rauschenberg craved.
But just as his career seemed to be taking off,
his relationship with Susan,
who'd by then given birth to their son, Christopher,
was coming to an end.
After Christopher was born,
Bob went back to Black Mountain to do some teaching and so on,
and I went there that summer with Chris, he was a new-born baby,
and then I left Black Mountain and I was on my own after that.
While teaching at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg had fallen in love
with a young painter called Cy Twombly.
Bob and Cy were gorgeous-looking.
They were just drop-dead beautiful, both of them.
Was Black Mountain the kind of place
where, if you were two young, gay men in a relationship,
you could be fairly open about it?
Well, you know, homosexuality during the '50s
was different than it is now.
It was so hidden.
And I think it was hidden by homosexuals to themselves.
Bob evidently didn't realise the degree
to which he was a homosexual until then.
Were you aware, when you got married,
of Rauschenberg's openness in terms of sexuality?
I didn't really understand it, because I was a dopey teenager.
The most he ever said about it was, "I find men attractive."
So the marriage fell apart, but forever, we were very dear friends.
We cared about each other a great deal and he adored Christopher,
so that was all very positive.
By the mid '50s, Rauschenberg's relationship with Twombly had ended
and he returned to New York, intent on making a name for himself.
But he wouldn't find it easy to fit in.
The contemporary art scene was then dominated
by the Abstract Expressionists.
And compared to their non-figurative paintings,
full of brooding introspection, Rauschenberg's exuberant works,
brimming with references to real life,
seemed totally left-field.
In a pioneering film by Emile de Antonio, Rauschenberg
explained his approach to art that marked him out as a renegade.
You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself,
if you're going to be a good Abstract Expressionist.
..I think I always considered that a waste.
It wasn't that he rejected them,
he didn't reject what they were doing,
he just wanted to open it up.
And most of them were very contemptuous of him,
because they felt he wasn't serious.
They felt he was doing things that were just silly, childish antics.
No wonder, perhaps, when he was creating works like this.
In his Erased de Kooning Drawing, made -
or rather unmade - in '53...
..Rauschenberg acquired a drawing from the high priest
of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning,
and then proceeded to rub it out.
But de Kooning, captured here on film by Robert Snyder,
didn't make it easy for him.
He said, "I'm going to give you
"something really difficult to erase."
And he gave me something that had charcoal, oil paint, pencil,
crayon and I spent a month erasing that little drawing that's this big.
I think that that's one of the greatest conceptual documents
in the history of art.
It was the first time that somebody created
a work of art by subtraction.
That's an amazing thing to have done.
In his rebellion against the old guard,
Rauschenberg soon found a willing accomplice, Jasper Johns,
another young hopeful hailing from the South
who'd become the most important person in his life.
I think at the beginning it was primarily love at first sight.
There was a poetic quality to Johns that was very appealing to him.
It's amazing to me that they ever had a relationship,
because Bob is so opposite to Jasper.
Bob is so flamboyant and Jasper is more contained.
Despite their different temperaments, Rauschenberg and Johns
united in rejecting Abstract Expressionist angst.
Their playful works, which instead celebrated popular culture,
paved the way for pop art
and eventually turned them into top-selling artists.
But when Rauschenberg and Johns got together in the mid '50s,
they were still penniless and hungry.
Rauschenberg was surviving on this minuscule food budget
of just 15 cents a day.
He said that he couldn't even afford the ticket
of a ride on the subway.
And they were living together in this condemned building
in downtown Manhattan without even hot water.
So Rauschenberg began to scour the streets for discarded junk
that he felt certain could be the raw - and crucially, free -
materials for his art.
During the '50s, some American artists realised what the Dadaists
in Europe had known about 30 years before.
Mainly that societies reveal themselves in what they threw away.
Street junk was, to these men,
what the flea market had been to the Surrealists.
And among them, there was one budding master,
a man in his 20s from Texas, named Robert Rauschenberg.
I actually had kind of a house rule.
If I walked completely around the block
and I didn't find enough to work with,
I could pick one other block in any direction
to walk around, but that was it.
He once described it, he said, "I have a peculiar kind of focus.
"I tend to see everything in sight."
He could look at the world around him uncritically.
