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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Off the Wall

A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg

Calvin Tomkins



Chapter One

Venice, 1964

More than once during the chaotic week before the opening, Alan Solomon, the United States Commissioner for the 1964 Venice Biennale, had the distinct impression that too many people were trying in too many languages to tell him what to do. Some of them, like Alice Denney, his outspoken Vice-Commissioner, thought he was being too aggressive, too demanding. Leo Castelli seemed to think he was not being aggressive enough. Castelli's New York gallery represented both Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, which gave him a certain leverage. All the same it was annoying for Solomon to hear the rumors that Castelli was really running the American show at the Biennale this time, with the canny assistance of his ex-wife, the Paris dealer Ileana Sonnabend, a mano fina if ever there was one. The worst of it was that Rauschenberg, a strong contender for the Biennale's grand international prize in painting (a prize no American artist had yet won), was suddenly in danger of being disqualified through a series of mistakes that could be attributed to his, Solomon's, inexperience, or his aggressiveness, or both.

The problem was that only one of the twenty-two Rauschenberg works on exhibition was hanging in the official United States pavilion at the Biennale; the rest were installed in the former United States Consulate on the Grand Canal. Solomon thought this had all been worked out months before.1 The U.S. pavilion was a joke, an imitation-Georgian house with ridiculously oversized columns and hardly any space inside. Americans who visited the Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious of the great European art fairs, were nearly always surprised and chagrined to find that the U.S. pavilion was so much smaller than those of France, Britain, Germany, or even the Scandinavian countries. It had been erected in 1929 by the Grand Central Art Galleries, a private New York art firm that sponsored American participation in the Biennale until the Museum of Modern Art took over that function in 1948. When the museum dropped its sponsorship in 1962, pleading inadequate funds, the federal government stepped in at long last (all the other national exhibitions are government-sponsored), and entrusted the responsibility to the United States Information Agency, whose director at the time happened to be Edward R. Murrow. Instead of simply shouldering the financial end and asking the Museum of Modern Art to continue putting together exhibitions every two years, as had been anticipated, the USIA made inquiries around the art world and then offered the job of assembling the 1964 exhibition to Solomon, a gifted art scholar who had proved, during his previous year as director of the Jewish Museum in New York, to have a genius for installation and a lively sympathy for the latest currents in American art. (His opening show at the Jewish Museum was a major Rauschenberg retrospective, which helped to establish that artist as a hero to the younger generation; in 1964 he would devote an equally influential show to Johns.) Solomon asked for and was promised an entirely free hand in putting together the exhibition, and, pleased by the competence of the USIA people he talked with and by what he considered the new cultural tone of the Kennedy administration, he accepted the job.

There was some talk at this time (1963) of enlarging the American pavilion in Venice. The architect Philip Johnson had volunteered to design the addition free of charge, and the USIA had expressed interest. John F. Kennedy's assassination, which happened while Solomon was on his way to Venice that fall to make preliminary arrangements, put an end to this plan; appropriations would be held up indefinitely during the transition period in Washington, and with only six months left until the Biennale opening, there would not be enough time to do anything. Shaken by the news from Dallas, uncertain whether to proceed with his mission or just turn around and go home, Solomon arrived in Venice and met the Biennale officials. He went out to the Giardini, the green park toward the Lido end of the island that serves as a permanent exhibition area, and inspected the United States pavilion. It struck him as hopelessly inadequate for the kind of exhibition he had in mind. Solomon had heard that other countries were sometimes given extra space to exhibit in the large Italian pavilion, but when he asked about this he was told that too many such requests had already been made. He then inquired whether it would be all right to show some of the American work in a building outside the Biennale grounds. This was a possibility, he was told. After looking at several spaces, Solomon was shown the former United States Consulate, directly across the Grand Canal from the Gritti Palace Hotel and adjoining the squat, rather ugly palazzo of Peggy Guggenheim. Officially closed a month earlier---one of a series of such closings in a State Department economy drive---the building still belonged to the U.S. Government, and its cool, graceful salons seemed made to order for exhibition purposes. After receiving from the president of the Biennale, Professor Mario Marcazzan, what he took to be adequate assurances that any paintings hanging there would be part of the official U.S. exhibit, he carefully measured the downstairs rooms and flew back to New York to start planning his show.

