"I feel as though the world is a friendly boy walking along in the sun."
I was living in New York City in the summer of 2000; taking a break after my first year of Theater school in Texas to drink 40s and talk about art and rap music every night in Queens with my skateboard friends, bumble around Manhattan everyday by myself, and mooch off my older brother all the time…full time. If he had killed me out of sheer frustration with my stupidity and immaturity, he would’ve gotten off on account of self-defense…I was driving him crazy, and rightfully so. I never got a job, I never got a fake ID, I never really did anything I set out to do; and later in the summer, I would run out of money and New York City would beat me into a million little pieces. Before that all came to pass, before I got the best, most deserved kick in the teeth of my life, I enjoyed a blissful month of playing the role of the Country Wolf on sabbatical in the big city.
My friend Casey came up for 2 weeks to visit me and a few other Florida transplants, and he fell right into step with our life plan of drinking on roofs and skateboarding on everything else. Night after night, as we drank warm beer on the same hot roof, we would promise each other that tomorrow we would in-act our grand plan to go to every single museum in Manhattan with a “pay what you can” day and really appreciate all the art we had seen in books back home.
In the whole summer we went to one…just one…twenty-two minutes before it closed.
We had twenty-two minutes to see and appreciate they entirety of the MOMA, the largest modern art museum in all of North America, and quite possibly, the most influential modern art museum in all the world. Twenty-two minutes, that is shorter than an American sitcom without commercials. That is about enough time to prepare and consume two packets of ramen noodles without burning the roof of your mouth. That is NOT enough time to consume the most comprehensive collection of the most prolific one hundred years in the entire history of art…but why would that stop us from trying?
Being the stupid punks that we were, we both paid a dime each and proceeded to sprint from room to room, appreciating the shit out of everything from “The Persistence of Memory” to “Starry Night”. We ran like frantic game show contestants on an art history obstacle course, soaking up paintings for points, and surveying sculpture for the screaming studio audience in our minds…till we came to one wall. One big white wall where a few pieces of simple white paper hung, unframed, with steel tacks restraining each corner, and arranged in a long symmetrical row. We stopped dead, stopped breathing, and stopped the world when we came face to face with the pages torn neatly out of Robert Rauschenberg’s sketchbook. They were supplementary plates for his illustrated book, “Rauschenberg: XXXIV Drawings for Dante's Inferno”. Just simple collage constructs of black ink images on watercolor paper, hazy clouds of scribbles, magazine clippings, and non-sequiturs arranged onto the neat square pages. They were just perfect.
There they were, simple and plain; the doodles, drawings, and daydreams of the man behind some of the greatest works of modern American art. They appeared to us like slivers of history, trapped in amber, ancient cave drawings made with old National Geographic’s and India Ink instead of bison blood and black berry juice. Suddenly, everything we had ever made, everything we aspired to make, and everything we would make in the future, in any artistic medium was introduced to its long lost grandfather. All we could do was stand there, awed by the improbable feeling of having just been slapped in the mouth by historical context. We couldn’t even speak to each other; we just paced silently, back and forth in front of the row of images as our twenty-two minutes ticked away to closing time.
Robert Rauschenberg was one of the front-runners of the Neo-Dada, a group of artists that counted Jasper Johns and John Cage among its ranks, and found the inspiration for their revolution from the astounding artistic nose-thumbing of the likes of Marcel Duchamp and the rest of the original Dada. Rauschenberg famously stated once that he developed his style by doing “exactly the reverse” of what his instructor and renowned Bauhaus artist, Josef Albers taught him to do. He silently and successfully broke up the standards and practices of the world of modern art, and he went on to not only make great artistic works, but to change what we thought of, and the way we thought of art. Like it or not, Robert Rauschenberg’s fingerprints are on every piece of art to appear in the last sixty years. He was creating elaborate mixed media collage half a century before you were “decoupage-ing” magazine clippings to a piece of plywood in your bedroom. He was shocking the world with his use of the taxidermy of a bald eagle in his masterpiece “Canyon” long before Damian Hirst was filling fish tanks with formaldehyde. And who knows, without Rauschenberg’s initial incorporation and exploitation of images from pop-culture in his artwork, Andy Warhol may have never even gotten the chance to leave Pittsburgh or drop the Polish “a” from the end of his birth name.
Our twenty-two minutes were up, and Casey and I finally had to leave when the MOMA chimed for closing time. After being pried off of those unassuming white prints by an impatient security guard, we began filing silently out of the museum with the rest of the appreciators. It never crossed our minds that we didn’t get a chance to see a Picasso or a Monet. We didn’t think about the rooms filled with Cézannes, Gauguins and Mondrians that we never even set foot in. Even though we only saw about ten percent of the titanic museum before our blitzkrieg came to a screeching halt at the feet of Rauschenberg’s prints, we walked out of the MOMA that evening feeling like we had seen it all.
Less than a month later, I was on the phone, tears in my eyes, begging my mother to fly me home to Florida, to break me out of the city that broke me. She refused, she wasn’t going to clean up the mess I made, she just told me to fix what I broke with my brother and make the best of the time I had left. By the end of the summer, after more trouble and bigger mistakes, I did. My brother and I became closer than ever after our trial by fire, and New York City and I managed to establish a healthy working relationship that still exists today. Though I had no idea at the time how that short season would shape me into an adult, and I was most certainly clueless to the impact that those small prints would have on my artistic growth long down the line, I look back on the mistakes and events of that summer, and I count those days as the last flickering days of my childhood, and when I think of the twenty-two minutes I had, standing silent in front of those simple Rauschenberg prints, I can clearly see how I ended up where I am today, fixed firmly in a life working in art.
Robert Rauschenberg died today at his home in Lee County, Florida at the age of 82.
May he rest in peace.