The Artist’s Artist: A Rauschenberg Symposium

Robert Rauschenberg: Canto XXXI: The Central Pit of Malebolge, the Giants, from the series "Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante's Inferno," 1959-60, solvent transfer on paper with colored pencil, gouache, and pencil, 14½ by 11½ inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Robert Rauschenberg was enormously influential among artists of his own and subsequent generations. In our January 2017 issue, when his first posthumous museum retrospective was on view at Tate Modern in London, we gathered reflections from six artists about how the American pioneer affected them. With the exhibition now open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we are publishing them here. —Eds.



In Robert Rauschenberg’s solvent transfer drawing of Canto XXXI, one of thirty-four illustrations he made for Dante’s Inferno, Giants from the classical world pose stoically at the bottom of the page. The ninth and lowest Circle of Hell is reserved for treachery, and the Giants are chained and punished for arrogance toward God. Rauschenberg casts them as three beefy Olympic weight lifters on the medal stand, their arms prevented from resting at their sides by brawny triceps and trapezius muscles. 

They are next to the biblical giant Nimrod, a “mighty hunter before God,” now menaced by his own horn, which ominously tops the page. Nimrod was a great Hebraic leader whose subjects built the tower of Babel. His figure (possibly that of a runner—there are many athletes in Rauschenberg’s Hell) is indistinct, but Rauschenberg repeats Nimrod’s face, setting it in the center of the page and correcting the tilt of the head, so that the widened eyes and gasping mouth of a sprinter leaning into the final turn transform into an isolated mask, a horrible scream.  

Nimrod frantically calls out to Dante and Virgil (placed out of harm’s way, in the upper left corner) with a line that has provided every translator of the Inferno a much-needed rest, because nobody, including Dante and Virgil, knows what it means: Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi. The builder of the Tower of Babel can now speak only gibberish. Beware noxious real estate developers, Dante says, or God will take away our ability to understand each other.

Why might Dante attract Rauschenberg? Speaking of his use of found objects in the Combines, the artist says he “wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises.” 1 Language is the ultimate collective endeavor, the found object we use every day, and every day it surprises us as, Nimrod-like, we struggle to make our meaning understood. Rauschenberg is playing two hands of cards, however. One hand reaches for the generous collective deposits in the great allegorical poem, and the other is perfectly willing to grab the contradictory philosophy of a character in another classic work and say with Humpty Dumpty that a word “means just what I choose it to mean.” Humpty would have certainly approved Rauschenberg’s famous telegram response to Galerie Iris Clert’s solicitation of portraits of its owner: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”

I think that Rauschenberg’s many close friendships did not keep him from recognizing, or even experiencing, Nimrod’s horror of isolation. His well-documented talent for collaboration led him to a centuries-dead Florentine who knew where all the monsters were. When Dante and Virgil find themselves stranded with the Giants, they beg the least unfriendly one, Antaeus, to lower them into the last circle of hell. Antaeus agrees, and Rauschenberg shows us his great fist clutching the vulnerable travelers. Rauschenberg even plays Virgil to the giant himself, including a helpful little arrow pointing downward.



The Goat’s Knows is the title I may have chosen for Rauschenberg’s painting/sculpture Monogram (1955-59). I saw pictures of this work very early on—I must have been in high school. I was riveted by the paint on the nose of the goat, and I still am—those vulnerable, searching, dabbing gestures of idiosyncratic world-making on top of the world that was already there opened a door. Of course, the world that was already there was a bit weird—a tire around a stuffed goat standing on a painting. I don’t imagine that Rauschenberg stuffed the goat, but someone did, and that in itself is worth pondering. And the whole painting was treated as a pedestal for the “sculpture” of the goat—the goat that is both real and not real. The insistence that the painted world was at once of our everyday world and apart from it—maybe a tug of war between the two—seemed just right to me. That’s the place I jumped into and have spent my time in for many decades.

It comes as no surprise that I was invited to share my thoughts about Rauschenberg; his work has been raised as a precedent for mine time and again. In response to the “anxiety of influence,” I have naturally tried to articulate the differences between us. Though Rauschenberg (and Schwitters, Picasso and Braque’s Cubism, Judy Pfaff, and Frank Stella) laid the groundwork by welcoming a plethora of “stuff” into the world of painting, fundamentally our projects are very different. While Rauschenberg’s work embraces space, materiality, and things outside the picture plane, the subject of the work is generally held inside the frame. The goat sits in the middle of the painting without threatening to transgress the boundary of the work. Pictures often sit inside of pictures, but the edges of pictures and objects are rarely subjected to serious challenge; we are presented with distinct whole pictures and objects. And Rauschenberg makes use of the succinct “whole” in a literary fashion—one can, and many do, put words to the objects or newspaper clippings he employs to tell a story.

