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Robert Rauschenberg Interview

I translated part of a French review with Anselm Kiefer a week or so ago, and lots of people ended up reading it because it was linked at Modern Art Notes (thanks, Tyler!). So, I also read an interview with American artist Robert Rauschenberg ("J'aime le mouvement de la main", August 10) by Bérénice Bailly for Le Monde. R.R. is in Nice, where a major retrospective of his work (on and off the wall, through January 8) is on view at the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain. The interviewer was impressed by the artist's American sunny attitude, hailing her with the simple words "Hi, I'm Bob," in spite of being 80 years old and restricted to a wheelchair. Here are some excerpts (my translation):

You are one of the most prolific artists in the last 50 years. In spite of your health problems, you have never stopped creating, as if life and art were intrinsically linked for you...

In effect, life and art always make me equally happy. But as for saying which came first, art or life... I don't ask myself the question. Everything is very much tied together, each thing stimulates something else. This reminds me of a zen story that John Cage used to tell, about a millipede who was asked what foot he put down first on the ground when he moved. The millipede stopped, reflected, and died. He had never asked himself the question.

Do you remember the first artworks you ever saw?

It was Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy and a Joshua Reynolds, two English painters of the 18th century. I was in the Navy, in San Diego, and I was looking for something to do. On a day of leave, I hitchhiked to the Huntington Library in San Marino, to see their cactus garden, because I have always loved plants. I saw this large building, which happened to be a museum. I went in, and I realized that these paintings had been made by hand, which made me very curious. That was how I learned that one could "be an artist," and then I discovered that I was one. [...]

You once had the audacity to ask Willem de Kooning to entrust you with one of his drawings, which you intended to erase: was that a sign of homage or irony?

A very respectful homage.

How did he take it?

He did not like that gesture, but at least I was honest about it. He saw it in the same way that he saw the works of Marcel Duchamp. He knew that such art existed, but it bored him and he would have liked to see it disappear. However, I am sure that he respected my attitude and the courage to make that gesture work out well. [...]

You met the composer John Cage [at Black Mountain College], who also worked notably on the idea of chance.

That's right. He even bought one of my paintings. One day, I did a strange kind of favor for him. While I was staying in his apartment when he was away, to thank him—at the time, I was working on my Black Paintings—I painted all of his paintings black. He was furious. You might think that he loved anything, no matter what, but that was not true at all.

He was the one who opened you up to zen philosophy?

No. John used to tell me, "I spent years studying and trying to understand zen. You, you have done nothing of the sort, you are just naturally zen." It irritated him a little.
The interviewer also asked about a project Rauschenberg worked on with Renzo Piano, for the Vatican, of all places. The proposal was eventually refused, in part because the Vatican declared that Rauschenberg had never read the Bible. R.R. claims that the idea is "almost more beautiful because it was never realized, because it cannot be changed and has ultimately avoided any manipulation." He says that he has donated the model and plans to the Menil Collection in Houston, where it is going to be exhibited. This may be the plans for the new chapel in San Giovanni Rotondo in honor of Padre Pio, for which R.R. was asked to make a large stained glass window on the Apocalypse, but I'm not sure if that's what Rauschenberg means. I'll keep my eyes out for more information.

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