A HALF-CENTURY OF RAUSCHENBERG'S 'JUNK' ART

Carol Vogel

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, or 680 kilograms. "If there had been cobwebs, they would have also been cast."

It's not unusual for Rauschenberg, an inveterate night owl, to start working at this hour on projects like the remade sculpture, or the assemblages of photographs and paintings 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 Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The works evoke a heady time in postwar American art, when 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.

On a typical day, 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 state." He paused, laughing, and added: "Sometimes I'm still a blank state 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, or about 2.1-by-3-meter, 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 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." 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, 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 lies between painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, dance, technology and performance.

"I can't imagine living without confusion," he said at home, chattering amiably as he sipped white wine. (He has given up is daily quart-and-a-half, or liter-and-a-half, Jack Daniel's habit.) "I always was experimental."

It was Rauschenberg who coined the term "Combine."

"Every time I would show them to people, some would say they're paintings, others called them sculptures. And then I head this story about Calder," he said, referring to the artist Alexander 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 '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 1950's, many dismissed them as junk. But, as Rauschenberg noted, they came around. "The public has never let me down," he said.

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). And 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.

Rauschenberg said the thought of seeing dozens of his "Combines" reunited in one place - 65 are in the Met show - gives 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.

In those days, Rauschenberg 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.

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 come up with the title, 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 bough it for about $1,000 soon after Rauschenberg made it.

After the Leo Castelli Gallery began representing him in the late 1950s, Rauschenberg's career and prices soared. Despite a decades-long relationship with that legendary dealer (who died in 1999), he insists it was not 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 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.

Rauschenberg has not 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.

Rauschenberg has not decided where on his many properties in Captiva the sculpture will be placed. 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.

Today the artist is the island's local celebrity, known at all the restaurants. 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 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?"

return to index