I am more interested in asking questions about the edges of things and thoughts. So the objects I use are not initially the subjects of the work; they are its ground. Nevertheless, the physical details of “objects,” “material,” and other “stuff” are replete with meanings that I care about more than their names. The shifting appraisal of where the edge is gives rise to many different pictures that emerge within a shifting set of frames, allowing for myriad points of view within a single work. When clarity as to where the edge of the work might be is disallowed, the work becomes enmeshed in its context, and figure/ground relations are confused. Focused attention necessarily has an edge, but as focus changes, the edge shifts.

The very formal, beautiful, composed order that I make with paint and color is freighted with objects, but like leaves falling from a tree onto a lawnmower below, the edges of this “thing” have a certain serendipity.



I’ve been a Jasper Johns man almost from the get-go. The notion of “Bob vs. Jasper” is not new, and my younger self was certainly partisan to the introspective restraint, even perversity of Johns. Give him a mirror, I used to think, and he would simply endeavor to paint the front to resemble the back—I found that imagined gesture challenging and profound—while Rauschenberg might just get lost in refractions and gleam. Never mind the gleam you’d find in both their eyes while making art, the perceived temperamental difference between serene literalism and sloppy bravura closed my heart to the demiurge Rauschenberg for too long a time.

I reflected on this young folly recently when confronted with a ceramic, Tampa Clay Piece 3 (1972–73), an uncanny facsimile of a crushed cardboard box. Here was the other side of Rauschenberg. Here was an artist who—we all get it—restlessly moved the goalposts, drawing the world into his work through his Combines and painted bedsheets, but who could also unexpectedly ground your feet with surprising transmutations (if not water into wine, at least clay into cardboard) and with delicate beauty (I’m thinking of the diaphanous fabrics in his posthumous 2010 Gagosian Gallery show). I knew the whirlwind Spirit of Captiva could leave you winded, but didn’t know he could take your breath away. As a friend remarked, he’s one of those artists you encounter now and say, “Wait, he did that, then?”

Meanwhile, I’ve come around—more and more—to refractions and gleam. In my own studio, I’m increasingly involved in the mobility of media, how they slide one into the next, and the uncanniness of an image, projected, say, in a beam of light, before it comes to rest. Rauschenberg is an inveterate Magic Lantern guy. In our era of “screen space,” his encounters between canvas and image seem again vital and fresh. I find myself rethinking the flatness in his pictures, and how in fact their forms fold and interweave. I think especially about how Rauschenberg’s voraciousness—which I once dismissed as promiscuity—is perhaps an antenna for picking up the restless passage of the world through a practice.  

Writing about Rauschenberg after a traumatic election, it’s hard not to be reminded of the power of images and the dire consequences of missed communication, and not to pine, really, for Rauschenberg’s optimistic way with give and take. I’m referring not only to his frequent collaborations with dancers, musicians, and other artists, but to things I used to take less seriously, like the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, or even just his way of responding to all aspects of culture. His world, like ours, is a world of transmissions. We experience these signals in transient ways—on a newsstand in passing, for instance, or glimpsed on a screen—but there is something bracing in Rauschenberg’s insistence on giving concrete and subtle form to these encounters. Perhaps even fleeting images crave embodiment. Their requirements are modest: fabric, ink, paint, emulsion, even the feel of your finger scrolling down a column in the browser. I think Rauschenberg got that.



Selected Robert Rauschenberg:

*”I have quoted myself too often about this, but I always wanted my works—whatever happened in the studio—to look more like what was going on outside the window.” 

Interview with Paul Taylor, Interview magazine,
December 1990. 

“You begin with the possibilities of the materials and then you let them do what they can do, so the artist is really almost a bystander while he’s working.” 

Quoted in Emile De Antonio and Mitch Tuchman,
Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene,
1940–1970, New York Abbeville Press, 1984, p. 92.

“. . . whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control.” 

Ibid, p. 204.  


Condensed Robert Rauschenberg: 

I always wanted my works in the studio to look more like what was going on outside the window, so the artist is really almost a bystander, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control. 


**1. Exemplary Robert Rauschenberg:
Revolver, 1967, I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Silkscreen ink on five rotating plexiglass discs, metal base, electric motors, and control box, 78 by 77 by 24½ inches.
Printed in RYB.
Printed images include: transducer, hand, dance performance, playing cards (spade suit only), sparkplugs, hawk, photograph of earth, shipping terminal, repeated human figures, motor-cycle, camper, diagrams, tent, and the words (uppercase) SQUALL, AETHER, BOND, ARK, ONSHORE.

