Robert Rauschenberg in the kitchen of his home and studio at 381 Lafayette Street, 1968. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust
A Conversation with Kathy Halbreich, David White, Rachel Harrison, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste
Executive Director Kathy Halbreich and Senior Curator David White of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation sat down with artists Rachel Harrison and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste at the foundation’s office in January 2020 to reflect on Rauschenberg’s generative legacy and the conditions of making art today.
Kathy Halbreich: Let’s discuss community. When I talk with artists, there’s often some sense of loss about certain neighborhoods and bars where artists used to gather because these places have now been gentrified or shuttered. But the necessity of community remains, whether it is Black Mountain College or where we’re presently sitting, in Bob’s New York City home and studio. Joan Jonas told me she danced on the kitchen table at one of the innumerable gatherings that took place here before he moved to Captiva, Florida, in 1970. Another artist told me a great story that when he was leaving a bar in SoHo one night, there was this kid on the corner screaming: “There’s shrimp at Rauschenberg’s!” Bob’s place is where people converged. Maybe that coming together, which is reflected in his love of collaboration, is also what connects Bob to artists who are working today. Does it play into your work at all?
Rachel Harrison: Artists need each other. They find each other like magnets, and they need to be around art. Being an artist can be an uncomfortable thing to do with your life, so maybe it’s easier not to be alone. People say the Internet creates communities, but look where that got us. Does community have anything to do with artistic collaboration? Artists do what they need to do to make work; those who want to collaborate find a way to do so. I like to work alone and then see people outside the studio.
David White: Bob spoke about liking to collaborate with other people, and he also said that he was a collaborator with his materials. He was open to everything.
KH: Going back to his roots, Bob said the things he had in common with Merce Cunningham were ideas and poverty. Bob apparently didn’t have a store-bought shirt until he was in high school because his mother made a lot of their clothes. By the way, he knew how to sew. And his earliest aspirations were—
DW: To be a pharmacist and, earlier on, a minister.
KH: But his later desire was to design women’s clothing, which was probably difficult to realize in Port Arthur, Texas, in the early 1940s. But I think this idea of recycling was very much a part of his youth in the South. Does this ring any bells for you, Jeremy, having been raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?
Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste: My upbringing in the cultural and geographical South is something I’m constantly battling with and maybe objectifying, which is where these heavy, heavy characteristics of darkness and blackness literally come into play in my work. For me, the South is apparent in Bob’s work because I see a through line in the work of many Southern artists, which I can only describe as deep ecological concerns. This is true especially for people from coastal areas, port cities, and regions historically decimated by industry and now exacerbated by climate change.
So I think what people see as a parallel between younger artists and Bob’s work is actually a deep, shared concern for ecology. The question for me is how do I make something that doesn’t become waste and doesn’t become part of the larger mess? Since it can be very wasteful to make a thing, it can also become very political to make a thing. Similarly, my concerns around putting things into the world also extend to gestures and doing things.
KH: I think you and Bob share a love of invisibility. When we looked together at the Phantom series (1991), we found that Bob indicated he liked that a viewer couldn’t always see the imagery clearly. As the day changes, the paintings literally change because they’re reflective. Sometimes more can be viewed in the mirrored surface. As you perform many of your works in the dark, there is a kind of shared negation of easy listening or easy watching.
Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste presenting at CT::SWaM ExChange 01Y, Fridman Gallery, New York, January 6, 2020. Photo: Daniel Neumann
JT-B: I did a presentation at Fridman Gallery in New York a week or two ago [January 6, 2020] as part of CT::SWaM ExChange 01Y and asked that they pull down all of the lights. I also asked the audience to keep their eyes open in order to challenge themselves to continue looking in the darkness. So it’s not a negation of seeing, it’s a readjustment to a specific type of acuity. Very similar to my excitement around the bass tone, the darkness is always already there. Bass in 2020 is always there in some form or another. These are still sounds, and darkness is still a sight. Sounds and sights that are pedestrian, even or especially at the very, very lowest or most foundational register. So in that way, I think I’m still mining what’s already there, trying not to be wasteful.
RH: And getting back to something very elemental, which is the body and sight.