He could see that, as subject matter, a torn comic strip
lying on the street could be as usable as a Renaissance painting.
All of these things could be a source of imagery.
Rauschenberg came up with a new term
for these pioneering strange hybrid works of art
he started creating in the '50s out of things he'd scavenged.
And that term was "the combines".
And that's because they're part painting, part sculpture
and this is one of the very first combines of all.
It's called Bed and there's a brilliant story attached to it
about its creation.
Here he is, spring 1955 - a destitute, penniless artist
and he runs out of canvas, yet he still feels compelled to paint.
So what does he do?
He looks around him and he finds this old quilt and thinks,
"Aha, I can use that. I can paint on it."
But the thing he kept coming up against
was that it always looked like a quilt.
So his light bulb moment, if you like, was to say,
"Well, why don't I just create a painting of a bed?"
So he added the pillow, he added the sheet.
And he was very happy with the results,
but when it was first exhibited in the late '50s,
people were utterly shocked.
Some of the reviews thought it looked violent, disgusting.
One critic compared it to a police photo of a murder scene.
But that's not how Rauschenberg saw this work at all.
He later said that this is one of the friendliest works of art
that he ever created.
He said his biggest fear was that people might actually crawl in
and want to have a little sleep. And I think that's key.
It tells us exactly what Rauschenberg was all about
as an artist.
He was about inclusiveness, welcoming in the world.
Welcoming in reality to bridge that gap between art and life
and make this something that we, ordinary people,
can understand and relate to.
It's part of our world, rather than some elite zone of high art.
At a very young age, he was clear in what he didn't want to be,
which was a, you know, wishy-washy,
second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter.
He just dispensed with this whole idea
that paint served as a marker for someone's psychic state.
I mean, he always insisted that things were just things
and that was a key distinction between him and an older generation.
I'll tell you something that I find slightly puzzling
about the '50s work.
You know, you've characterised the way Rauschenberg
went about trying to dismantle Abstract Expressionism.
At the same time, these combines are intensely personal,
autobiographical works. Here's his son.
There's the reading of the homoerotic content
of one of the most famous combines, Monogram.
You know, there's that famous Robert Hughes line that
this is almost one of the most witty and compelling images
of homosexual love, of the goat penetrating the tyre.
Oh, I guess I haven't thought about that, I'm sorry, Alistair!
-SHE LAUGHS Really?
-Do you think it's got some credibility?
-I'm sure it does.
I mean, Rauschenberg is an artist creating works of art
and his interests and the things in his life come in,
and therefore sexuality is part of it.
He is a young, gay man in a pre-Stonewall world
and he's signalling his relationships
in various ways through his work.
By the early '60s, Rauschenberg's combines had earnt him a reputation
as the bad boy of the New York art world.
But, by then, his relationship with Jasper Johns was over.
It ended because of a very trite lovers' quarrel.
To be specific, one day, Jasper came back and found Bob
in a compromising position with a dancer from the Cunningham Company.
I think it was very painful for them and for their close friends
for quite a long time afterwards. Because it had been
an extraordinarily electrifying relationship.
Some consolation for the mess in his personal life
came in the form of the most prestigious professional recognition
that any artist could hope for.
In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American to win
the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale.
And in that same year, he was given his first British retrospective
at London's Whitechapel Gallery.
An event important enough to be covered by the BBC.
-Did you check the bulbs?
Well, the bulbs are all right and I know it'll work at the moment.
The fantastically inventive scope of his work
was quickly picked up by the British press.
This is a piece from the Observer and it's headlined,
"Rauschenberg: new pace-setter in art."
Here's another piece, "Not Just A Joker."
"An artist who solemnly presents us with a stuffed and grubby chicken
"perched on a box is a sitting target for mockery."
"Yet," he says, "I'd warn against dismissing him
"as a pretentious joker.
"In my view, this 38-year-old Texan is the most important artist
"America has produced since Jackson Pollock in the 1940s."
Rauschenberg has lived and worked in New York since 1951
and even now he's painting more, he still likes mixed techniques.
On Barge, he's used silkscreen quite a lot,
his latest idea, a printed transfer process which imposes
a real photographic image on the canvas,
but has an unreal printed texture to offset the oil paint around it.