2. Exemplary Robert Rauschenberg:
Passport, 1967, from the portfolio “Ten from Leo Castelli.”
Silkscreen ink on five rotating plexiglass discs, 20 inches in diameter. Printed in CMYK.
Printed images include: mechanical things that move (cars, fans), birds; round things.

3. Citizen Robert Rauschenberg:
Panel: “Residual Rights for the Visual Artist—
Are They Desirable?”
Monday, Oct. 28, 1974.
New York University, Loeb Student Center, New York.
Panelists: Paula Cooper, gallery owner; Lawrence
Fleischman, director, Kennedy Gallery; Robert Scull,
collector; and Ron Gorchov, Nathaniel Katz, Jacob Landau, Peter Max, and Robert Rauschenberg, artists. 


I was a fan of Rauschenberg’s from the time I first became aware, age twelve, that such a thing as a “living artist” existed. Painting wasn’t my default move, it was my choice; I guess I liked its problems. Rauschenberg’s work stood as a model for engagement with event, with material, with life and lives, through uncensored art-making. I attended this panel. Everyone argued with everyone, on the stage, from the audience. The issue at hand: artist resale and royalty rights, for which Rauschenberg was perhaps the key advocate. The discussion went on for a long time. When it ended, I found myself caught in an aisle, smashed chest-to-chest against Rauschenberg, who wore the softest mink jacket ever. He asked me, “Do you know where I can take a leak?” and I pointed him in the right direction.  

I treasure this encounter because, as staggering as his achievements were, he remained connected to terra firma, uniquely and fabulously human. 


*Italic excerpts are reconfigured into the “condensed” statement.
**I selected these works from 1967 because, individually and together, they address our agency. 



I have two files in the “Robert Rauschenberg” folder on my computer. They are images I use for teaching. 

Both essentially monochromes, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and four square panels from his “White Painting” series (1951) represent Rauschenberg at his most conceptual, minimal, achromatic, and seemingly inward-looking. At the same time, these works—particularly Erased de Kooning—are modest in scale and materiality but monumental in reputation and significance. 

It’s easy to take Erased de Kooning for granted, like an old friend. But I see it afresh when I’m trying to convince skeptical college students—who immediately grasp the pliability of gender definitions but are certain and steadfast in their ideas about representational and skill-based art—that this object is, in fact, art, sixty years after its creation. It’s important art; it’s important to me.

Neither of these works “look” like Rauschenbergs. Neither is a riotous combination of discarded objects with a loud, sometimes garish, dirty, and depressed CMYK palette. While Rauschenberg had a recognizable style, his artistic significance for me is in the consistency of his approach: a querying, outward celebration of culture and material embodiment.

Erased de Kooning is usually framed as the righteous, speculative work of a daring young artist making his mark with an act of negation and relation, as a proto-work of big-C Conceptual art. I love Erased de Kooning because it is bleak, because it makes something of making nothing out of something . . . and because it’s a big optimistic “NO.” 

Sol LeWitt said “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art,” and that’s true in this case, except that it was the actual labor of “pressing down on a desk,” as Leo Steinberg said, that made this piece.

For me, Rauschenberg’s work represents a critical mode of construction. It’s not hypothesizing, illustrating, or fabricating, but the creation of an artist who reads, cares about politics, challenges social norms and systems of power, obsesses over representations in culture, and synthesizes emotions and ideas through an urgent investment in objects, images, and performances.



When I finally saw Monogram in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about ten years ago, I couldn’t believe how Rauschenberg had painted the goat’s face. I remember trying to imagine him in a state of immersion, face to face, making some agreement with that goat, with himself, pulled by an invisible force, an innocence, with brush and paints, his tools of the trade, to lay marks around the skull, under the eyes, on the nostrils and lips.

This is only one part of the Combine: one deeply touched moment in a slow flurry of activity to integrate the animal enough to make a visual achievement in the round. And this action could seem like a further degradation of the creature, after it was stuffed in the first place, stuck on a raft, girded with a tire, trapped for eternity in an artwork.

But how does the act of bringing it, a goat, into fair usage, ask what is really left of the goat? And what are we supposed to do here, as artists? Walking down the street afterward, fixated on Rauschenberg’s devious move, I thought, “Oh yes, art!” These exciting moments come not from problems solved but questions raised. From the generally transgressive nature of bending material to our will, the way we intervene. (And from what our strange desires can compel us to try, and wondering why we want to show them.)

If what was left there, before Rauschenberg took it, was a totally inert no-longer-goat, what’s left now is an enactment by the artist, accomplished through total immersion. When things start happening because they need to, there is a feeling of not actually doing them yourself. So there is nothing you can really do but follow the momentum before it’s gone and you’re you again. The whole process moves a little too fast to control, even though it’s going in slow motion. 


CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through Sept. 17, and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 4, 2017–Mar. 25, 2018.