His plans, as they evolved, were characteristically ambitious. Solomon wanted to put on an exhibition that would wake the Europeans up to what American art had become in the last ten years---that would do for Europe, in a sense, what the 1913 Armory Show had done for America. Since the first, pioneer generation of New York Abstract Expressionists had already received some exposure at previous Biennales---Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and others in a group show in 1950; a one-man de Kooning show in 1952---Solomon decided to focus on the two major developments since Abstract Expressionism, as he saw them: the pure chromatic abstraction of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and the highly complex paintings and assemblages of Rauschenberg and Johns, in which Abstract Expressionist techniques were brought to bear on subject matter taken straight from everyday life. In addition to these four "germinal" artists, Solomon was including the work of four younger men: Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Frank Stella, and John Chamberlain.

In Europe, at least, Rauschenberg was already known. Still something of a bête noire in America, where his more outrageous constructions incorporating such flotsam as a stuffed chicken, a goat with a tire around its middle, and the artist's own quilt used as a canvas, were considered rather bad jokes by the older generation of Abstract Expressionists as well as by most art critics, the youthful, Texas-born artist recently had excited considerable attention in Paris, where Ileana Sonnabend had given him two shows in 1963, and also in London, where his retrospective exhibition at the White-chapel Gallery the preceding February had broken all attendance records, and had led the Sunday Telegraph's critic to call him "the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock." Rauschenberg's rapidly escalating reputation in Europe, among other factors, had helped Solomon decide that he could become the first American painter to win the Biennale.

The system of prize-giving at the Biennale traditionally gave rise to intense political in-fighting among the nations.* There were two major international awards, one of which usually went to a painter and the other to a sculptor (in 1964, each included a payment of $3,200). The City of Venice also gave prizes to outstanding Italian artists, and there were a number of other awards as well, but the two international prizes were the important ones, and only one American artist had ever taken one of those---Alexander Calder, for sculpture, in 1952. In fact, the only two Americans to win painting prizes of any kind at the Venice Biennale had been Mark Tobey in 1958 and James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1895, the year the Biennale was inaugurated. Since the Second World War, the grand prize for painting had gone almost without exception to School of Paris artists with long-established reputations: Georges Braque in 1948, Henri Matisse in 1950, Raoul Dufy in 1952 (the year America was represented by de Kooning), Max Ernst in 1954, Jacques Villon in 1956, Jean Fautrier and Hans Hartung in 1960 (no sculpture prize that year), and Alfred Manessier in 1962. The spectacular rise of the New York School, which since the late forties had produced the strongest body of painting in contemporary art, which had helped to make New York the new capital of the international art world, and whose influence was now so widespread that a great many of the paintings on view at the 1964 Biennale, in pavilion after pavilion, looked like weak imitations of Pollock or de Kooning---all this had not received as yet the slightest notice from the juries of the Biennale.

The opportunity to change this situation was at hand, Solomon felt, except that part of the jury wanted to disqualify Rauschenberg because his work was not hanging on the Biennale grounds. Solomon had assembled a small Rauschenberg retrospective---twenty-two paintings and assemblages---and installed it magnificently in the Consulate, together with paintings by Johns, Stella, and Dine and sculptures by Oldenburg and Chamberlain. Noland's targets and chevron paintings and Louis's poured veils of color were hanging in the pavilion in the Giardini. Nearly everyone agreed that Solomon had done a brilliant job of installation, but now Professor Marcazzan was insisting that when he had told Solomon it would be all right to exhibit works outside the Biennale grounds, he had not meant to imply that such works would be eligible for prizes.

Marcazzan's duties included the selection of the seven Biennale judges, an exercise in finesse that was supposed to leave no nation feeling that its vital interests were being neglected. From nominations made by the commissioners of the thirty-four participating countries, he had selected two Italians, a Brazilian, a Pole, a Dutchman, a Swiss, and---at the very last moment, and supposedly under great pressure from various sources---an American, Sam Hunter, the chairman of the art department at Brandeis University and a well-known art historian. Hunter had persuaded his fellow judges to come to the U.S. Consulate for a viewing, but the president of the jury had let it be known that he would never agree to award a prize to paintings hanging outside the official Biennale premises. (One small Rauschenberg was at the Biennale, in a temporary plywood shelter in the courtyard, together with a single work by each of the other Consulate artists, but nobody believed the judges would award the prize on the strength of one picture.)