DW: Bob’s sister Janet said one of her treats on a Saturday night was to go downtown, sit in the car, and watch people going into the movie theater. And she doesn’t say it in any way as if they felt underprivileged or disappointed that they weren’t going in, it was just that’s what they did. When everyone was inside and the movie started, they went home. It was not long after the Great Depression, so no one had much.
KH: Observing all the street action was very Judson Dance Theater!
RH: Make do with what you’ve got, unapologetically. Jeremy, you were mentioning how important Bob must have found Judson Dance Theater’s focus on reality, I’ll add to that, improvisation, such as John Cage listening to traffic as music—there’s already so much in the world.
JT-B: There’s so much in the world.
KH: You both take things that already exist and reframe them. Maybe talk about how you reinterpret the composers Julius Eastman and Steve Reich? And then Rachel, if you can extrapolate in terms of your own work, too? I love this idea of an almost moral necessity—an environmental imperative—when you place an object in the world and think about the materials, the space, and the meaning. So why do you work with the work of artists?
JT-B: I’ve always first been a researcher or an excavator or a tinkerer. I like to pull things apart, and I like to read. I get fixated on titles of things, and I use those titles as points of conceptual departure. I don’t want to remake a thing. There’s no point in trying to repaint a great work of art or trying to create a new one when there are so many artworks that just need to be looked at or listened to or thought about a little differently. Eastman’s title Evil Nigger (1979) was a conceptual jumping off point. Everything else was delving into what the title might or might not mean, which I think is very deeply in the spirit of how he worked.
KH: Which is taboo from the get-go. I don’t even know if I’m permitted to say that word in his title.
JT-B: And I think he wanted people to contend with that thing, which is also why I honor it. Whether or not people feel comfortable saying it is really none of my business. I’m into that interior moment that we all have to wrestle with. And I do mean “we,” because it’s not easy for me to say the word except in the most intimate and familiar company.
KH: It has a different meaning when it’s all Black folks sitting around the table.
JT-B: And do I use it then? That’s another question. Eastman did something really wild with that word, working across many different registers. It’s a brilliant composition, but it has so much room to be understood as so much more. And the same for looking at Reich’s Pendulum Music (1968), a piece that has sort of become an object unto itself when presented in a space as a centerpiece. It’s very neat and almost sterile and performed with this affect of removal or distance, when in actuality, when the piece was created, there were wild people in the room; Bruce Nauman was in the room. While it wasn’t initially presented in such a neat way, it always was a thing to be contended with, and I just wanted to make a mess of it. The way that I look at working with things that exist is summed up in the title of Sonic Youth’s EP Kill Yr Idols (1983).
RH: Time changes art, it reframes it. French Impressionists painted in brothels and cabarets, and their works now hang in museums. Time frames culture, not just artworks. I used some photos of Johnny Carson in a sculpture I made after his TV show was already off the air for some time; I joked they were antiques, since they were in black and white. It made them look even older. It’s a series of pictures attached to a sphere because I thought it would make people walk around it like pedestrians [2 a.m. 2nd Ave, 1996].
DW: Bob used the term “pedestrian color” when he was thinking about his Combines (1954–64). It had to do with random appearance and juxtaposition, as when you see a whole mob of people walking down the sidewalk and all the everyday colors present themselves in chance combinations.
RH: David, what was your experience of being in the studio? If someone needs to work all the time, there’s going to be a lot of activity, like a busy bee. And it seems like Rauschenberg had a restlessness when interacting with his own materials.
DW: I think a lot of it could also be cogitating and thinking about things, and just looking at stuff and not actually physically doing something every minute. He had huge piles of images—what he called his palette—that were cut from magazines and newspapers. They were organized into different categories: nature, geometry, people, and whatever. So if he had a notion of a type of image he wanted, say for a corner of an artwork, he would know which pile to go to. Some people say it looked like the kitchen sink, a mishmash of stuff, but it was very organized. Also, all the paints were carefully grouped on shelves.
RH: To me his work has structure. I see contained and ordered ideas in individual works. Using stacks of pictures of people or places as a palette is a crafty way to rewrite the rules of how color is thought about. I know he took classes on found color with Josef Albers at Black Mountain, but I never thought it was Sports Illustrated magazine that they were looking at.
DW: There’s the historical grounding of red, yellow, and blue in modern art.
