PRINT April 2004



What About Bob?

To the Editor:

I am writing in reference to Richard Meyer’s inaccurate portrayal of my book Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries [“Two on One,” February 2004]. Meyer’s essay features both phrases taken out of context and distortions. For instance, he treats eroticism in Rauschenberg’s art as if it were a major concern in my book. He might have noted that the section he discusses is precisely one paragraph of the 259 pages in the text. For the record, I stand by my brief comment that I find the sexual references in Rauschenberg’s art to be fairly apparent and to encompass both homosexual and heterosexual themes. I am interested in Jonathan Katz’s writings, but I am not convinced that Rauschenberg was engaged in a covert homoerotic language in his art.

Furthermore, I believe it is incumbent on a reviewer to give at least a general sense of the various issues covered in a book. The topics discussed in mine are as follows: The first of five chapters looks at the artist’s studio practices as a way of understanding his work. Based on references to dyslexia studies, I also discuss possible influences of this condition on Rauschenberg’s art. The second chapter places Rauschenberg’s Combines in the context of the artist’s experiences in Lower Manhattan during the 1950s and ’60s, using documents from and histories of New York City at that time. In the third chapter, Rauschenberg’s works on the theme of space exploration are discussed and contrasted with popular notions of the “space race” as they appeared in journals and magazines of that time. Every major participant in that project—from NASA representative James Dean to printmaker Ken Tyler—was interviewed. This chapter also includes a transcription of Rauschenberg’s journal the “Stoned Moon Book,” published for the first time. The fourth chapter discusses Rauschenberg’s involvement with performance. It focuses on the artist’s collaborations with Trisha Brown, whom I interviewed, and analyzes each of the dances for which Rauschenberg provided sets and costumes. The final chapter concerns Rauschenberg’s most elaborate project, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI). Based on documents from Rauschenberg’s archives, this chapter provides the most extensive discussion in print of the overall structure of ROCI. The chapter then focuses on the most controversial of the ROCI projects, ROCI/Chile. It chronicles Rauschenberg’s study trip to Chile made during the dangerous late years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Through interviews with nearly all of the participants in ROCI/Chile and an examination of the history and images of the uprising, I interpret the resulting works.

Except for a glancing reference to studio practices, none of these topics are mentioned in Meyer’s essay. Meyer’s final comment questions whether the time I spent with Rauschenberg was sufficient. Three days of complete access to the artist with carefully planned questions that resulted in hours of interviews were indeed sufficient when combined with three years of research into published and unpublished texts and interviews conducted with twenty-eight of his associates.

—Robert S. Mattison, Easton, PA

Richard Meyer responds:

As my column made clear, Robert Mattison’s inability to address sexuality in any historically grounded or nuanced manner points to the broader failure of his book to offer fresh insights into the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Because Mattison repeatedly stresses the importance of his direct access to the artist, I thought it fair to point out the temporal limits of that access.

Mind the Gap

To the Editor:

Regarding Jan Tumlir’s thoughts on “those famous relations between fine art and so-called common culture” [Letters, January 2004]: Art is not the only subject to find itself isolated from the mainstream audience. Countless subjects have become so specialized as to make discussion across the gaps difficult to impossible. (I am reminded of the articles “Recent Thoughts on the Two Cultures” [1962], by C.P. Snow, and “Can Poetry Matter?” [1991], by Dana Gioia.) Math and science are being lost on the youth of today; literature is fruitfully discussed only in tighter and tighter intellectual circles. Not to mention our “leaders,” politicians bred and groomed specifically for politics. Even in criticism, we are still faced mostly with creatively worded intra-art references and undying efforts at categorization.

Contemporary art is in a position to draw from and combine these otherwise discrete subcultures, ideally causing it to rival, sometimes causing it to be confused with, pop culture. Art can move across real-world cultural boundaries, and criticism likewise needs to project itself beyond its current scope. Since our cultures are so rooted in language, roles are reversed: Criticism is the catapult, art is the stone. The goal should be to find the meaning, not the category.

—Jason Randolph, Baltimore