It was for his early silkscreen paintings,
started around the same time that Andy Warhol seized on the technique,
that Rauschenberg had won the prize in Venice.
But rather than cash in on his success,
he did something most people would find incomprehensible.
His response to winning was to make a call to home
to tell a friend to destroy all of his silk screens.
So he was determined that once he was celebrated
with a certain kind of work, that he wasn't going to repeat it any more
and he pushed himself to reinvent himself wholly again.
Perhaps not surprising, then,
that just does Rauschenberg was attracting international praise
as a painter, he decided to head off in a completely different direction.
There's a biographical fact about Rauschenberg
that I find particularly fascinating,
and that is he was a superb dancer,
despite the fact that, growing up as a boy,
his parents were fundamentalist Christians.
They'd been part of a very austere sect that banned drinking
and gambling and dancing as well.
But, in the '50s, he started collaborating regularly
with Merce Cunningham, who had an experimental dance company.
But it wasn't until the '60s that his passion for dancing,
for performing, really took flight.
MUSIC: Boogie Nights by Heatwave
He's always worked at lots of different things,
likes to get away from painting for periods, mostly into the theatre.
In Pelican, his own roller-skate ballet,
Rauschenberg reassured the other dancers
by trying out the movements himself.
Even the music is his own sound combine.
Some of the performances he did were stunning.
The dance on roller skates -
every time, it just had you, your heart was in your throat.
You were scared that something bad was going to happen,
because it looked so dangerous - and it was.
Um... Oh, my God!
He would move around this roller-skating rink
and pick up a ballerina and the contrast
between her delicacy and grace and these two guys on roller skates
with their parachute wings galumphing around,
it was hilarious.
It was always a lot of fun to be in Bob's pieces.
They were playful, imagistic...
What was he doing in terms of designing costumes
and designing sets?
In one piece of his, I had a harness that had a screen over my head.
Preposterous! You know, in terms of a costume.
Bob was shooting images of the Empire State Building
onto the screen and I was holding a watermelon
covered with a small cloth
and I pulled the cloth back and it exposed the head of the watermelon
to the audience and then drop it over again,
so it had a kind of pornographic quality to it.
Sounds utterly outrageous!
It seems very natural to me, when I think about the way he saw.
Everything would be included as part of his art-making.
You know, from Bob, everything was acceptable, always.
It never felt too radical,
because it was him and he just kept opening doors.
-Wow, Julie. It's so big.
-I know, it's amazing, isn't it?
-I mean, you could really imagine this...
In 1966, the 69th Regiment Armoury in New York became the venue
for one of Rauschenberg's most ambitious ventures.
A multimedia event held over the course of nine evenings
that would blow the minds
of the 10,000 curious visitors assembled there.
PSYCHEDELIC ROCK MUSIC PLAYS
In January 1966, ten artists from New York
and 30 engineers from Bell Telephone Laboratories
began a collaboration that resulted
in a series of dance, music and theatre works.
The events began with a piece choreographed by Rauschenberg
called Open Score.
It started with a tennis game.
Frank Stella and his tennis partner came out and she measured the net,
totally serious, and then they started playing.
The racquets were fixed in such a way
that in the handle of the racquet was an FM transmitter,
so every time the racquet hit a ball,
the sound was transmitted to an FM radio and then to the sound system,
so every time the ball was hit, you heard this very loud bong.
One of the things about the armoury which we discovered very quickly
was that there was a five-second echo.
It's very... It is acoustic mayhem, isn't it?
We knew about how this sound was going to reverberate.
This natural, beautiful sound.
And so he took full advantage of it.
Each time the ball was hit,
one of the lights around the armoury went out.
-What happened towards the end?
-They kept playing.
And once it was dark, completely, the second part started.
500 people came onto the floor in the darkness and as they came in,
they each said, "My name is, my name is..."
I am Walter Segal.
I am Barbara Wold.
And then as the crowd's part finished, a spotlight went on to
a figure in a sack and you began to hear this voice singing.
And Bob would pick her up and put her down at a certain point,
let her sing a bit longer, pick her up and put her down somewhere else.
It's pure performance art.
It's very, very simple, very human gestures.
Helping Rauschenberg bring his performance to life was
a visionary scientist from Bell Laboratories called Billy Kluver.