RH: That’s making me wonder about primary colors in modern art as compared to primary colors in the world. Some things that are industrially produced are made in red, yellow, or blue to catch your attention or even to make things feel familiar. Stop signs, for instance, which Bob used, and yield signs, which he also used. David, could you talk more about how all these things came into the world identified as one thing, and how he transformed them into something else?
DW: He often altered the orientation of everyday objects, for example, including a chair turned upside down or a bucket on its side in a work. Right away, you see it with free eyes. Speaking of color, what’s interesting is that Bob, when he had no money early on, would go to the hardware store and buy the paint cans whose labels had fallen off, which were much cheaper because you didn’t know what you were getting. And he loved the idea of going home and being surprised at what color he had just purchased.
RH: The freedom to use any paint and not know the color is liberating.
DW: He had a rule for himself that he had to use whatever color he had purchased.
RH: Which is why a seemingly constrained organizing principle of red, yellow, and blue really opens things up by focusing on something so simple and accessible that it can be named as a concept, but, in fact, it really isn’t so straightforward. As in Bob’s work, the best thing about art is when it’s unnameable.
DW: Somebody approached Bob about a work they thought was kind of insignificant and asked, “Do you think that’s really worthy of you?” And Bob said, “This is not a monument to me, it’s an invitation to you.” So there is this notion of getting stuff out for reaction or just to open people’s eyes. But at the same time he continued to experiment. If he heard a rule, he always thought, “Well, what would happen if I go beyond that?” This would happen even with his own rules.
KH: So many of the artists I know actually feel a need to escape from something: a place, a family, authority. And I think this restless invention takes that anxiety and makes it productive. I only met Bob twice, but the stories I hear—it’s two o’clock in the morning, he makes a telephone call, and somebody’s got to come to the studio. That happened?
DW: Often. He was very self-centered. If he were working on something and needed some assistance, and somebody lived in the next block. . . .
RH: Or he was excited. I always want to defend the idea of self-centeredness. You’re around an artist and they can’t help but tell you what they’re working on. At first, I go, “Oh my god, that person is such a narcissist.” Then I’m like, “No, they’re just really genuinely in the moment.”
DW: That’s exactly what it is. “Excited” is a better description. He was not an early riser or an early-to-bed person, but he liked more than anything to get up and work. Which he did pretty much all the time; even when he was supposedly on a vacation, he always had his camera with him and was always taking photographs.
RH: But if he said, “This is not a monument to me, it’s an invitation to you,” his intention had to be either to provoke or to participate beyond the art world by using what’s in the news and taking it further by doing magazine covers. That’s really relevant. He wanted to, I don’t want to say, “speak to the masses,” but to reach a broader, more democratic audience. Speaking to the masses sounds so patronizing, I always think. “The masses.” Who are the masses?
JT-B: Yeah, “the masses,” like “they” need to be spoken to.
KH: Let’s go back to your word “democratic.” For instance, Bob, responding to an invitation in 1964, made a transfer and collage drawing for the front page of a widely circulated newspaper in Japan, which alas wasn’t published.
DW: Another example of this approach can be seen in the Miami Herald, when he made the cover for their Sunday supplement on December 30, 1979, with an edition of over 600,000. He just liked that everyone could either wrap their garbage in it and throw it away or—
JT-B: It’s an invitation to do what you want with it. It’s creating a really deep and generous type of agency between someone looking at a thing and the thing itself. I don’t think that should be missed. Also, it can’t be missed that putting something into circulation, via a newspaper or via whatever means of distribution, makes seeing the work a lot more accessible to someone, in say, Port Arthur. I don’t know what it’s like there now, but it’s coastal, it’s on the Gulf Coast, so it’s rapidly disappearing. I don’t know if they had galleries in Port Arthur, but there was certainly a newspaper circulating. So thinking about embracing other ways of distributing and circulating a work, or calling into question the dominance or primacy of one aspect of presentation of a work over another, may have to do with the paucity of opportunity for someone such as himself in Port Arthur.
KH: The Sunday supplement might’ve been the Instagram of its time!
JT-B: Rachel, when you said no two people are going to see colors in the same way, I agree, and lean into that as why the thing in relation to feels so deeply important to me. I don’t believe anything I see. My eyes are so poor, my memory is also really poor, I always have to relate what I have seen to another person’s experience to make sense of what I think I’ve seen. I’m constantly in a process of second-guessing everything I see and experience.
