In the Studio

Wayne Koestenbaum responds to a little-seen record of Robert Rauschenberg at work

As "Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends" opens at MoMA, Wayne Koestenbaum responds to a little-seen record of the artist at work

rr-body.jpg

Detail of contact sheet showing Robert Rauschenberg and Brice Marden silkscreening in the chapel of 381 Lafayette Street, New York, 1968. Photography attributed to Mel Bochner Courtesy: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Detail of contact sheet showing Robert Rauschenberg and Brice Marden silkscreening in the chapel of 381 Lafayette Street, New York, 1968. Photography attributed to Mel Bochner Courtesy: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York 

In the studio, Robert Rauschenberg rolls his shirt sleeves above the biceps. Elbow dimples and chunky arms add up to charm, success, the luxury of being beheld. Brice Marden, assisting today, beholds him. So does Mel Bochner, the unseen photographer. Twice-beheld, Rauschenberg refuses to smile. Images emerging from his squeegee catch the 1968 sunlight and send it into convulsions.

Rauschenberg’s shoes—black leather—veer toward nance, respectability. His pants—are they jeans, or mere slacks?—stay above the fray by being rolled up to expose the ankles, clad in “dress socks.” His hair, like Johnny Cash’s, takes a loose, soulful stand. Rauschenberg’s hair will permit pugnaciousness—for ceremony’s sake—but would prefer to take a pacifist route by lying down, a protester, in the middle of the highway. I place my body, a potential victim’s, on the road of art history, the hair of Rauschenberg might say, if it confessed. The volubility of Rauschenberg’s flannel shirt fills the vacuum of his hair’s silence; untucked, the shirt has the stalwart élan of a Paul Bunyan theme-park memento—purchased for a squalling boy who suffered motion sickness on the merry-go-round. Rauschenberg’s flannel shirt proposes a neutral, forestry-oriented consolation.

The artist, like Mount Rushmore, occupies a vast, lonely space

The artist, like Mount Rushmore, occupies a vast, lonely space; his studio is a chapel of the former St. Joseph’s Union Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, on Lafayette Street. Many virgins live on Lafayette; Rauschenberg is not among them. Capable of sexual acts we can’t sketch here, he solves the mystery of the immaculate conception by conceiving his art with Marden’s assistance. Marden—hidden, like a bodhisattva, in a corner, lest his beauty overstage the prima donna’s—holds God’s seed in a headband wrapped around his sweaty brow. (The headband will appear, a year later, in Easy Rider, or will threaten to appear, but then fail to show up.) Sewn inside this headband, a thimble-sized vial holds the blessed seed, which triggers the conception of anything you wish to occur.

A squeegee, when it rubs against a screen, exerts a steady, hard pressure whose ineffable physicality kills off any imagery that the silkscreen itself will depict. Rauschenberg’s unwavering hands enjoy the squeegee’s pressure. We pretend to be governed by images; we pretend that images seduce and construct us. But the squeegee dominates
and subsumes any image it creates, even if, later, it vanishes from the scene of conception. Stained and nude, the squeegee will have no biographer. Rauschenberg doubtless loved this squeegee above all others, even if he gave it no proper obsequies. 

Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of 18 books, most recently Notes on Glaze: 18 Photographic Investigations

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018