By Sara Sinclair, Project Manager
The first full-scale retrospective since the artist’s death in 2008, Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, is an exhibit organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Modern, London. Opening May 21, the show presents work from six decades of Rauschenberg’s acclaimed career.
MoMA is using excerpts from Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project for the exhibition’s audio guide, so make sure to get a headset when you see the exhibition!
And read more about the artist, and our project, conducted in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, here:
A painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and maker of hybrid forms thereof, Robert Rauschenberg is widely considered one of America’s most influential artists of the 20th Century.
Born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas—an oil refinery town on the Gulf of Mexico—Rauschenberg was older brother to Janet and son of Dora Carolina Matson and Ernest Rauschenberg, an employee of Gulf State Utilities. Rauschenberg entered University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology, but left the university due to his difficulty with the coursework (he would later learn he was dyslexic) and his refusal to dissect a frog in biology.
After serving in the U.S. Navy as a neuropsychiatric technician, he followed a friend to Kansas City in 1947 to enroll in the Kansa City Art Institute, and later studied in Paris and at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. In 1949, Rauschenberg found his way to New York City where he lived and worked until 1970.
“The celebrated Combines, begun in the mid-1950s, brought real-world images and objects into the realm of abstract painting and countered sanctioned divisions between painting and sculpture.” These works established him as a crucial figure in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to later modern art movements. As Yvonne Rainer recalled in her oral history:
“I knew very little about post-war American art. Al introduced me to the Cedar Bar and his friends, and I went to openings. I went to what must have been [Rauschenberg’s] first show at the [Leo] Castelli Gallery on East Seventy-seventh Street. I saw the goat [Monogram] and the chicken on the shelf [Satellite]. I nearly rolled on the ground with laughter. It was so refreshing after Abstract Expressionism. He was still an Expressionist using paint in that way, but so irreverent. I think my own sense of humor and irreverence began when I saw that show, and it opened up a whole new set of possibilities.”
Funded by a grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, interviewers Mary Marshall Clark, Brent Edwards, James McElhinney, Alessandra Nicifero, Sara Sinclair, and Cameron Vanderscoff conducted sessions with 60 Narrators for a total of 98 Sessions, 179 Hours, and 14 Videos Sessions. Our objective was to establish an oral biography of the artist by recording first-hand accounts of his life, work, and legacy as told by his family, friends, former lovers, professional associates, studio assistants, and collaborators. Beyond Rauschenberg, the oral history strives to capture the spirit of the larger art world that he inhabited throughout his life.
Narrators include artists Brice Marden, Alex and Deborah Hay, Lawrence Weiner, and Yvonne Rainer; famed gallerists Irving Blum, and Arne Glimcher, and art writers, Dore Ashton, Mary Lynn Kotz, and Calvin Tomkins.
The story we gathered begins in New York’s tiny art world of the 1950s. As Calvin Tomkins recalled, “You could, on a Saturday morning, see all of the new shows that had opened during that week of contemporary work. You could easily do it.”
We track the scene as it grows, and as the energy in the city dissipates following that expansion. Narrators speak to the emergence of an art market that none of them had anticipated and they muse about the impact it has had on the work.
As Arne Glimcher said in his oral history, “I think [the market] might change the energy in New York City, and, more dangerously, it changes the energy in the artist.”
Interviews include first-hand accounts of watching Rauschenberg at work in his studio, and the memories of his many and diverse collaborators, including dancers, engineers, musicians, and printmakers. Joyful anecdotes sketch out the narrative of a life so richly lived. “If he could hug everyone in the world, he would,” Bob Monk told us in his interview.
Our collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation required that we push the bounds of our practice, which ultimately enriched the resulting oral histories. We worked closely with the art historians and archivists on the Foundation staff in all phases of the project, from preliminary research to the completed transcripts.
Celebrating the fact that this this an oral history project of a visual subject, the project transcripts were illustrated using documentary photography and artwork.
During the project’s pilot phase, Rauschenberg Foundation staff realized that oral historians accept the subjective in memory and use memory as a source to a degree that art history does not. This led to the creation of a new step in the transcript’s processing.
Ordinarily, Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s work flow is to conduct an interview, have it transcribed, audit-edited (making sure the transcript is an accurate record of the audio file), and returned to the narrator for their edits. On the Rauschenberg project, we added a new step: fact-checking of the transcripts.
In addition to confirming proper names, we checked for accuracy and full expression of titles of Rauschenberg’s work, including the date of all creative works, checked for accuracy of descriptions of pieces, exhibitions, and locations where a narrator mentioned Rauschenberg was present. The Foundation staff provided further research into Rauschenberg’s artistic processes as well as details pertaining to other artists’ work.
An example of a project transcript can be viewed here.
As it is central to the Foundation’s mission to preserve Rauschenberg’s artwork, we conducted so-called technical oral histories with Rauschenberg’s studio assistants. Captured on film, and in the presence of the artworks each assistant helped to create, these interviews included in-depth discussions about the materials and methods used.
These interviews with former fabricators and studio assistants were held at the Rauschenberg warehouse in Westchester, New York, which houses the Foundation’s art collection and some archival material. For the technical oral histories, we worked with each narrator to identify which series they would like to speak to, found the best examples still in the collection, and installed them in the warehouse space so that the narrators could literally speak to, and about, the work.
Columbia interviewers then collaborated with conservator Christine Frohnert to create an outline for the interviews, to collect the story and the process behind each work of art. The interviews began with our narrator seated for an abridged life history. We then walked around the space, collecting the story and the process behind each work of art displayed.
The expression that each of these narrators broke into as they entered the gallery space was striking. It was almost like we had provided them with an installation of their memories. The emotion, thought, and recognition the artworks evoked is evident on their faces. It was a great example of how useful props can be to invoking memory.
Later, as the narrators spoke about the work, the benefit of the visual aid was also clearly transferred to the listener/viewer. Having that visual aid makes the more process-oriented parts of the interview easier to follow and more accessible for people who are not fabricators themselves and who do not possess the same technical vocabulary.
Most of the technical interviews were between two and just over three hours long; not dissimilar to the length of the project’s standard oral history sessions.
The Rauschenberg Oral History Project will be archived at Columbia University Center for Oral History Archives and the Rauschenberg Foundation.
For more information about the upcoming show at MoMA, please visit: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3634.
Sara Sinclair is a graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program. Prior to attending OHMA, Sara lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she conducted an oral history project for the International Labour Organization’s Regional Office for Africa. Sara’s work as an oral history consultant includes work for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Exit Art Closure Study, a research project on the closure of New York gallery/artist’s space Exit Art (1982-2012).
Sara’s thesis work at Columbia initiated a series of interviews exploring the narratives of university-educated, reservation-raised Native North Americans on returning to their Nations after school. Sara’s work on this project is ongoing in partnership with Voice of Witness, an oral history book imprint that promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice.
 Julia Blaut, “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective,” @Guggenheim (Fall 1997).