RH: That sounds like a good way to approach the future in terms of news.
JT-B: Yes, I’m afraid it is. And in relation to looking at a work and needing to connect with another person’s experience of seeing a work, this lets me go back with new eyes even though I know they are going to keep failing me. So then it becomes a praxis. Earlier, we talked about how art maybe couldn’t really do anything, but that’s the one thing it does constantly for me.
RH: And it’s generative.
RH: I relate to that.
KH: When you say “that” is what art constantly does, what is “that”?
JT-B: It is keeping me in relation to others. Both to those who are here and to those who are a part of histories. So it becomes this cycle of constant reevaluation of what I’m experiencing.
KH: What you’re both talking about is vision and how it operates. Rachel, you just said that by narrowing the focus to red, yellow, and blue, more windows paradoxically open. By making it hard to know everything, Bob was pointing to that impossibility and to vision as fugitive. Vision is really a time-based medium. Vision is historicized. There is a science to it, but it’s not an ultimate truth.
RH: I was thinking of that a lot, and Jeremy, it’s great to hear you talk about how art prompts the experience of being in relation. Everyone experiences color differently as it gets personalized in relation to experience. I imagine stop signs are printed the same color red everywhere, but you see them at different times of day, and therefore they look different. Or you might see it at night through your windshield in a snowstorm, and you might think, “That’s a red stop sign,” but you might just be seeing a blur of snow.
KH: If you pay attention to art and are open to the experiences it offers, you actually learn how to metabolize that instability, uncertainty, and ambiguity to tame the anxiety. Maybe that’s also what Bob’s invitation is about.
DW: Nothing was certain for Bob. Certainty wasn’t useful. Concealing and revealing are constants in Bob’s work.
RH: I want to go back to this thing of using what’s there and what’s available. Sometimes it’s very hard to know when you see an artwork, how it was made. There’s this traditional fetishization about craft, time, and labor. But since artists also outsource labor, it’s kind of irrelevant to think about it as a hierarchical way of looking at art. Does it matter if someone has talent or skill? So there’s also a whole thing about Rauschenberg that I’ve always loved, his freestyle with materials, maybe it’s not de-skilling as much as mis-skilling.
DW: Bob loved doing something he didn’t know how to do and always wanted to outrun his own proficiency. So when he got good at something, he moved on.
KH: I hate the word de-skilling because I actually think it is often inaccurate. For example, in Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 Parts of Some Sextets—Bob danced in the original—that Performa recently helped her recreate, we watched our friend Nick Mauss perform in it—he’s an artist who happens to be very knowledgeable about dance but is not a dancer. The rehearsals were so arduous for him. You could certainly see the difference between Nick and an experienced dancer; when I was watching, I could see him hesitating for a nanosecond before making his next move in a way that I didn’t see in the trained dancers’ steps. But Yvonne wasn’t all that interested in de-skilling, and the amateur dancers actually became more skilled.
RH: That’s interesting. It makes me think about a performance that I heard about in college and that had a huge effect on me, in which Yvonne vacuumed the stage [Yvonne Rainer, Inner Appearances, 1972]. It’s so simple yet radical as dance. The attention and care she used to vacuum, while the audience was watching, is very different from someone who is being paid below minimum wage, off the books, to vacuum someone else’s house. But Yvonne refers to that exploitation through the language projected behind her.
KH: Rachel, you were responsive to this idea of the modesty of Bob’s work being useful.
RH: Here’s a good one: what’s useful?
JT-B: I refuse that question.
RH: Right. Because I don’t look to art to be useful.
JT-B: Absolutely not.
RH: I was interested in art initially because it had no function; it was perhaps outside of a world that wasn’t making sense to me. Modesty is complicated . . . Bob made big works, The 1⁄4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece [1981–98], for instance. Modesty might be in the eye of the beholder when you come to a work such as Monogram (1955–59).
DW: I’m always surprised by Monogram, which seems to displace more space than its dimensions would suggest. And he made paintings out of gold leaf, which is hardly humble material. But he had the same appreciation for tissue paper and cardboard.
RH: The black paintings (1951–53) were made with a lot of newspaper.
KH: But he initially thought the White Paintings (1951) were the end of painting, right, David?