Through the organisation they formed -
Experiments in Art and Technology -
the pair would go on to produce inventive, interactive work
that married art with cutting-edge technology.
You know, looking back - EAT and the collaborations with Bob -
it really was part of the utopian enterprises of the '60s,
certainly with the election of JFK and then with the moon travel,
it was incredible optimism for America.
So the promise of technology was quite strong and the promise
that the individual working with the technology could make a difference.
And I think Bob was supremely committed to that idea.
# OK, friends, it's time for the Fatback Band
# Wicky-wacky... #
By the mid '60s, Rauschenberg had enough money to buy himself
a large studio in a converted Catholic orphanage
on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan.
And it quickly became a favourite hang-out for all the people
Rauschenberg was collaborating with at the time.
It was like every day was a party.
It was always, you know, hilarious.
I mean, I just remember that we just laughed a lot. You know?
You felt you were part of a family, when you're sitting round the table,
Lafayette Street, you're part of Bob's family.
I think a lot of people felt that.
Another regular visitor to Rauschenberg's Lafayette studio
was his teenage son, Christopher.
So this is the kitchen.
This is the part of the house where, really, everything happened.
I mean, yes, work was made in the studio but, basically, everything...
This was the conviviality in here?
So, you... I mean, as a boy, you must remember this really well.
-You'd come in here, this is where you'd see your dad.
And this is within walking distance of my mom's house in Chinatown,
so I would just get off the subway at Astor Place
and come in and hang out.
He always had Haagen-Dazs ice cream in there, so that was OK.
Was this the original range that was...?
Yeah, from the orphanage.
-BAGPIPE-LIKE DRONE What a noise!
-There you go.
John Cage wouldn't want me to turn that sound off.
But maybe we will need some hot holder here.
And who would you...?
I mean, if you walked up the stairs and came into the kitchen
-as we have just done...
-..who typically might you run into?
Pretty much anybody.
So, you must have felt very glamorous to be coming over here,
because here was this space, centre of parties, this charismatic man
who was always at the centre of attention, also dating other men.
Sure, yeah. He had great boyfriends.
You would meet them, interact with them?
Oh, yeah. Sure. Yeah.
They were terrific friends and wonderful grown-ups for me to be
around when I was a young adult or teenager, so it was all good.
So, I get the impression that your memories of your dad
-sound remarkably positive.
But there is another element about him that is very well-known,
which I imagine could have been quite disruptive in a dad,
which is that he was an alcoholic.
What are your memories of that?
I mean, there were periods of his life
where he drank a lot and it was OK.
There was a period later in his life where it was really a problem
and he was really struggling and not, you know...
-You witnessed this?
-Oh, absolutely, yeah.
As in, he couldn't work?
Well, he always could work, but he was really, sort of, tortured by it.
I don't think he made much of his art while he was drunk.
I mean, I think if he was drunk, he was drunk.
He was not in a position to make art.
I mean, Bob had an enormous ability to drink.
I've never seen anybody drink like that in my life.
I think he became dependent on it.
Did you see a change in his personality as well,
the way he interacted with other people?
He became less considerate of others when he was drunk.
He was never nasty to me.
He could be cutting to people when he was drunk.
But what was it that was driving him to drink that much?
I don't...I don't know.
I only know that Bob was a perceptual machine.
Everything that was happening in the world
was being loaded through every pore of his skin.
That's a very heavy burden to carry.
In 1970, with his drinking out of hand
and his creativity at a low ebb,
Rauschenberg decided it was time to clean himself up,
get out of New York and make a fresh start elsewhere.
# Sunday morning
# Brings the dawn in... #
The beautiful island of Captiva, off the coast of Florida,
where Rauschenberg lived for the next 40 years,
would provide the haven he'd need to start working again.
Not a bad place in the world, is it?
-Can we just stay here?
-Yeah, I think we're done, right?
-Where's the towels and...?
So, I mean, this is the place where there are all of these...
-I can see them already.
This is famous for people collecting shells.
Yeah, one of the best shelling places in the world.
And the fishing's amazing. Bob, you know, every day.
-So, he'd be like this man?
There's pictures of him. That pose is perfect.
When did he first come here?
Well, someone had told him about this island and so he said,
"I'm going down there to check it out," and what he told me was,
he got on the island, he had to stop the car for a turtle
to cross the road and he just loved that. That was it.
