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Extra Sensory Expression

Robert Rauschenberg's work still reflects an artist eager to experience life's wonders at full throttle--and break down any barriers he deems senseless.

November 24, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mary Lynn Kotz's 1990 book "Rauschenberg: Art and Life" includes two photographs of Robert Rauschenberg as a child that suggest he arrived with his greatest gifts in full bloom. One image depicts him at 18 months, gazing into the camera as he sits alone on a lawn; the other shows him at 12, surrounded by a litter of puppies.

The remarkable thing about both pictures is the openness and optimism evident in his face; even as a child living in a desolate Texas town right next door to nowhere, Rauschenberg looked as if he saluted life with an emphatic yes.

Rauschenberg's indefatigable optimism has powered him through 50 years of art making, and he shows no sign of slowing down. "Anagrams," a suite of new vegetable-dye transfers on view at PaceWildenstein in Beverly Hills, is a lyrical celebration of the creatures, colors and textures of the physical world. He is also preparing for a retrospective that opens next fall at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and completing an exterior sculpture commissioned by Mercedes-Benz for Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.

Then there's all his philanthropic work. His varied charitable activities include Change Inc., a nonprofit organization he founded 23 years ago to provide emergency funds to artists, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, launched in 1990 to promote medical research and public awareness of global problems, including homelessness, hunger and the environment.

Rauschenberg also recently weathered some dramatic life changes, and he appears to have come through unscathed. Of his decision to end a relationship of several decades with the Leo Castelli Gallery, he explains in an interview at PaceWildenstein, "I didn't feel at home there." (Leo Castelli declined to comment.)

Legendary for his stamina and capacity for excess, Rauschenberg, 72, developed a creative methodology best described as a continuing wild party that miraculously results in freshly minted artworks among the debris of the morning after. For him to quit drinking, as he did several months ago, was no small feat. He merely shrugs his shoulders about all this and says, "I'm fine, except for a cold I got as a result of all the flying I do.

"The air is so foul in airplanes, and you don't choose the company you keep on planes either. I travel more now than ever, and though I accept it's part of my job, what I really enjoy is staying on Captiva," he says, referring to the island off the Florida coast where he lives with his four dogs. "My dogs don't travel with me, and I miss them terribly, but it's nice to have something to come home to."

Rauschenberg has covered a lot of road since he left Port Arthur, a small oil industry town on Texas' Gulf Coast.

"I don't remember longing for anything when I was growing up; I don't think I had desire then. I planned to be a preacher until I found out you couldn't dance in our church, which took a highly dogmatic view of the Bible," Rauschenberg recalls of his experiences with the fundamentalist Church of Christ.

"My mother was and still is devoutly religious," says the artist, who plans to visit her next month in Lafayette, La., on her 94th birthday. "I wanted to be a minister when I was growing up because I liked the idea of helping people, but when I discovered the hypocrisy of the church, I couldn't take it. Plus I was too reckless to embrace the idea of giving up everything in this life on the chance I might have a better time in my next one. I decided to just have a good time now.

"I was a loner as a child, and being dyslexic played a big role in that. Not being able to read helped me develop my visual skills, but it also made school pure hell. I was aggressive and very friendly, but that didn't hide the fact that I was miserable. School and the church didn't kill my spirit; what it did was compress it so much that when those restraints were removed, I just shot up into outer space. I think I'm still up there too."

One result of his dyslexia, Rauschenberg says, is its effect on his memory.

"I can remember moments very clearly," he says, "but I can't put those moments into any larger context, so I have all these flat, fragmented pictures in my head.

"I also don't have a good sense of time or space, and that's been a blessing in regard to my work because it's left me with no historic sense. I was never an avid student of art history--or of anything else, for that matter. I'm a student of life, but that's not something I study. It's more of a learn-as-you-earn situation," he says with a laugh.

"I was one of those kids who was always drawing, but I thought everybody could draw. There was no visual art or culture of any kind in Port Arthur, and I never even saw any art until 1943, when I was drafted into the Navy and stationed in San Diego.

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