The power of Robert Rauschenberg’s mind-blowing art

As Tate Modern mounts a big retrospective, his son talks about how these visionary works changed the art world.

Triathlon (Scenario), from 2005. The first posthumous retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work opens at Tate Modern in December

Sometime in the early 1960s Christopher Rauschenberg — the son of the artist Robert — found some roller skates in his father’s huge Greenwich Village loft studio and taught himself to skate.

As he did laps of the studio the young Christopher had to avoid his father’s pet kinkajou, an animal like a monkey that “was always biting everybody”. His father, who had left his mother for the painter Cy Twombly when Christopher was still a baby, sometimes talked to the boy and sometimes worked, while also “trying to listen to music by Stockhausen and then trying to understand it”, which he didn’t.

As the first posthumous retrospective of Robert’s work opens at Tate Modern in December, the path he helped to clear, through ceaseless experimentation, is still generating controversy more than half a century later.

“I think he was aware that what he was doing was opening doors for people to rooms that they didn’t know about,” says Christopher, 65, an internationally exhibited photographer with a twangy New York accent, tufty beard and long silver hair dragged into a ponytail. “One could argue that the act of serial door opening is the greatest contribution, even though some of those rooms are completely magnificent and blew people’s minds.”

In 1964 Rauschenberg represented the US at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting a series of visionary silkscreen prints that fused paint with newspaper and magazine images of President Kennedy, astronauts, Old Master paintings, dancers, sportsmen, diagrams and street scenes to create an image of the emerging media-soaked world. When he walked away with the top prize — the first modern American artist to win it — the verdict provoked uproar, partly because it implied that the centre of artistic innovation had now passed from Paris to New York and partly because of the type of artist Rauschenberg was. The French accused the biennale of abetting American “cultural colonisation” and the Vatican newspaper mourned the award as “the total and general defeat of culture”.

It is not hard to see why. The Turner prize still generates an annual wave of derision from people who struggle to accept that an unkempt bed, a dead animal or a performance can count as art. Rauschenberg made work that fit all those descriptions decades earlier when the shock was still new, and in the process changed the course of modern art.

Estate (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg. The artist called his collages and installation pieces “combines”

At first critics and collectors treated his output as a baffling joke, if they noticed it at all. However, by the time of the biennale he had begun to gain recognition for the imaginative variety of his work: in one piece he painstakingly erased a drawing by the abstract expressionist master Willem de Kooning; in another he exhibited a stuffed angora goat thrust through a tyre; in a third — probably using the same skates that his son picked up in the studio — he raced around a skating rink with a parachute on his back.

“He was dyslexic, and dyslexic people have a way of being very direct,” says Christopher. “They don’t learn to do things by reading it in a book. They learn how to do things by saying, ‘What am I trying to do? I’ll just do it.’ The role of art is always to open up the possibilities.”

Andy Warhol said that Rauschenberg’s use of ordinary objects in the collages and installation pieces that he called “combines” enabled him to go on to do what he did with soup cans and Coke bottles. Jasper Johns, who was Rauschenberg’s lover and an unusually close collaborator in the years when both were arguably at their peak, said that he was the artist “who in this century invented the most since Picasso”.

By the time of his death at 82 in 2008, Rauschenberg had made about 6,000 unique paintings and sculptures as well as working as a printmaker, photographer, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer, composer and pioneering cultural explorer at the vanguard of globalisation in the art world. Yet he is not a household name like Warhol or Jackson Pollock, who also helped to carry forward postwar American art.

“It’s funny, because he’s famous, but he’s not famous like a Kardashian or like a Trump,” says his son. “He’s famous in the art world, like Tracey Emin. If you follow it, then he’s famous. If you don’t, you’ve never heard of him. When he died there was an article about him in The New York Times. There were a huge number of comments and virtually all of them were either, ‘I never met him but he changed my life’ or ‘I met him once and he changed my life’. It was just mind-boggling.”

Rauschenberg was opening doors for people to rooms that they didn’t know about

Christopher, who is the president and chairman of his late father’s multimillion-dollar foundation, is sitting in his small but beautiful upstairs flat in a blue wooden house in the artiest neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon — the hipster capital of the Pacific Northwest. There’s a large Rauschenberg collage next to the fridge with the handwritten dedication: “HAPPY B’DAY “X” BOB R” and photographs of his father are scattered around the home. Rauschenberg is still very present in his only child’s life.

“What I said at his memorial is, if you want to take the metaphor that the art world was a party at my dad’s house, which in some senses it was, then I have been given the job to keep the music playing, and keep the drinks flowing, and keep putting out food.”

Christopher has lived in Portland almost full-time since he headed across the country to go to university in 1969 and fell in love with the collaborative culture of the place.

“I have three artist parents [his painter mother Susan Weil married the sculptor Bernard Kirschenbaum after her divorce from Rauschenberg], and that’s how they all work. That’s how I was brought up: art is a team sport; life is a team sport.”

His father intentionally blurred the distinction between art and life. He used foraged street junk in his work and explained that “a pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric”. He also formed unusually close creative and sometimes romantic relationships with a striking number of other artists — starting with Christopher’s mother, who taught him how to use light to create blueprints, and continuing with Twombly, Johns, the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Robert Rauschenberg, who, by the time of his death in 2008, had made 6,000 paintings and sculpturesMONDADORI PORTFOLIO/GETTY IMAGES

“There’s this sort of myth of the artist as this lone individual who goes off on their own in their studio, and locks the door, and cuts their ear off, and paints a masterpiece,” Christopher says. “It’s like, no man, these guys were hanging out together. They’re exchanging ideas. It’s how it works.”

