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Overdrive

by Calvin Tomkins

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2009 Grants Booklet


In the early summer of 1963, when I was gathering material for a New Yorker profile of Robert Rauschenberg, I spent a lot of time in his studio on lower Broadway. Bob had just started to work on a new series of silkscreen paintings. His earlier silkscreens had been black and white, but these were in color, and his working process just astonished me. There was one interruption after another - unexpected visitors, lengthy telephone calls, periodic trips to the battered refrigerator, in a back corner of the studio, to refresh his tall glass of vodka, grapefruit juice, and what he referred to as "too much ice." The four-color separation process, which required a separate screen for each color, was giving him a lot of trouble. He would lay down one color, and then, when he placed the next screen and started to force another color through the mesh, it would be slightly out of register; he'd scrub the canvas clean with benzine and start over, and the same thing would happen again. After a while, though, the imperfect color registration ceased to be a problem. The greenish-blues and diluted reds reminded him of badly exposed color photographs, or what he called "movie candy." "It's delicious," he marveled, suddenly euphoric. "Every color is trying to be a star." The more the screens asserted their own particularity and undermined his attempts to control them, the happier he was. "The material is never wrong," he said. "It's only me that can be wrong."

Apart from Picasso and Duchamp, no modern artist has influenced the course of art more widely or more deeply than Rauschenberg. The vast outpouring of his work in all media - paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, live performance, stage and costume design - opened the way into new territories which have been and are still being colonized by generations of younger artists, some of whom may be unaware of their debt to him. Looking back, though, I wonder how many of them really subscribe to the key premise that guided his work - the unending struggle to subvert or outwit the controlling ego. "I don't want a painting to be just an expression of my personality," Bob had said, early on. "I feel it ought to be much better than that." He didn't always succeed, of course. His personality was huge and generous and irresistible, and not immune to attacks of arrogance. He drank too much. He produced a lot of mediocre art, most of it after 1970, and in spite of all his efforts to get beyond himself -- his memories, his experiences, his emotions, his successes and failures -- everything he did bears the personal signature that makes "a Rauschenberg" instantly recognizable. But Bob kept trying, and this lifelong struggle to transcend the mind's control gave his art its invigorating tension between chaos and order, and its ability to make us see the world around us in new and surprising ways.

He wanted to be unfamiliar with what he was doing. This was one of the things he admired about the choreography of Merce Cunningham. For several years, Bob traveled with the Cunningham company as its resident lighting and costume designer. He loved sharing the situation of the dancers, for whom each performance was unique and impermanent. "I feel close to that situation in my own work," he told me. "I always want to put off the final fixing of a painting as long as possible, but of course, you can't. Once it's done, it's done." John Cage, who came closer than anyone to being a mentor in Bob's life, took another view. Cage's 1961 essay, "On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work," contains this sentence: "Over and over again I've found it impossible to memorize Rauschenberg's paintings. I keep asking, 'Have you changed it?' And then noticing while I'm looking it changes."

Bob died on May 12, 2008, of heart failure, at his home on Captiva Island. He was 82. He had never stopped working, in spite of successive strokes and other health problems, and his last paintings, which were shown at Pace Wildenstein earlier in the year, looked effervescent. Two days after he died, his big, buoyant Overdrive, one of the lushly colorful silkscreen pictures he was working on when I first visited his New York studio in 1963, was sold at Sotheby's New York for $14.6 million, his highest auction price to date. Its real value is incalculable. I can think of no other art work that evokes so vividly the excitement of being alive in that decade, in that city, when this young artist was illuminating the great book of our daily life.

Calvin Tomkins is a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. Formerly, he was an Associate editor, General editor at Newsweek magazine (1954-1959). His books include The Bride and the Bachelors, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Off the Wall, Duchamp: A Biography, and the recently published Lives of the Artists.

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