The jury, in a preliminary poll, had voted four to three for Rauschenberg, Solomon learned, but the president had then threatened to resign in protest, and everything was uncertain. Rumor had it that the judges might compromise by giving the prize to Noland, in honor of the superiority of American painting in general; when Solomon heard that he announced that if Rauschenberg were disqualified he would withdraw all the Americans from competition. It was a classic Venetian tangle, worse even than the one in 1962 when the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle had been on his way to a victory party in his honor when he found out that the prize had gone instead to France's Alfred Manessier. All very upsetting to Solomon, who liked to think himself rather a mano fina, who even looked somewhat Venetian, with his neatly trimmed dark beard and his piercing dark eyes and his passable and rapidly improving command of Italian invective. Solomon rarely appeared at the Caffè Florian on the Piazza San Marco, which served as the main meeting place for the Biennale crowd, nor did he dine at Angelo's or at La Columba, the favored restaurants that year. At Florian's, Leo Castelli and his French second wife held court at one crowded table, receiving and dispensing the latest news and conjecture, while his first wife Ileana and her second husband, Michael Sonnabend, presided at another table nearby. The latest intelligence was that the painting prize would go to France's Roger Bissière or to Belgium's Karel Appel; the main sculpture award was reportedly a toss-up between France's Jean Ipousteguy and Zoltan Kemeny, a Hungarian exile showing in the Swiss pavilion. Kemeny was considered such a strong bet that every one of his sculptures on exhibit had been sold, an indication of the value in crass, art market terms of winning a major Biennale award. Ileana Sonnabend, a formidable strategist in her quiet way, sighed with impatience when told yet again, by some new rumor-bearer, that it was too bad Rauschenberg was not going to get the prize. "I hate this game of politics that goes on here," she confided to Michael, "but I think if we are going to play it at all, we should play it right."

At this critical juncture, Rauschenberg himself arrived in Venice. He arrived in his capacity as stage manager and lighting director of Merce Cunningham's modern dance company, which was to perform in La Fenice theater the following evening. Cunningham's Venice engagement had been booked months in advance, but the timing was seen by some as another ploy in the Americans' game of pressure politics---especially since Rauschenberg's sets, costumes, and lighting received, in Venice, approximately equal billing with Cunningham's choreography and John Cage's music. Actually, Rauschenberg had been scheduled to come two days earlier, ahead of the company, to appear on a local radio show and be interviewed by the press, but several telephone calls from Castelli had convinced him that the political imbroglio was something he wanted to avoid. He stayed with the company at the Serenissima Hotel (far from serene, the dancers complained), and the next day he kept out of sight, working backstage at La Fenice. Late in the afternoon he made a quick visit to the Consulate to see Solomon's installation, which delighted him. "The pictures have the intimate feeling they used to have in the studio," he told Solomon. "The early ones look like kids---the kind that won't ever grow up." Rauschenberg also gave his approval to the repair of one of his smaller constructions, a piece called Coca Cola Plan, which incorporated three Coca-Cola bottles in a wooden frame. One of the bottles had been broken in transit, and Castelli and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who owned the work, had been enormously distressed to find that European Coke bottles were neither the same size nor the same hue as their American counterparts. A replacement had finally been flown in from New York, but Panza, the most energetic and dedicated European collector of the new American painting and sculpture, was anxious for the artist to see and approve the work before it went on exhibition.

Rauschenberg, who was thirty-eight years old, had the look of someone who was in no hurry to grow up, himself. An inch or so under six feet, slim, with neatly trimmed brown hair and boyishly handsome features, he had a way of listening and talking that made him seem open and friendly, which he was, and at times very unsophisticated, which he was not. He spoke slowly, in a resonant voice softened by an unplaceable but recognizably southern accent. Laughter had a way of overtaking him in mid-sentence. He got on wonderfully with the Italian stagehands, communicating through gestures and unself-conscious English and an occasional Italian phrase that he picked up ("Lui prima," he said, marveling; "lui prima. Louis Prima?"), managing to seem relaxed in the midst of the most intense confusion. He was not drinking very heavily in those days, but there was always a bottle of Jack Daniel's around when he wanted it. His brown eyes were watchful and alert. "I have a peculiar kind of focus," he once told an interviewer. "I tend to see everything in sight."2

The tension that had started to build up between Rauschenberg, on one side, and Cunningham and Cage, on the other, was not yet evident to outsiders. Rauschenberg was several years younger than either of them, and his extravagant admiration for Cunningham had enabled him more or less to put aside his own painting for the six months during which he would be traveling with the company on its world tour. Collaboration had always been, for him, the ideal working situation, and there was no one he would rather collaborate with than Cunningham, the most rigorous, the most dazzlingly inventive modern dance choreographer since Martha Graham. John Cage, the composer, had been even more important to him than Cunningham. It had never been a question of influence. Cage once described their friendship as a case of "understanding at first sight." But Cage had provided encouragement at a moment in Rauschenberg's young career when he needed it badly, and the example of Cage's work and Cage's attitude toward work and Cage's incorruptible experimentalism had been a continuing support and source of inspiration to the younger artist. They worked well together, these three, each one doing his job independently of the others, confident that they would do theirs and that the result, when lighting and music and dance came together on stage, would interest and often amaze them as much as it did the audience. There were tensions building up nevertheless, under the surface, and the fact that in Venice Rauschenberg was the focus of so much attention, the one most sought after for interviews, was not helping.