So then he bought this house.
Come on in to the beach house. This place is great.
If these walls could talk...
I'll tell you what I love about it, it's not grand.
-It's not massive, yeah.
-It's not huge.
-It's humble living.
-And that's clearly part of the thing - just keep it relaxed.
He had no furniture, cos he wanted it very minimal
and he actually added this wall,
because everything was about hanging art, right?
So he needed more wall space. So that was built and added.
-If I was staying here, Matt, I'd get nothing done.
I'd sleep, I'd swim, I'd snooze, I'd read.
-What was he doing?
His routine was, you know, he worked late.
So he wasn't exactly an early riser,
but he would always get up, take care of any of the business
that was going on - correspondence, those kinds of things.
-Kind of lunchtime this is going on?
-Yeah, around ten.
Young And The Restless, had to see the soap opera,
-that was a definite.
-Well, it's just wonderful. You know, there he is.
That's one of my favourite photos of him.
And that smile, if you look at all the pictures throughout his life,
that's what you see, is that smile.
So this was like the centre of his universe for a long time, right?
Yeah. From 1970, he made 99% of his art,
if not a little bit higher, here on this island.
So this, I think, might have saved his life.
I think that coming here, just giving him that licence
to just stop worrying about business and things and make art.
I went to an astrologer once.
I was having some kind of serious psychological dilemmas
and he said, "I'll tell you one thing, don't go to the mountains.
"Hit the sun and the water."
I was worried about how I would adjust to it.
I thought, "I'm going to miss New York so much,"
and it turned out that I love it.
Today, thanks to a scheme run by the foundation set up in his name,
Rauschenberg's multifaceted approach to art is kept alive
by a new generation of artists.
Bob had envisioned a residency in Captiva being used for artists.
He was really about creative exploration and I think that
the foundation has this natural tendency to try different things,
to keep it very creative and test some of those boundaries.
The fact that we are able to have his studio full of these
really interesting artists, in all fields from all over,
we are able to continue doing the things he would do.
Yeah, he's gone, but he is still in conversation with millions of people
and they all come away deeply moved by his spirit
and the generosity and, "Let's all work together."
I already knew that Captiva was a really special place,
but coming here to the fish house, it's so surprising,
because Rauschenberg made art that was frenetic, it was urban.
He had this restless spirit and this place,
its magic is all about stillness and tranquillity.
And I find it really moving,
thinking of this mercurial man whose soul was in perpetual motion,
if you like, who needed to come here, seeking peace, craving peace.
And it was this place that provided him with that solace
that he clearly always craved.
I think that Captiva really was a parting of the seas,
of the noise of urban life and allowing him to be a part of nature.
It was a place where he could find his own ideas
and look at the natural environment in a new way.
With his drinking now under control,
Rauschenberg started creating new works
that, even on the tropical island of Captiva,
were inspired by the everyday materials he'd always been drawn to.
"A desire built up in me to work in a material of waste and softness.
"Something yielding with its only message a collection of lines
"imprinted like a friendly joke.
"A silent discussion of their history exposed by the new shapes.
"Laboured, commonly with happiness - boxes."
So any kind of imagery
on the cardboard series is what was on the boxes when he found them -
"This side up," or "Handle with care," whatever.
It's not like he commissioned them.
These are boxes that have genuinely been used.
So, when you see the writing on them...
What does this say? "Phillips plated."
It's just totally commercial things, which he's turned into art.
-What are these at the far end of the room?
This is a series that is called Early Egyptians,
and those are cardboard boxes
that he then took out to the beach in front of the studio
and covered them with an adhesive and put sand on them
and then he painted the backs with Day-Glo paint,
which then reflects in colour against the wall.
You can see little hints of red or other colours on them.
That's really hiding the light under a bushel.
I mean, this is bright orange here.
I would never have known that if you hadn't told me.
Can we look at some of the other work?
This is an incredible sculpture. What's this?
This specific work is called Global Chute
and obviously with the globe in the top
and what looks like a chute from a rooftop or whatever.
This must be... I mean, it genuinely looks like
-a piece of architecture that he salvaged.
It's fallen off the top of the building.
