What Robert Rauschenberg thought about dying.

Bringing out the dead.
May 14 2008 6:57 PM

Remembering Rauschenberg

Greatness and golden slippers.

I once asked Robert Rauschenberg if he was afraid of dying. It was not as rude or unseemly a question as it might at first appear. At the time, he was elderly but in fine health; I had spent the previous three or four days visiting with him at the large but somehow modest compound he owned on Captiva Island, Fla., and in the course of our conversations, he'd spoken about his past and his work with unusual frankness and great wit.

Moreover, it seemed to me that he'd lived something very close to a perfect life. He'd been in on the origin of the great aesthetic movements of his time, and his place in history was pretty much guaranteed; he took enormous pleasure in making art and continued to make it long after many artists retire; he had traveled the world and made a great deal of money, much of which he donated to causes he believed in. To be sure, there were dark patches; for many years he was a ferocious alcoholic—he could put away a fifth of bourbon a day—but by the time I met him, he had put all that behind him, and he seemed to have mastered the eudaemonistic life. I was curious to know how he felt about leaving it, so I asked him.

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He wasn't bothered by the question at all. He seemed to find it interesting, he had obviously thought about it before, and he reflected for a while before he answered. "There are moments in the day when I find it terrifying," he said at last. "I don't ever want to go. I don't have a sense of great reality about the next world." Then, referencing an old spiritual, he said, "My feet are too ugly to wear those golden slippers." He paused again. "I'm working on my fear of it," he continued. "And my fear is that after I'm gone, something interesting is going to happen, and I'm going to miss it."

Rauschenberg died Monday, at home in Captiva; I hope the terror left him before the time came. As for missing something interesting, he rarely did while he was alive, in large part because he was something interesting, and the world will miss him as much as he might miss the world. He was, quite simply, as charming and delightful as any man I've ever met. But he'll be remembered as a great artist, certainly one of the greatest of the last half-century.

He was one of those people—quick as a comedian, deft and knowing—who seem to be effortlessly inventive, spinning off ideas and techniques like droplets of water from a lawn sprinkler, and there is hardly an artist working today who doesn't owe him something. To Rauschenberg, almost anything could be art, and art could be almost anything; he crossed media and created new ones as often as other artists clean their brushes. Consider the following gesture, simple, ingenious, daring, and true: One day in 1953, when Rauschenberg was in his late 20s, he stopped by Willem de Kooning's studio with a request. At the time, de Kooning was emerging as one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism, and Rauschenberg admired him enormously. He asked the older artist if he could have a drawing, not to hang it on his wall but to make into another artwork: He intended, he made clear, to erase it. De Kooning, to his great credit, complied, and Rauschenberg spent the next few weeks and, according to legend, went through 15 erasers trying to get the marks off the paper (he never entirely succeeded; some ghost of the image remains).

Erased de Kooning was the first major work of Rauschenberg's career, and it showed many of the qualities for which he would eventually become known: a paradoxical originality (or perhaps an original paradoxicalness), energy, iconoclasm, unerring instinct. There have been a lot of artists who have used art to assault art's own verities, but few of them did so as gracefully and cheerfully as Rauschenberg. He was often joking, in a peculiar Zen-ish way that he shared with his friend John Cage, and he was almost always having fun, but he was never bullshitting.

It would take me another 10 pages to begin to describe everything else that Rauschenberg came up with: the combines (painter-ish, sculpture-ish assemblies of found materials), photo-transfer drawings, sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham's dance company, and the famous "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" of 1966, a wildly experimental performance festival that Rauschenberg put together with an engineer from Bell Labs named Billy Kluver, and which, with only a little stretching, can be seen as a precursor of everything from video art to Nintendo's Wii.

Rauschenberg was wildly prolific; the drops from the sprinkler landed where they would. Even he couldn't keep track of them all. At one point I asked him how many artworks he'd made in his lifetime. "Maybe 3,000," he answered. "Maybe 5,000. Maybe many more." But if you were to challenge anyone with a reasonable grasp of 20th-century art history to name some, I doubt they'd be able to come up with more than five or six. He was a very rare thing: the great artist who made few great artworks.

I don't think he would mind the characterization: He always preferred the process to the result, the inventiveness to the invention, the gesture to the meaning. There was a wall in one room of his house in Captiva where he kept his own collection of other people's artworks. It was almost all ephemera—little scraps of paper with passing marks made on them, mostly by his friends. But what friends and what ephemera: There was a small drawing by Cy Twombly, a round cardboard coaster from the Cedar Bar upon which de Kooning had doodled one night, and, loveliest of all, a sheet of lined school notebook paper that Jasper Johns had used to sketch an American flag, an early study for one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. ("Jasper never could draw a straight line freehand," Rauschenberg told me.) It was clear that he'd rather have had those fugitive pieces than their corresponding masterpieces. He thought of art not as a monument but as the record of a passing moment. I suspect he knew, too, how melancholy an idea that can be. That's the thing about moments: They pass. And now Rauschenberg has as well, and there's that much more to miss.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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