PRINT September 2008


I PROBABLY MET BOB AROUND 1957. I remember taking him to see Red Grooms’s piece called The Burning Building [1959]. I knew him well enough to say, “I want you to see this thing.” He loved it.

During the performance days, when Bob was doing work like Pelican [1963], we saw a lot of each other. We were neighbors; at that time, I was downtown on Grand Street, and he was on Broadway, I think. I always liked the challenge of his performances—I found them challenging to me personally. I like the idea of seeing something that I can’t imagine myself. Bob, Claes Oldenburg, and I once each did a piece as a fund-raiser for the [Film-Makers’] Cinematheque [1965]. The people who were participating were incredibly generous. That was a feature of the times. And I think Bob set an example—he was able to help out and support the people who participated with him.

This all leads up to the 9 Evenings [1966] experience, which was a wholehearted acceptance of all the energy and generosity of people. When we all began working on the 9 Evenings performances, our understanding was that we wanted to engage engineers as collaborators. We wanted a more even, democratic relationship. The point is that somebody does something and somebody does something else. There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of value to what each person does. Of course, this made 9 Evenings a profoundly stressful situation—really. Everybody got a little crazy. The big discovery was the difference between artists and engineers: Engineers have an idea about proper design, for instance, but they don’t have the same concept of a deadline. They work with a more open-ended schedule, typically. They don’t realize that when tickets get printed, you’ve got to have it done on time. But my favorite example was this [automatic] stepping switch for Bob’s piece [Open Score] that required intense wiring, which took a huge number of man-hours. The artist’s solution to the problem would have been to just have a guy turn the switch during the performance—that’s just a person hanging out, and that guy’s going to be hanging out anyway. So you’re not creating more work. As it turned out, we did manually operate the lights during the performance.

Somewhere in the middle of 9 Evenings is when E.A.T. [Experiments in Art and Technology] got formulated. Bob was always supportive of any interest that might help artists, and he was always trying to expand artists’ opportunities. Basically, I think Bob was the charismatic attractor for all these characters that got involved in E.A.T. The common ground was our social mission, that commitment to some sort of social energy that went beyond just any one thing. Bob had a large-scale involvement in any kind of social activity that came his way that he thought was important, and he managed to create the resource facilities, which was fabulous. My guess is some similar convictions were present in a lot of the artists like Barney [Barnett Newman], the socially committed left-wing guys, and the guys who were part of the WPA.

Bob stopped doing performances at some point. I was upset that he wasn’t doing any performance stuff anymore, because I missed them. I wanted that energy coming in from somebody whose work I valued in that area. I remember taking some people over to the Amalgamated Lithographers of America as part of an E.A.T. project. Brice Marden did a piece. Then I took Louise Nevelson over there. It was completely goofy. Bob did the inaugural print, and I remember him remarking on the experience: He said they did eighteen color separations on this computer thing, which probably isn’t so remarkable now, but this was very early on. He said, “They did eighteen,” and then added, “just because they didn’t know how to do four properly.”

Everybody says pretty much the same thing about Bob. They talk about a generosity—but with Bob it’s a transcendent generosity. He didn’t stop working and he just kept pouring the stuff out, and he still had more to pour. It’s like the magic penny: Love is like a magic penny; the more you give, the more you have. Leo Steinberg once said that he mentioned to Bob that Picasso made something like fifty thousand images. And Bob thought about that for a second and said, “I think I might do that.” Of course, while there is such a rich vocabulary of imagery in Bob’s work, the images are related, and you can make sense out of them. If you go through the works, you see they’re not all unique. There is a thread: a huge sensitivity to posture and physical presence and gesture. With Bob, you have the construction of a kind of original mythology—but I like to think it is bigger than that, just as I like to think that the Iliad is bigger, even though you read it first for the story.

—As told to Michelle Kuo

Robert Whitman is a New York–based artist.