It's almost as though the Earth is heading this direction,
towards the garbage.
How much was he thinking about, from the '70s on,
real ecological, environmental issues?
He was very concerned with environmental issues.
There was a Captiva conservation organisation,
so he was both concerned locally with what was just around his house
and his studio and then globally -
if he could support a major cause worldwide, he would do that as well.
In the early '80s,
the social and environmental concerns underpinning all of his art
saw Rauschenberg shift his focus beyond Captiva's calm shores.
He now embarked on an ambitious humanitarian project,
crisscrossing the globe to promote world peace through his art.
ROCI - the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange -
would take him to 11 countries and consume all his energies
for the best part of a decade.
Bob said, "I know what I want to do.
"I want to go to various countries,
"countries that are challenged and look at the art of that country,
"meet with the indigenous people, speak to students,
"sense the political situation and gather information and objects
"to produce work as an offering to the people of the country."
OK, important distinction.
Yes, "to the people of the country."
So, was this more about art or perhaps
more about a kind of activism?
Well, I think it's both.
Many of the countries were oppressive
and he wanted to offer to tradition-bound people
an alternative way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking.
It's a peace mission without a missionary.
Through information about each other, around the world,
we might be able to stop some of the stupidity
that are controlling us, because I'm being controlled
by probably an equal amount of stupidity as you are.
These paintings were all from his exhibition in Cuba.
Oh, you can see, for instance, there are some of the stars of there,
-but this is this old Cuban classic car.
And this looks like a skull.
Bob felt that a work wasn't finished until the viewer finishes the work
by coming to it and bringing his reaction.
To show that in a physical way, he put a mirror in it
and then there's the viewer in the picture.
And particularly disconcerting that here,
my head is almost directly parallel with the skull.
If you stand in the right place.
That seems to be Rauschenberg's funny joke.
They're always incredibly serious, but very light-hearted
and humorous often and just pretty much everything caught his eye.
These are some negatives from when Bob was in Moscow.
So this is an example of what he did in ROCI?
He'd go to a country and...
Walk around, take pictures, pick up debris.
Pick up whatever seemed to him to speak of the place.
So what's caught his eye here?
There's architecture of the city, is that an old woman on a bus?
-Yes, I think that's the driver.
-That's the driver, maybe.
Oh, yeah, so it is. And this is just broken fencing or something,
but there's a great sense, just looking at this,
it gives you that idea of he's there presumably
with a camera the whole time - click, click, click.
Now, I may be biased, because I'm a photographer, but to me,
his whole way of looking at the world is the way a photographer
looks at the world. They look at things that other people
would just walk by and say, "Oh, that's nothing."
I think photography really was very, very central.
I mean, I guess you've pulled this out,
because is this him writing about it?
-What does he say about it?
"My preoccupation with photography in the beginning, 1949, was first
"supported by a personal conflict between shyness and curiosity.
"The camera functioned as a social shield.
"In 1981, I think of the camera as my permission
"to walk into every shadow or watch while any light changes.
"My concern is to move at a speed within which to act.
"Photography is the most direct communication
"in non-violent contacts."
Bob was not naive.
He certainly didn't think that he was going to produce peace
in our time through the ROCI exhibition.
But I listened and watched the dialogue between Rauschenberg
and people on the street.
He made a difference.
If you were on the street with him and you realised how he
physically and literally touched people with his humanity.
I mean, he exuded humanity.
He exuded caring.
Is Rauschenberg almost this one-man United Nations?
Absolutely. He wanted a purity to this and, in the end,
there was a decision on Bob's behalf that he could not be seen
as taking funding from any organisation or government.
And so he funded himself.
He sold his Twomblys and his Jasper Johns, all to fund ROCI.
-It's a testament to the integrity of ROCI.
For Rauschenberg, ROCI was a labour of love
and one that cost him a personal fortune of up to 10 million.
But to others, it seemed a naively idealistic project.
I lost most of my dealers.
They thought this was a...
Sort of an extravagant waste of time and talent.
But that was its function.
How best I could world-widely waste my time and talent and money.
We did all three very well, didn't we, Don?
That's a really good one.
With his professional fortunes at an all-time low,
Rauschenberg retreated to his vast studio in Captiva
and, regardless, made new work based on imagery
from his travels for ROCI.
