The Robert Rauschenberg Reunion Tour
Captiva, Fla. — It's 7 o'clock on a Saturday evening, and Robert Rauschenberg has just entered his studio, a white loftlike structure overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. At 80, he moves with great difficulty, relying on a walker and two assistants, although he still has his bluff good looks and easy smile. And his excitement is evident as he takes in a bronze sculpture that has just arrived from nearby Sarasota.
Two years in the making, it's a cast of a whimsical piece from 1981 consisting of two Windsor chairs balanced precariously on a pair of weathered wooden steps. "It's been a challenge," he said as he scanned the work, which so resembles the wood original that it's hard to imagine that the bronze version weighs about 1,500 pounds.
"If there had been cobwebs, they would have also been cast," he added with a grin.
It's not unusual for Mr. Rauschenberg, an inveterate night owl, to start working at this hour on projects like the remade sculpture, or the assemblages of photographs and painting that are his focus these days.
Not far from the bronze sculpture, an artfully arranged but seldom touched pile of objects is also on view in the studio - rusty wheelbarrows, an old sled, a bird cage, piles of clocks, a dirty porcelain bathtub, all of this now a half-century old. These relics were the stuff and substance of the artist's "Combines," the subject of a sprawling and widely anticipated exhibition that opens on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The works evoke a heady time in postwar American art, when Mr. Rauschenberg defied the dominant aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism and incorporated everything from a stuffed goat to newspaper clippings and fabric swatches into his work. Today, the artist is as prolific as ever, despite having suffered a stroke three years ago that left his right side paralyzed and forced him to learn to work with his left. And his sense of humor is intact. "If I get depressed, it's for a fleeting moment," he said. "I try to warp everything into something positive, but sometimes that takes some fast bending."
On a typical day, Mr. Rauschenberg gets up about noon, arrives in his studio by 3 and works there until 8 p.m. "It's all spontaneous," he said. "When I arrive, I'm a blank slate." He paused, laughing, and added: "Sometimes I'm still a blank slate when I leave. That's the gamble."
These days his work tables are covered with piles of enlarged photographs - material for his "Scenarios," a series of 7-by-10-foot canvases incorporating images of everything from street signs to windswept dunes. Standing up "until my legs give out," as he put it, he directs his assistants on the precise arrangement of the photographs.
At this point Mr. Rauschenberg is unable to take the pictures himself. "Any time anyone leaves the house, I hand them a camera," he said. "I never tell them what to photograph. The ones that look like something I would do I can't ever use."
Another difference from the earlier days is the signature. Without the use of his right hand, now gnarled and resting on his chest, he has taught himself to sign his paintings with his left, with a somewhat childlike result. Next to it he scrawls "2k+5."
In the year 2005, Mr. Rauschenberg remains one of the titans of the American art world, alongside a few others in his generation, like Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly. Of the three, he is perhaps the most outrageous, for the way he has consistently blurred the lines between painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, dance, technology and performance.
"I can't imagine living without confusion," he said at home the day after the studio visit, chattering amiably over the din of the Food Channel as he sipped white wine. (He has given up his daily quart-and-a-half Jack Daniels habit, and he no longer cooks on his own.) "I always was experimental."
It was Mr. Rauschenberg who coined the term "Combine." "Every time I would show them to people, some would say they're paintings, others called them sculptures," he said.
"And then I heard this story about Calder - that nobody would look at his work because they didn't know what to call it. As soon as he began calling them mobiles, all of a sudden people would say 'Oh, so that's what they are.' So I invented the term 'Combine' to break out of that dead end of something not being a sculpture or a painting. And it seemed to work."
When critics saw the first "Combines" in the mid-1950's, many dismissed them as junk. But ultimately, as Mr. Rauschenberg noted, they came around. "The public has never let me down," he said. "They have consistently remained about 30 years behind me. Only now are they slowly learning to appreciate the cardboard series I did in the 1970's."
Still, it is his earlier works, particularly the "Combines," that remain the most coveted. If one becomes available, museums scramble to buy it. In June, the Museum of Modern Art paid about $30 million for "Rebus" (1955), a three-panel work that incorporates found objects like an election poster, comic strips, an image of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," a child's drawing, dripped paint, cloth, torn posters and newspaper photos. Last month, the Met bought "Winter Pool," a 1959 "Combine," for an estimated $15 million. It consists of two panels to which he applied metal, shirt cuffs and handkerchiefs along with blocks of colorful paint. In between, a wooden ladder propped against the wall forms a bridge between the two panels.
Mr. Rauchenberg said the thought of seeing dozens of his "Combines" reunited in one place - 65 are in the Met show - gave him a "joy, like seeing old friends you haven't seen in decades."