RH: That’s not a modest proposal!
DW: “Taking painting to a place it had never been before,” I think is how he put it in a letter to gallerist Betty Parsons in 1951.
RH: That’s not modest. You can use a piece of toilet paper—
DW: Which he did! But he thought of the White Paintings as being hypersensitive, reflecting everything in the room.
RH: But if you’re calling it the end of painting, you have a sense of humor, which is essential to every artwork.
JT-B: A sense of history, because how many painters have made that grand statement?
RH: Too many, but I’m challenging the idea that right now artists are all working in a certain way, that they’re all ragpickers. Maybe someone is 3D-printing rags, I don’t know, but I see art as a pretty open field at the moment with artists working in many directions. My ambition in my own work is to be more personal, that’s all that makes sense to me. I don’t have a lot of interest in making a great statement about the history of art. I’ve never thought to make something that might be the end of sculpture, though it sounds right now like a good idea. . . . Anyway, I think we are past rewriting a rule book. You agree with that?
JT-B: Absolutely. That’s too much responsibility.
KH: This is what interests me: Rauschenberg has always been a generative force, however we define usefulness. Rachel, you made an exhibition out of Bob’s Gloria (1956).
Installation view, Gloria: Robert Rauschenberg and Rachel Harrison, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015.
Works pictured, left to right: Rauschenberg, Gloria (1956); Harrison, Slipknot (2002); Harrison,
Hans Haacke with Sculpture (2005); Rauschenberg, Rhyme (1956); and Harrison, Stella 1 (2006).
Photo: David Birchford; courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Rachel Harrison, and Greene Naftali, New York
RH: Not really, I mean it wasn’t my idea. I was invited by a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art to show my work with Gloria, which is in their collection. Jeremy, you’re helping me to understand “usefulness” as a concept for art. It really goes back to your idea about looking, how something is layered, complex, unfolding over time, having a depth. And the depth is what artists understand—you put any two artists together and there’s going to be some shared dialogue, even if the practices are remote.
KH: But, when you went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, what were some of the things that the experience with Gloria made you think about?
RH: That painting is a lot more than just Gloria Vanderbilt, and it’s calculated. “Gloria Weds Third Time,” a story about her marriage to Sidney Lumet, was on a newspaper’s cover, and the headline and wedding picture appear five times in the Combine, which means Bob had to go out and buy at least five copies of the same newspaper. This can’t be taken for granted or ignored; there was intention to buy five of them and use them in repetition, he’s making reference to the process of printing, mass production, circulation, and distribution. Silkscreening a painting is just around the corner for him. Inside the newspaper, on the same page as the celebrity wedding, is news of a murderer: Virginia B. Jaspers, known as the baby shaker. Her picture is also collaged in the painting, now yellowing with age. Someone at the museum told me this picture was initially identified as a man in the museum’s literature, even though part of the news article is also in the painting. The painting is structured by a series of rectangles, including a cut piece of paper with large capital letters “B I” in blue and “C O” in red. There is also a rectangle cut from the center of the canvas, a glory hole in the middle of the painting. There’s a lot going on there.
JT-B: I’m going to make a grand statement: What a successful artwork does, is it asks you to keep looking or listening or shifting with it. Thinking about the thing being alive and needing to be alive with it. And I think that extends to history as well.
RH: I totally agree it’s an important idea of what some—not all—artists want. Sometimes something can hit you immediately and you can look at it and then walk away from it, and it stays as an afterimage. Artworks can work in a lot of ways, they can be singular and powerful and immediate. Kathy, you were asking Jeremy, what is the “that” that art does. I don’t need to know, I just want to be engaged in doing it. But while you were asking him and I was listening to what you were saying, I wrote down, “The only thing art can do is generate more art.” That’s my that. Does that make sense?
JT-B: Yes, yes.
KH: I don’t think it’s only that. I think it can also expand vision for people who don’t make art.
RH: If they’re receptive to it. I don’t like “only” either. I don’t like definitions to close things down.
KH: And of course Bob Rauschenberg is the master of no definitions.
RH: That was useful.
"A Conversation with Kathy Halbreich, David White, Rachel Harrison, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste," Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/artist/conversation-halbreich-white-harrison-toussaint-baptiste (accessed date).