Art Inspection

30 Desert Turtles, a Watermelon, and Dry Ice: Inside the Archives of The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

In Robert Rauschenberg’s 1965 performance Spring Training, the artist’s thirteen-year-old son came out on the darkened stage with a laundry hamper containing thirty large desert turtles, which he proceeded to turn loose. Each turtle had a flashlight strapped to its back, “moving at a dignified speed and sending shafts of light in all directions.” Then Rauschenberg entered wearing a sport shirt and underpants. The artist and a dancer took turns carrying each other like large timbers. Then three young women dressed as brides served saltines to the audience. Another artist did an old fashioned tap dance. The artist’s son held a microphone and ripped pages out of the telephone book. For the finale, Rauschenberg, solo, on stilts, wearing a white dinner jacket, with a bucket of dry ice slung from his waist, poured water from a pitcher into the bucket sending up clouds of steam that enveloped the audience.

That was then. This is now. The art world has expanded in ways that probably no one could have anticipated back then, when it was said that the entire New York City art scene consisted of maybe 75 people, all of whom knew each other. Today art is big business, with investors competing for a “commodity” that is seen as more stable, and potentially more lucrative, than real estate, oil, or gold.

Robert Rauschenberg's shopping list for Spring Training (1965) (Creator: Robert Rauschenberg)

And while this boom has created more space for more artists to have careers, the flip side is that there is greater incentive than ever for them not to take the kind of potentially disastrous risks that Rauschenberg and other artists of his generation took to break new ground, experiment, and play with dry ice in their underwear.

The kicker is that artists like Rauschenberg grew very wealthy later in their lives, and even after their deaths, despite not reaping the financial benefits of their works being resold at auction. Many of these artists have now created foundations that are major forces in the art world of today, with the top 14 contributing $35M into the market.

Christy MacLear, Executive Director at Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, explains: “The field of artist endowed foundations has grown remarkably in the past decade. With the art market and the success of artists now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, there are now about 380 artist foundations, a third of which were created in the last decade. These assets are mostly art, but we contribute to the field in the form of grants, gifts of artworks to museums, and residencies for artists across the country.”

Today, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation occupies a six-story former orphanage on an unassuming stretch of Lafayette St (mere blocks from The Standard, East Village), which served as one of the artist’s home bases during his life. He purchased the building in 1965 with the aim of turning it into a hub for his expanding artistic activity, which had grown to include large-scale performance pieces, collaborations with engineers and scientists at Bell Labs, building sets for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and of course, the nonstop creation of his own paintings, sculptures, and prints.

Left: Rauschenberg in front of the office of 381 Lafayette Street (Photographer: Ugo Mulas), Right: The chapel which served as one of the artist's workspaces

Rauschenberg is best known for his “combines” — works that broke down the wall between painting and sculpture, and incorporated found materials and imagery in ways never before seen. The pieces are firmly established in the canon of 20th century art, but their freshness remains intact - a source of inspiration and fascination for artists and audiences. Few made art with the freedom and openness of Rauschenberg, and by extension, fewer still lived and worked with such exuberance, inventiveness, and willingness to make mistakes.

Left: First Landing Jump (1961), Right: Monogram (1955–59)

For the artist, it was all one large project. “Permanence doesn’t really interest me,” he said in an interview with Calvin Tompkins. “Some of the things I’ve done will probably last longer than others…but I’m not working in a clinic. My whole focus has been on the activity of my life. Out of the activity has come a mass of works, which are really just evidence that I’m still paying attention.”

Rauschenberg’s lifelong project was to break down the distinction between art and life, to work in the space between, and bring the two closer together. As Dr. Donald Saff, artistic director of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Exchange, a globe-spanning project that the artist launched in the 80s, put it, ''He is trying to introduce the world to itself.'' And this sprawling, whimsical, sometimes messy endeavor took many forms: performances, collaborations, experimentation, and activism.

That multi-platform artistic vision lives on in the foundation that bears his name. When filling out the paperwork to incorporate the foundation, Rauschenberg was asked to complete a checklist indicating the fields in which it would operate. He checked every box. Except ‘Politics.’

The foundation operates a residency at the artist’s estate in Captiva, Florida. It gives grants to organizations ranging from the arts to education to climate change with an emphasis on more grassroots, “straight out of the garage” initiatives.

A selection of photographs from the Rauschenberg archive (Various Photographers)

Lastly, it is responsible for providing access to Rauschenberg’s archive. Unlike other artist's estates that seek to manage access, the Rauschenberg Foundation has set out to make everything in its archives accessible via their website: every work, every photo, every handscribbled note. And oh, what an archive it is...

The Standard had a chance to visit the converted Lafayette St. orphanage to peruse some of the materials that are in the process of being digitized with archivist Kayla Jenkins. Jenkins opened boxes seemingly at random. Each one produced stunning fragments, glimpses into a life of relentless and joyous artistic activity.

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