Nudity, caviar, Fidel Castro – the wildest art tour of the 20th century

'Far from the brooding, solitary genius': Robert Rauschenberg in 1966
'Far from the brooding, solitary genius': Robert Rauschenberg in 1966 - Jack Mitchell
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Robert Rauschenberg was an intensely sociable artist, a mile away from the brooding solitary genius of romantic myth. Skills and ideas were to be shared, ideally through the medium of conversation, often over copious amounts of Jack Daniels. The studio – be it a Lower Manhattan loft or a beach house in Florida – was a social space, more frat house than temple. (Though he was always the first person back at work the next day.)

Studio assistants were also collaborators, friends, lovers: it’s striking how many of the people Rauschenberg variously worked, travelled, caroused and slept with had substantial careers of their own, from peers like Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, to younger artists such as Carolee Schneeman and Brice Marden.

By the later 1960s, the early succès d’estime of his “combines” ­– hefty mixed-media pieces in which traditional art materials danced the tango with imaginative techniques such as ‘transfer drawings’ made by dousing magazine photo or print in lighter fuel, then taking a rubbing from it, and found objects such as a bedspread, a chair, a magazine cutting or a goat – and more “philosophical” works like his Erased de Kooning Drawing, which was just what it sounds like, had blossomed into a measure of celebrity.

Galleries around America and beyond, trying to catch up with the art of the almost-here and nearly-now, were starting to buy his work. That meant private views, talks, residencies, after-parties. In 1972 he was arrested by Texas Rangers for having a pee against the back wheel of the bus escorting him back from a vernissage in Fort Worth; along with the usual random objects he’d picked up along the way, he had the key to the city in his pocket. When the cops demanded that he surrender it, he asked them, “Why ­– does it open the jail?”

However, as he looked out over the Gulf of Mexico from the compound he created on the island of Captiva off the Florida coast from 1968, he may well have felt a twinge of mid-life malaise (“Not much washes up on these shores,” he once dolefully said). Travel could surely be relied on to broaden the mind. He’d always roamed further afield, studying and working, beachcombing for ideas and picking up materials as he went: France after the war, Italy with Twombly in the early Fifties, a world tour with Cunningham and Cage in 1964. In 1975 he visited India; in 1982, Japan and China.

Socialite: Robert Rauschenberg dancing The Twist in front of Andy Warhol, 1963
Socialite: Robert Rauschenberg dancing The Twist in front of Andy Warhol, 1963 - Archive Photos

It was the injustice of the latter country’s rigid system of internal passports that kindled the idea of ROCI, aka the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, a seven-year international jamboree which Rauschenberg launched with some pomp at the United Nations in 1984 – and named after his pet tortoise Rocky. He ended up mostly funding the project himself, though he secured a fairly prestigious end point for it: a show of all the accumulated works he would produce over the intervening years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which had up until then shown no enthusiasm for contemporary art. Between 1984 and 1991, he visited, and made and showed work in, “sensitive” countries including Chile, Cuba, Tibet, East Germany and the collapsing USSR; he also returned to China and Japan.

For Rauschenberg, ROCI was about the personal rather than the political: a way of “introducing the world to itself”, as the project’s Artistic Director Donald Saff remembers it. Every stop on the itinerary would feature an exhibition of all the work that had been produced up to that time, plus a similarly burgeoning body of documentary materials. Students in countries where art instruction was state-controlled or rigidly academic, or both, might come away from the shows with a new sense of possibility (and a new sense of what artists in other countries were doing).

Sometimes there’s an undeniable odour of cultural appropriation about the project: the great American artist rolling into town, holding court, grabbing local materials and imagery and knitting them up into pieces which then went on show in the next place, and the next, a grand touring artistic revue with Rauschenberg’s name on the banner.

But what elevates it above the level of a bad Masterchef challenge, to use an analogy from our own time, is the sincerity of Rauschenberg’s motives. He consciously set himself up not as the big I Am, an ironic mirror of the “White Gods” of Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, who’d come over from Europe between the wars, to preach the cult of modernism to the benighted heathens of the New World; but rather as a kind of holy innocent, committed to dialogue and ready to learn, happy to sit with students and activists even if that meant being attacked as a gringo whose presence in this or that “sensitive” place was little more than a PR coup for whatever cadre or junta was currently running the show.

'Putting his money where his mouth was': Robert Rauschenberg during an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977
'Putting his money where his mouth was': Robert Rauschenberg during an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 - Jack Mitchell

Disagreements over the ethics of specific ROCI instalments anyway inclined towards the forensic: in Chile, Rauschenberg used copper that may or may not have been mined locally, and whose production might or might not be said to support the Pinochet regime. How you felt about it seems to have rather depended on who you were drinking with at the time.

The more picaresque aspects of the adventure have been enshrined in art-world legend. In Cuba, Rauschenberg shot the breeze with Castro. At one point he punched the Great Leader gently in the chest to emphasise a point (‘Eight people came forward, and Fidel just kind of shook them off,’ recalls Rauschenberg’s sister Janet Begnaud); but the entourage still secured an invite to Castro’s summer house. In Moscow, he locked himself out of his hotel room, stark naked, and had to ask the babushka on duty by the lift to let him back in. His team tipped the hotel waiters in hard currency, and ‘lived off caviar and champagne’. At least once, the local air force was recruited to get crated-up works from Sensitive Country A to Sensitive Country B in more or less one piece.

The broader implications of the tour are more ambiguous. In the 1980s, the extensive involvement of various CIA shills in promoting the rowdy, messy exuberance of the American post-war avant-garde as a kind of cultural Bronx cheer to Communism hadn’t yet come to light. Rauschenberg’s decision to fund ROCI himself wasn’t so much about a reluctance to be or appear to be a US foreign policy stooge as a desire to stay in control of the project - but it’s notable that he was willing to meet with dissidents in countries of every political hue.

In any case, by donating works, and supporting artist development and broader social welfare programmes, wherever he went, he was at least putting a reassuring amount of money where his mouth was.

'Introducing the world to itself' Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Chile, 1985
'Introducing the world to itself' Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Chile, 1985 - Charles Yoder

The ROCI works currently on show at Thaddeus Ropac in London look to be a pretty good introduction to the maestro’s work: in their insistence on the unimportance of boundaries, their sense of energy and their fragility (he once compared the fugitive effect of his work to hoarfrost on a windowpane), the sense they give of Rauschenberg’s keen cultural antennae (one curator likened his work to ‘channel-surfing’), the sheer beauty of some of the textiles and other found materials incorporated into them. With the world as it is today, riven by a whole new set of sensitivities, not to mention a good few of the same old ones, they still speak, precariously but eloquently, of hope.

As for Rocky the turtle, he was already a seasoned art world pro by 1984. Rauschenberg rented him from a pet store for a performance piece in the Sixties, and then kept him until 2008, the year of both their deaths. He was a regular at Rauschenberg’s SoHo parties, hanging out with Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag and other New York luminaries. He didn’t participate in ROCI personally; but he would surely have taken it all in his slow, measured stride.


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