Rauschenberg once observed that “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in that gap between the two)”. Christopher says he eventually grew “disgusted” with people asking him about the remark all the time. “He said: ‘There’s no gap any more. It closed up. There’s no gap between art and life.’ ”

Art played no part, however, in Rauschenberg’s early years. He was born into poverty in 1925 in a Texas refinery town and raised in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which forbade dancing, drinking and card playing. He was of Dutch, Swedish, German and Cherokee descent and his father was a “lineman, up on the poles, working on the wires” while his mother sewed all his clothes — once she even made a skirt out of the back of the suit her brother was buried in rather than let the material go to waste.

During the Second World War he was drafted into the US navy and worked as a neuropsychiatric technician in a San Diego hospital, where he learnt “how little difference there is between sanity and madness . . . and realised that a combination of both is what everybody needs”.

His life turned on a visit to the Huntington art gallery near Los Angeles where he saw Thomas Gainsborough’s painting The Blue Boy and realised that the image he had seen on playing cards had been painted by a person. Having not understood that there was such a job as “artist” until that moment, he decided to become one.

In 1948 he moved to Paris to study art, where he met Weil and two years later they were married.

Did his drinking prevent him from making the art that he wanted to make? No

“It’s 1950,” says Christopher. “People didn’t know much of anything. My mom’s mother knew that he was gay and understood that that was kind of a problem in a husband. My mom didn’t really understand, they just had this tremendous affinity for each other. It made sense to them.”

Christopher was born in July the next year but by then his father was already infatuated with Twombly. After the divorce he says: “They still had tremendous feelings for each other. Loved each other, and they were real soul mates artistically. A lot of the things that people have from divorce where their parents are badmouthing each other, I never had any of that.”

They were close throughout his early childhood but lived on opposite sides of Manhattan, so Christopher’s first memories of his father are of the Sunday afternoon zoo trip variety. He began to see much more of Rauschenberg when he was 15, after his mother moved closer to the studio.

“I could just drop in, and hang out. He always had Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer. I remember one time I came by after school. He said, ‘You should stick around; Henri Cartier-Bresson is coming over tonight.’ I said, ‘I can’t, I have homework.’ ”

Since long before Christopher could remember, his father had been “a big partying person, but it’s only one of the facts. I mean he certainly was an alcoholic, and drank a lot [but] you have to take a person in their entirety. If you take people apart, all you have is a bunch of meat. There were certainly many times where I was like, ‘Gee, I wish you were sober right now’ [but] did his drinking prevent him from making the art that he wanted to make? No.”

In 1970 Rauschenberg moved to Florida and the wild, pencil-shaped island of Captiva, where he would eventually buy up most of his neighbours’ land — but allow them to keep living on it — to prevent the expansion of a resort on the island. He said that he moved because an astrologer told him to “be near the water”. Christopher suspects that he needed to get out of New York so he could concentrate on art instead of carousing.

Stop Sign Early Winter Glut (1987). Rauschenberg frequently used foraged street junk in his work

That same year Rauschenberg set up Change Inc to provide emergency grants for working artists and ploughed all the money he made from anything other than selling art into it. “He didn’t care if you were a good artist or a bad artist. He actually said a bad artist is more likely to turn out to be a great artist than a good artist, because a good artist is in a rut. A bad artist, ‘Who knows what they’re going to do next?’ ”

Rauschenberg would go on to give millions of dollars to other artists and to charities for women and medical research, becoming good friends with Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Sharon Stone in the process. Other celebrity friends and fans included Gregory Peck, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.

He remained formidably productive, working late, always with the television blasting out soap operas — The Bold and The Beautiful or As the World Turns. For much of the 1980s he travelled the world seeking to promote cultural dialogue with countries including Cuba, China and the Soviet Union.

Critics tended to discount Rauschenberg’s later work. “There was this 20-year lag. When something was 19 years old it’s the new stuff that’s not as good as the old stuff. Two years later it’s the old stuff that the new stuff isn’t as good as. He sort of laughed about that,” Christopher says. “When people would ask my dad, ‘What’s your favourite work you’ve made?’ he would always say, ‘The next one.’

“He didn’t have a drive for security. He had a drive for curiosity. If he was still alive, and he was going to his show at the Tate, the director would want to talk to him. My father would be more interested in talking to the cleaning lady because he would know what the director was going to say — he’s reading off a very tight script — but the cleaning lady, she’s got no dog in the race. She could say anything.”

In some respects he feels that his father is still alive because “how dead are you if people are going to be coming in to Tate Modern and having their minds blown by looking at this work?”

In 1991 when Christopher had a mid-career retrospective, his parents came to Portland for it. The three of them were in his father’s hotel room when Rauschenberg said: “Where do you think we go when we die?” “To the studio!” Weil replied.

His father liked that idea, Christopher says. Years later, when he was close to death, he said that he was not afraid to die. “He just didn’t want to miss anything.”
Robert Rauschenberg is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888), December 1 to April 2

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