The Return of the Native

Robert Rauschenberg never set foot in an art museum while he was growing up on Texas’ Gulf Coast. Today an epic retrospective in Houston celebrates his improbable journey from Port Arthur to enshrinement as the most influential artist of our time.

Known as the Jungle Road, the dirt track passes through an otherworldly thicket of palms, pines, and mangroves, one of the last primeval patches of Captiva, an exclusive little barrier island off Florida’s Gulf coast. Meandering past several white frame guest houses scattered over the 36 acres of prime real estate that Robert Rauschenberg has bought up since he arrived on the island in 1970, the Jungle Road abruptly ends at what looks like a misplaced museum, a gleaming modernist step pyramid rising from the semitropical forest as improbably as a Mayan temple. This is Rauschenberg’s studio, built five years ago on pillars sunk so far into the bedrock that the artist could go on working even if the entire island vanished in a category-five hurricane.

The main studio is the size of a gymnasium; facing the mainland, a wall of glass doors overlooks a broad flight of steps descending to the minimalist blue rectangles of the terraced pool and spa. Here the visitor realizes that Rauschenberg’s workplace has conflated the functions of studio and museum, a logical step for a working artist who long ago was assigned a prominent place in the history of art.

Eisenhower was in his first term when Rauschenberg began to transform the art of our time in a $10-a-month loft in New York; that it is impossible to tell the story of post—World War II painting, sculpture, printmaking, dance, or performance art without a representative Rauschenberg is a fact that museums around the world have recognized for at least thirty years. Throughout those decades Rauschenberg has been so prolific that the current retrospective of his work requires all three of Houston’s major museums just to survey its bewildering, multimedia variety: solvent transfers on sheer silk and silkscreens on metal sheets, stage props and a sculpture that spews mud to music, a painting that can be walked into, and a still-evolving assemblage of thousands of images and objects that requires a stroll of almost a quarter of a mile to see it all. (“Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective” is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum,

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