Robert Rauschenberg: The Dave Hickey Interview

It’s Sunday afternoon, the mezzanine of the Omni Hotel is filled with people lined up convention-style to fulfill their reservations for the Bunker Hill Room, or sitting at small café tables, one of which has a tawdry view across a white tablecloth that is stained and adorned with a dead fly lying on its back. The crowd is somewhat tense and apprehensive: Rauschenberg is formidable, the best constructor and maker of pictures around.

The Bunker Hill Room is pink and brown and ivory and utterly non-descript. There is a dais with a small table and two chairs, and a large podium. While the crowd is still milling, Rauschenberg and Hickey appear, not from behind the dais but from the back of the hall, walking separately up the two aisles like kabuki actors. Rauschenberg sits down, but there is some time for Hickey to remove his blue fireman’s jacket and cap, and settle in. A spokeswoman for the Education Department at MOCA reads résumés, and thanks the founder of the feast. Dave Hickey opens with a docile gambit, while two men wrestle away the podium: this is daunting, like trying to interview a continent. I am wondering precisely what he means when Rauschenberg asks him, “Which continent?” The audience laughs here and throughout, while Hickey jests on incontinent. Hickey speaks of Rauschenberg’s accomplishments in a variety of technical media, but finds him somehow in-between all of these. Rauschenberg says, “That’s why I’m dressed like a lizard.” In fact, he is wearing a tan jacket and gold pullover, but the image of the artist skittering amongst the rocks is a good one; Boulez borrowed it from René Char, for example.

Rauschenberg must have been the only happy man to be drafted, he says, because it got him away from home. It was while on liberty here in Los Angeles that he decided to become an artist, in 1946. When liberty began he stood on one side of Highway 101 hitchhiking, and when it began to be over he stood on the other. He was going to see the cactus garden at the Huntington Library; the “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” he had known from playing-cards and such, and was surprised to discover they had been done by a human being, it hadn’t occurred to him before. He couldn’t believe what was going on there, and was particularly struck by a portrait of Sarah Siddons, which Hickey says is by Lawrence. Rauschenberg was completely changed, the cactus didn’t impress him.

Hickey, amazingly, had a similar experience at the Huntington. His mother, he says, painted copies of the “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie,” and when he went there on a field trip in the fifth grade and saw the originals, he became an art critic.

After leaving the Navy, Rauschenberg was employed by the Ballerina Bathing Suit Co., where he says his job was inspecting zippers, but as there were not many zippers on Ballerina bathing suits, his position was precarious. He went to the Kansas City Art Institute, though he prefers writing to reading, because “reading is too difficult.” In a Kansas City coffee shop he did some soul-searching, and decided what he really didn’t like about himself was being called Milton. He recollected names he knew, thought “Tom was pretty close”, and chose Robert.

Josef Albers he hated, because he spied on you and searched your room at Black Mountain College to find your weaknesses and your disloyalties to art, “which were many.” Rauschenberg had just come from the Académie Julien in Paris, and Albers took him for a “hotshot”. Rauschenberg could not use a brush, he painted with his hands, and Albers could brag about having painted the previous day while appearing spotless in a white suit. Hickey points out that Albers’ square figures could not have been painted with his hands, and Rauschenberg certainly agrees.

Rauschenberg and his wife were assigned as garbagemen at Black Mountain, and standards improved, “people started wrapping up their garbage.”

By 1952 he was so proficient a photographer that his portfolio of Cy Twombly earned the latter a scholarship in Italy. They traveled to Rome, but Twombly had spent Rauschenberg’s share “on antiques”, and Rauschenberg found himself applying for work with the Atlas Construction Co. in Casablanca. He was turned down for lack of experience, and told that “Americans and Frenchmen only get jobs in New York and Paris”, and with $37 or so in his pocket, he sat outside wondering what to do next, when a good-looking woman struck up a conversation. He told her he was an artist, and she said, “Oh, you don’t know Larry Rivers, do you?” She gave him some references and he went back inside to, as luck would have it, the same interviewer, who asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me that a few minutes ago?” Rauschenberg “lied like hell” and told him, “I didn’t think that would make any difference!’” He was assigned to “permanent inventory”, and here Rauschenberg demonstrated with a long paint-stained index finger, which meant you would “point to a box, and an Arab would hand it down to a Frenchman who could count.” Hickey concludes this by changing the subject.

He praises Rauschenberg for making complicated things look easy; most artists, he says, do it the other way around. “Well, how?”, says Rauschenberg. Hickey asks what’s easy for him. Rauschenberg says, “Well, it certainly isn’t missing planes in airports,” which is perhaps a private joke.

Rauschenberg is entirely observant, he describes it as “a form of gluttony... to collect everything, all the information you can get, as long as it’s not written.” He speaks of coming here today along a certain street which he wants to revisit, having missed some things, he says.

In 1953, at the behest of a critic, says Hickey, Rauschenberg threw some works of his own into the Arno River. Rauschenberg tells Hickey that he is the most articulate critic in the world, why doesn’t he write about his white paintings, “How could you be wrong? ” Asked about criticism, Rauschenberg says, “If it’s flattery I think of it as flattering, and if it’s negative I say they didn’t get it.”