They conjure a time in his life when he was barely getting by, struggling to sell his art and living in a grim downtown loft on Fulton Street. "It didn't bother me," he said. "I felt freer then."
"Jean Tinguely and I would frequently go foraging," he recalled, referring to the Swiss sculptor who, before his death in 1991, was known for fantastical machinelike sculptures. "We went to junkyards looking for things. I never wanted his kind of things, and he had a feeling for stuff I would like. He liked more mechanical objects like motors or old gears from cars, and I liked bathtubs and hedonistic things that were people-scale. I wasn't looking for movement and motion, and he was."
In those days, Mr. Rauchenberg said, he was so poor he had to sell everything he made as fast as he could. Once he was so far behind on his rent that he wrote to his landlord offering him two paintings in exchange for a month's rent, which was then $15. "The guy turned me down," he said - although he has since heard that the landlord bitterly regrets the decision.
Once he walked 30 blocks uptown with one of his so-called black paintings - canvases with expressionist black brush strokes that incorporated odd bits of detritus - and tried to sell it to a rich collector for $15. "I won't say who," Mr. Rauchenberg said impishly.
"She said she couldn't buy it so cheap," he continued. "I almost gave it to her, at the thought of walking another 30 blocks home with the painting. But I thought, well, if she couldn't afford to pay so little for it, she certainly couldn't afford to take it for nothing."
Longing to reclaim a "Combine" for himself, he bought back "Aen Floga" (1961), in which a wire attached to a metal vessel hangs from an old wood fragment on a canvas. Asked how he came up with the title, Mr. Rauschenberg said it was Swedish for something to do with flying or floating. (The Swedish word for fly is "flyga.")
"I'd just been to Sweden," he recalled. "It happens to be the only few Swedish words I know." He bought it for $1.5 million from the estate of Abraham Sherr, a New York collector who had bought it for about $1,000 soon after Mr. Rauschenberg made it.
After the Leo Castelli Gallery began representing him in the late 1950's, Mr. Rauschenberg's career and his prices soared. Despite a decades-long relationship with that legendary dealer (who died in 1999), he insists it wasn't Castelli who represented him but Illeana Sonnabend, who was then Castelli's wife and has always been the artist's biggest supporter.
She still owns one of his most best-known "Combines," "Canyon" (1959), which includes a real stuffed bald eagle and cannot be sold to anyone outside the United States because of a federal prohibition against trafficking in endangered species.
After his stroke two years ago, Mr. Rauschenberg's companion, the artist Darryl Pottorf, took some found objects - those artifacts from a half-century ago - that Ms. Sonnabend had sent to Captiva and moved them into Mr. Rauschenberg's studio in the hope that they would inspire him to experiment anew. But their presence had just the opposite effect.
"Every time I think I have an idea for them, all of a sudden the monster that they were rears up, and they go back to their original selves," the artist said. "There's too much history." Other vestiges of the "Combines," like bolts of old fabrics, lie in boxes in a back room.
Which is not to say Mr. Rauschenberg has abandoned his old styles or works. In the case of the bronze sculpture, a remake of "The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr)" (1981), he thought he needed a garden sculpture and decided that recycling the old project would be fun. But to cast the original chairs and steps would have destroyed the piece, he said, because the wood was too fragile.
Instead, he sent the chairs to the Philadelphia Windsor Chair Company to have them copied. Lawrence Voytek, a studio assistant who has worked for the artist since 1982, replicated the steps right down to the rusty nails before the piece was shipped off for casting at a foundry in Sarasota.
Mr. Rauschenberg hasn't decided where on his many properties in Captiva the sculpture will be placed. He began traveling to this small barrier island since the early 1960's and moved there officially in the 1970's, though he still keeps his Gothic Revival-style house on Lafayette Street in the East Village, bought in the 1960's for $65,000.
Today, Captiva is where his heart is, and over the years he has bought houses and land there as they became available, making him one of the island's largest landowners. When Hurricane Charley ravaged the island in August 2004, Mr. Rauschenberg, Mr. Pottorf and several assistants moved into the studio, which was built in 1993 to withstand hurricanes and even has a generator. (Although Mr. Rauschenberg was initially determined to ride out the storm, he ultimately evacuated by helicopter.) But the roof of his studio leaked, and his house was hit so hard that he had to move out for several months.
Today the artist is the island's local celebrity, known at all the restaurants. Not infrequently, he enjoys himself so much he closes them down.
Despite his age, he still likes to be the last to arrive at parties and the last to leave, because "that's when things get interesting." And he jumps at the chance of traveling. This month he attended the Art Basel Miami contemporary art fair to keep up with the art world buzz. And he has no intention of missing the opening of his "Combines" show.
"Of course I'll be there," he said, looking forward to the full schedule of lunches and dinners in his honor. "How many times do you get a show at the Met?"