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, and the Menil Collection, which organized the exhibition, through May 17.)

So Rauschenberg’s Captiva studio is, like most museums, a monument to success: the marketplace triumph of art once considered scandalous even in the tiny club that was the New York art world in the fifties; the extraordinary capacity for reinvention of a man who should have been swallowed up within a few years by the wave of innovation that he, more than anyone, set in motion. But the Captiva studio also has a deeper meaning. It is the monumental evidence of an epic migration that began on another coast, among the fire-and-fume-belching oil refineries of Port Arthur, and crossed a psychological gulf far wider than the water that separates Texas and Florida. In Captiva, looking up at this shrine to probably the most influential artist of this half of the twentieth century, it is almost impossible to imagine the distance that a boy named Milton Rauschenberg had to travel to get here. Yet in talking to the 72-year-old Robert Rauschenberg, it quickly becomes clear that he would not be here if he had not been there.

A lot of the reporters, if they’re not quoting me, have a very vivid misunderstanding. —Robert Rauschenberg, 1998

When a writer and a photographer arrive at the starkly rectilinear white-stucco house that Rauschenberg built several years ago at the Gulf end of the Jungle Road, the artist introduces himself as just “Bob,” then offers some further identification: “I’m your victim.” He plays the victim as gracious host, however, serving his inquisitors crab gumbo, which he cooked himself, at the L-shaped bar at the far end of a spacious white-tiled living room. And there the man who says he forgot his lines in his only stage appearance at Port Arthur’s Thomas Jefferson High School—but who practically invented the category of performance art in collaborations with such equally legendary innovators as composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham—begins a classic Rauschenberg performance: the Port Arthur stories delivered in a courtly Southern bass, the wordplays and bon mots tossed off with dazzling nonchalance. On his 95-year-old mother, expected at the Houston opening: “She still doesn’t want her friends to know what I do. But she’ll go on my trips.” On his youthful social shortcomings and academic failures: “I was aggressively introverted. . . . I was dyslexic, you know. The only thing I could do was dance.” On his triumphal return to Port Arthur, in 1984, when he apparently exorcized the demons: “I tried all my old haunts and found I wasn’t haunted at all.”

After lunch it’s down the Jungle Road to the studio, where Bob, a visionary widely praised for his uncommon respect for other artists’ vision, affably submits to photography. During a break he sips wine and wanders among huge worktables piled with computer scans of his own photographs printed out on glossy paper in water-soluble inks that allow the images to be transferred when wetted and pressed onto large sheets of paper laminated to metal; the effect is that of collages reproduced in watercolor. A generic price list, graduated by size, lies on one of the tables. The largest pieces, up to sixty square feet, run well into six figures.

But Bob isn’t looking at the price list when suddenly he says, “I misunderstood you. How was I to know you could sell this shit?”

“What?”

“My father said that.” Rauschenberg’s father died just months after the artist’s first retrospective, at New York’s Jewish Museum, in 1963.

“And those were the words he used?”

“‘We never wanted you to be an artist. But we didn’t understand. How were we to know you could ever sell this shit?’”

So began another journey back to Port Arthur.

I was stuck there. And it wasn’t until I was drafted into the Navy that I had any idea that Port Arthur

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