PRINT September 2008


IN LATE 1966, I started working at 381 Lafayette Street, helping Bob Rauschenberg adjust his new house for living and working. It was a steady part-time job—11 to 5, three days a week—doing some low-level sorting, cleaning windows, and arranging various storage spaces. It evolved into making coffee, answering the phone, screening calls, and generally doing everything to make it so Bob could just work. I never saw him draw and rarely saw him paint. He did that mostly at night.

Things happened in the kitchen around a table in front of a large black cast-iron stove, a remnant from the building’s days as an orphanage. Most of the chairs had wheels. There was practicality, little luxury, and abundant food and drink. Bob would come up and nurse his way into the day on coffee and concoctions he devised.

At that time Bob was doing work that grew out of 9 Evenings and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Billy Klüver was a frequent visitor. There were lots of meetings and many engineers. Small projects seemed to appear from nowhere. More meetings, official gatherings, and people dropping by to hang out. Lots of Jack Daniel’s consumed.

I could never predict Bob’s image choices. One week was spent in the archives at Look magazine, because Bob thought their printing process worked best with his drawing process. I came up with images I felt suitable. I think one was used and that was only out of politeness so as not to embarrass me. For weeks there was a stack of Scientific American magazines sitting in the kitchen. Then, suddenly, they had been gone through overnight, and the images removed became Bob’s images. It was an early drawing stage.

Out of the many technological meetings came the “Revolvers,” 1967; Soundings, 1968; Solstice, 1968; and the “Carnal Clocks,” 1969. The “Revolvers” were made of five Plexiglas discs six feet in diameter, attached to a motor that was controlled electronically by the viewer. Images were silk-screened on both sides of the Plexiglas. Plywood dummies were built, and the discs were turned by hand to test the constantly changing juxtapositions of the ten image layers. Bob stared. He looked and looked with a concentration and focus the intensity of which I have never seen since. It was electrifying. It became even more intense with the making of the full-color variants. He was thinking it out.

Paul Bowles told of serving majoum to Bob and Cy Twombly when they visited him in Tangier. Bob, who had enormous appetites, especially when some sort of dare was involved, ate much more than needed and had no idea of the effects of the cannabis resins in the candy. According to Bowles, Bob, thinking he had been placed under some sort of spell, excused himself, went back to his hotel, and locked himself in his room for days and proceeded to make sculptures, amulets, and objects in an effort to exorcise the spells. The same powers of concentration were at work there.

Bob Rauschenberg was a genius of our time. For starters, he brought collage up to an American scale. He was the most naturally brilliant person I have ever met. The fresh mind seeing as if there had been no seeing before: energy, concentration, generosity, delicacy, color, simplicity, complexity, clarity. Bob working was dealing with himself. There was a startling articulateness, so many concise statements about what he was doing—clear, clean, and mysterious, yet grounded in reality and often very funny.

Bob leaves us, and it’s as if a massive force of energy has been sucked up with a swoosh, creating a palpable loss, like the disappearance of the Eastern hemlock or an animal gone extinct.

Brice Marden is a New York–based artist.