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'Bob was a giant among artists'

May 15, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Artist Robert Rauschenberg used to say he intended for his work to fill the gap between art and life -- and the morning after his death, friends and colleagues were left struggling for words to describe the gap he left in their lives and in the art world.

"My first thought was, the world won't be the same without him, but then I thought: We still have him," said Rosamund Felsen, owner of the Rosamund Felsen Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, who heard of Rauschenberg's death Tuesday morning in a call from her daughter.

Colleagues credited the influential, Texas-born artist with breaking the boundaries traditionally separating painting, sculpture and other forms of artistic expression.

Rauschenberg's son Christopher, 56, a photographer in Portland, Ore., said his father's work -- considered a bridge between the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and 1960s Pop art -- tended to confound academics steeped in traditional art history. "Everybody was always trying to deconstruct his work the way they were trained to with medieval painting: 'If there's a dog here, it means this,' " he said. "That was always a complete misreading. It was always very frustrating to have people create these elaborate decodings, completely missing the point. They're not puzzles; they're more like oracular foretellings."

Added the younger Rauschenberg of his father's work, which often incorporated items others might see as trash: "It's about a sort of richness. He didn't get a new item at a store, he found one that someone had used for 20 years and had all those little dents and dings. That was him."

Felsen said she had known Rauschenberg -- who died Monday at 82 of heart failure at his home and studio in Captiva, Fla. -- since 1967, when he came to Gemini G.E.L. "I couldn't believe how handsome he was," she says now.

Felsen is a founding partner of L.A.'s Gemini G.E.L., one of the country's foremost publishers of art lithography, now run by Stanley Grinstein and Felsen's ex-husband, Sidney Felsen. One of the Gemini's first prints was by Rauschenberg, who was instrumental in bringing other contemporary artists, such as Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, to Gemini.

"Probably -- no, not probably, he was the most influential person in my life," Rosamund Felsen said. "Not only in terms of thinking about art, looking at art, but thinking about life."

The art dealer recalled an odd trip she once took through the alleys of Los Angeles with Rauschenberg: "He would stop at dumpsters, and he would look for interesting pieces of cardboard with printing on them; that obviously became his prototype for the cardboard series he was working on at that time." Rauschenberg's mid-'70s series included simple cardboard-box sculptures that would later be valued in the millions.

Grinstein and his wife, Elyse, filling in for each other when words failed the spouse, recalled their many years working with an artist they described as boundlessly optimistic and nonjudgmental.

"He was one of the great artists of our century, and he opened art to all the other artists," Elyse Grinstein said. "He gave them permission to use everything in the world. Everything they saw around them could be part of the art."

She added one of her favorite quotes from the artist. "He'd say: 'I do that art I do because I want to see it.' He said that if somebody else had done it, he wouldn't have to."

Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, remembers Rauschenberg with profound appreciation. Schimmel organized MOCA's 2006 "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," which featured the influential painting and sculpture hybrids the artist pioneered in the 1950s.

Schimmel said it was in 1992 that he began discussing with the artist the possibility of a show of his combines, but Rauschenberg was hesitant. "I began to realize that he had always resisted a comprehensive view of the combines because Bob was an immensely creative and ambitious person to the very end, and much as he loved and was touched by the emotion and autobiography of these works that propelled him to international fame, also they were works that he was always judging himself against."

Schimmel walked through the combine exhibition with Rauschenberg twice: Once at the Metropolitan Museum and again at MOCA. "Both times, he spent a surprisingly short time in the gallery," Schimmel said. "I think the memories on a personal level were almost too hard to bear in the presence of the objects themselves."

Performance artist Rachel Rosenthal was a neighbor of Rauschenberg's in New York in the 1950s. "This is the end of an era both in the history of art and in the history of human societies," she said via e-mail. "Bob was a giant among artists, and one of the most sophisticated and socially aware people on the planet."

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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