This is, essentially, the fabrication studio downstairs
-and the upstairs was where he would create the works.
Imagine, if you will,
it was a wall of racks of silk-screens and there was
probably 500 silk-screens and they were all lined up vertically.
But it was unique, because Bob would be upstairs
and he would have this large book,
and he would say, "Bring me Chile 203,"
or, "Japan 506," or whatever and we would bring the screens up.
Then he would work on them.
But though Rauschenberg continued to be inspired by his global adventure,
by the early '90s, New York's art world felt he'd lost his way.
There was a pretty general wave of turning against Bob
and the same thing happened to Picasso
in the later stages of his career.
Critics began saying he hadn't done anything good since 1938,
but with Bob, I think what happened was that he's such a producer
and in Captiva, with a team around him, and a lot of resistance,
the production got larger and larger.
And in that situation, you can't possibly expect everything
to be at the highest level.
But there was always three or four or five
that were absolutely dead on top flight Rauschenberg.
In the last decade of his life,
the rest of the art world seemed to catch up with this thinking.
And the man who had become something of an unsung prophet in his own land
was awarded with a major retrospective
at New York's Guggenheim Museum -
recognition for an artist who'd consistently
broken new ground over six decades.
But in 2002, aged 76, America's arguably most prolific
and original artist suffered a stroke
that left his right arm paralysed.
It was the beginning of the end for a man who'd lived for his art.
I remember being in the studio one day with him and we were looking at,
I think, the last set of paintings that he made.
And it became kind of still
..and he began to cry.
And he said to me, "Ernie, I have lost so much."
What did you say to him?
I told him that he had given us so much
and that it would always be with us
and that, for a man who had lost so much,
it was a pretty fabulous set of paintings.
What can you say to someone you love, but be realistic?
Bob knew that his life was soon to be over,
that he couldn't continue to live like that.
By 2008, Rauschenberg's health had dramatically declined.
And following heart disease, he was put on a life-support machine.
Bob had been really almost sick to death three other times,
in the intensive unit and whatever,
and he got well.
So I always felt that he could make it through this one,
but then, he was so sick
and he wanted to go back to Captiva.
He did not want to die in a hospital.
What happened at the very end, Janet?
Because, as I understand it,
he took a conscious decision to end things, didn't he?
He had a trachea thing and they would not be able
to ever get him back breathing on his own.
And so he didn't want to...
That was not the way he wanted to live.
And I was just mortified by it and I told him, I said, "Let's just wait.
"Maybe you'll get better."
And so he just kind of squeezed my hand and he said,
"Let me go, please."
So, we had to do that.
I still miss him so much.
I think the best job in the whole world was being Bob's little sister.
It was so much fun.
It was entertaining, but it was meaningful, too.
I learned a lot from him. A lot.
He was such an amazing person -
his sense of humour, he was such a giver.
And everybody would say that, you know, there was just something.
One of a kind, broke the mould.
All those cliches, if you will, that was Bob.
I would think from time to time, as an art student,
that I wish I could have been around the likes of Leonardo or Cezanne
or Picasso and then I realised, especially towards the end,
that I had been in the presence of that kind of genius.
He was profound, simply profound.
And we were all the beneficiaries because of it.
So much of the work we see today has its roots in things
that Rauschenberg did.
Every corner of his work can be mined and used by younger artists,
as a starting point or as an opening point.
He opened everything up.
He opened the world up.
And it's still going on.
# Hey, hey, hey, hey
# This is a perfect work
# Your photograph. #
Alastair Sooke celebrates the protean genius of one of America's most prolific and original artists, Robert Rauschenberg. Fearless and influential, he blazed a trail for artists in the second half of the 20th century, and yet his work is rarely seen here in the UK.
Rauschenberg was the first artist to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1964, creating a crucial bridge between the abstract expressionists of the 50s and the pop artists who emerged in the 60s.
Famous for his 'combines' that elevated the rich junk of life to the status of high art, he continued to work right up to his death in 2008, collaborating with dancers, scientists and social activists on a startlingly broad array of projects.
Alastair travels to the east coast of the USA to talk to those closest to Rauschenberg to reveal the boundless curiosity and restless experimentation that kept him engaged till the very end of his six-decade career.