Nobility comes up, Rauschenberg groups it with loyalty and with the “every scruple in your being you try to apply. Nobility,” he says, “is a form of elegance and dignity that makes something a little more special.” Of the last two Biennales he says, “I get so tired of seeing someone, either with their pants on or with their pants off, turning around slowly, over and over. That is not noble.” A healthy attitude towards money is, “Spend it.”

He was living on Wall St. for $15 a month. A well-to-do lady admired one of his paintings, and he waited in vain for an offer. When his rent came due, he decided to carry the painting to Gramercy; fortunately, it wasn’t a windy day. He asked $15 for it. “Oh, Bob,” she said, “I couldn’t take it for so little.” Rauschenberg says, “And I’m waiting—and I walked it back home.” No-one was ever so embarrassed. He laughs thinking of people who tell you they love a piece, “so you give it to them, and they forget to take it home.”

Hickey continues interviewing him. Rauschenberg says, “These stories are always so much longer than they’re worth.” He loves drawing, and in those days he was erasing and re-drawing, and that wasn’t getting him anywhere. De Kooning is one of America’s greatest painters, he says; he bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and knocked on his door, “praying he wouldn’t be home, because then that would have been the piece.” De Kooning looked in a portfolio for a drawing Rauschenberg could erase, changed his mind, looked in another for “something I’ll miss,” then in a third for “something impossible to erase.”

Hickey mentions De Kooning’s critics. Rauschenberg asks if he means the ones who said he hated women; Rauschenberg thought those paintings were beautiful. Hickey gives an impression of De Kooning: “Those philistines! I make a painting about this crazy town, I make a painting about these crazy times, and those philistines say it’s a painting by a crazy man!” He says to Rauschenberg, “No-one’s ever questioned your sanity.” “They haven’t? Well, let’s put a stop to that! What’s wrong with you guys?”

Rauschenberg was a neuropsychiatric technician in the Navy; he “knew crazy.” Before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he took the whole ward out to play golf. He says, “They just needed to get out.” He told the doctor in charge, “I’ve got a group of patients who want to play golf.” The doctor said, “When?” Rauschenberg concludes, “We were about half an hour into whatever game this was, before someone noticed there might be a misunderstanding. But we had a good time before we were thrown out.” Hickey clarifies: this was in San Diego.

Is he an artist in the comedic vein? “It’s no joke,” says Rauschenberg. “Not a tragedy,” Hickey says. “Not yet,” says the artist.

The Vatican commission is brought up. “No small job,” in honor of Padre Pio’s miraculous healings. It fell through; Hickey reads from Rauschenberg’s letter to the Monsignor in charge: “What were halos?” Rauschenberg sees the dish antenna as a contemporary version, receiving information. He is “spiritually under- or over-qualified” for the commission, which is to represent Revelation and the end of the world, “not a happy situation.” The Monsignor said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be unhappy.” Rauschenberg says, “I think he had something else in mind anyway,” and “I made it easy for him: all he had to do was the wiring.” He has not exhibited the work, because “I don’t know what the protocol is.” Hickey: “So, you told the Pope that you were morally compromised by working there?” Rauschenberg: “Yeah.”

Hickey wants to know about the augury which accompanied his relocation to Florida. “You mean the yellow butterflies and turtles?” No. Yes, Rauschenberg remembers, in New York everyone was divorced or getting divorced. “I’m kind of sensitive. I started accusing myself. Am I responsible for this? Well, if I am, I’ll just get out of town.” A seer told him to avoid mountains, go to water and sun. So he went to Florida, where as Hickey points out, “on a clear day you can see Port Arthur.” “And it rains,” says Rauschenberg.

If he were to forget “the restlessness and surprises” he found in New York, he says, he would move back. “On the fourth day there I could hear the tide changing and the wind picking up. It’s almost busier than New York.”

A member of the audience asks about a new play called robertrauschenbergamerica or something. “A parody of clichés of my thinking.” He recalls, in response to another question, a wedding cake by Claes Oldenburg “you could sleep on.” His round-the-world art tour unexpectedly cost him $7,000,000 and was the “first show in China of contemporary American art.” It started in Mexico, because of the proximity, and because you could get screwdrivers and things there. He nearly had to go to Cuba via Sweden, because of the embargo. “Russia was great.” The project took seven years. Is he an ivory tower artist? “Oh, God, no. I’m scared of heights.”

Teeny Duchamp used to go around town looking at shows, until Marcel visited the studio Rauschenberg had with Jasper Johns. “That’s when Marcel started going to exhibitions. He found it safe enough to go out.”

He views collaborations “not lightly but selfishly. Two heads are better than eight or vice versa. Another person looking or responding to what two people have thought is equivalent to eight.”

“I wanted to get out of Port Arthur so badly, I lied about a job in Los Angeles. I didn’t have one, but I got out of town. You know what those small Southern towns are like. When it comes time to go back, you’re never going to get out of there again.”

“They came and went,” he says of Black Mountain College’s visiting artists. He had a black girlfriend there, who sang Mahler, “and that’s very difficult. She broke the tree.” They were the only ones who still went to church, though he doesn’t as much any more. She took him to her church, “if I didn’t sing. She said, ‘They won’t recognize you as being white, unless you open your mouth.’”

Dave Hickey asks Robert Rauschenberg if he was aware of contemporary art back in the days of his early association with Johns et al. “No, I think we made it. Not me, we.”

The crowd, less tense now, leaves to wander the inchoate California Plaza and admire those noble skyscrapers which never understood the clerestory mezzanine of Los Angeles architecture.