La Fenice is an architectural Fragonard, all gilded, sweeping curves and rococo accents and attendants in gold breeches and blue tunics, an intimate, eighteenth-century drawing room of a theater, where every seat seems close to the stage. The ticket crush in the lobby was appalling. Everyone in Venice, it appeared, not only wanted to get in but expected to get in, had influential friends who had seen to it that they would get in. What with the confusion and the shouting outside, the start of the performance was held up for nearly an hour, and the audience, impatient and keyed up, generated a volatile electricity of its own. In this setting, the Cunningham dancers surpassed themselves. Wild cheering shook the theater after and sometimes during each dance, countered by whistling and sustained booing, some of which was presumably directed at the electronic music by Cage and others, or at the Rauschenberg sets. The set for Story differed with each performance; it consisted, in fact, of whatever Rauschenberg happened to find lying around backstage or in the neighborhood where they were performing; on this occasion Rauschenberg had instructed several of the Italian stagehands to move about in the background, pushing brooms or carrying props. This seemed to infuriate certain highly vocal segments of the audience, but the Cunningham troupe was accustomed to this sort of reaction and the dancing never faltered. When Rauschenberg came out on stage with the dancers for one of their many curtain calls, the cheering and the booing reached a new pitch, becoming positively warlike. The cultural pride of nations was clearly at stake.

Early the next morning, the Italian photographer Ugo Mulas took a picture that would be widely reproduced. It showed two men carefully lowering a large Rauschenberg painting into a motorized barge, in the stern of which another canvas was propped. Subsequent accounts in the press used the photograph as evidence of the Machiavellian plots surrounding the Biennale, as though the paintings were being moved illegally or in secret. The explanation was simpler. Alan Solomon had come to an understanding with the Biennale jury. He had agreed to move three Rauschenbergs from the Consulate to the U.S. pavilion in the Giardini, and the judges had agreed to award the international painting prize to Rauschenberg.

The news spread rapidly. By early evening, a victory party was in progress at Angelo's, organized by a group of younger Italian artists who had been passionately in favor of seeing Rauschenberg win the prize (their hero worship of Rauschenberg reflected at least in part their disillusion with the School of Paris). Through another misunderstanding, Rauschenberg had gone with Castelli and others to a dinner party elsewhere, but the artists at Angelo's carried on merrily without him, hoping he would show up sooner or later. When he finally did show up, much later, in the Piazza San Marco around midnight, the Italians rushed in a body to embrace him. They picked him up on their shoulders and paraded around the square, singing and cheering, and then everyone went back to Angelo's (where the waiters were cleaning up to go home) and stayed until four in the morning, drinking vodka provided by the Polish member of the jury, and champagne on the house.

Later that morning, after the formal prize ceremony in the Giardini (Rauschenberg for painting, Kemeny for sculpture), Leo Castelli threw another victory party for forty people, at a restaurant on the island of Burano. Motoscafi ferried us across the lagoon. The day was clear and warm, the seafood was delicious, the wine was sparkling. Lunch continued, course after course, for more than three hours at the long table. When it was over, and we were strolling in small groups back to the dock, I asked Rauschenberg how he felt about winning the Biennale (I was working on a New Yorker profile of him at the time, and had come to Venice partly in anticipation of his victory). He thought for a minute, concentrating hard on the banal question. "That scene in San Marco yesterday really got to me," he said. "Butterflies in the stomach and a lump in the throat---like it really did mean something after all."

We walked on for a while in silence. Later---weeks later---I realized that what moved me so much in those few moments was the really intense effort he was making to understand what had happened to him. A lot of things in his life were about to change. The freedom that he had used to such brilliant excess in his own work might even be turned against him, now that the international art world had declared its stake in his career; whatever he did now would be done in public. "It's as though I've slipped into the wrong skin," he said, "which is a little bit scary. I mean, if your work is more or less all you're doing, you could get to feel sort of isolated. I'm starting to get this sense of, well, how difficult is it going to be to stay in touch?" He was silent for another several seconds. "And I can't afford to lose touch with myself," he added, laughing, "because that's really all I've got."

Copyright © 2005 by Calvin Tomkins