In this post, OHMA student Holly Werner-Thomas (2017) considers the similarities and differences between the oral history biography and the traditional authored biography, and how Robert Rauschenberg's own spirit of collaboration is reflected in the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project.
noun1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something.
Influential American artist Robert Rauschenberg is as well known among those who knew him for his spirit of collaboration, as he is famous in the art world for his outsized influence on twentieth century art. Perhaps it should not be surprising then that that spirit infused the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, which Columbia University’s INCITE/CCOHR conducted over four years in collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Mary Marshall Clark, the Director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, and Sara Sinclair, who is a graduate of OHMA, and was the project manager for CCOHR’s Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, recently echoed this theme when they described the oral history project for OHMA’s 2017-2018 lecture series.
“Narrator after narrator after narrator spoke about how [Rauschenberg] was such a social creature,” said Sinclair of the people she interviewed for the project, “and not like social in his social life and solitary in his work life,” she continued. There were “people in his studio all the time. Sometimes [Rauschenberg] would ask someone to tell the story of a painting and they told you this story of a night, like a crazy night with dogs and kids and booze—there was always a party happening around him. And many, many, many people spoke about the spirit of collaboration. If you were in the room [with him, he might ask], ‘Do you think I should put this or that in the painting?’ And so he was bringing in the spirit of the people all around him all the time.”
Bringing in the spirit of the people all around him seems to be what Rauschenberg strived to do beginning in his twenties while at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s and early 1950s where he worked with composers, choreographers, performers, artists and printmakers (later he would also collaborate with engineers).
And Rauschenberg “was always working,” Mary Marshall Clark told the audience. “Those social occasions always led to something new. They would be in the middle of a gathering and he would say, ‘Let’s go to the studio now,” and they would [go and] lay out canvases.”
She added that one of the narrators she interviewed for the oral history project, “talked about how there was always a pot of soup on the stove” in Rauschenberg’s vast studio space in Captiva – Rauschenberg moved to his Gulf Coast studio on Captiva Island, Florida, in the late 1960s, where he would remain until his death in 2008 – “and they never got rid of the soup, they just kept adding to it,” she said. “So the same soup cooked for something like five years. Now I’m sure that’s not true, but it’s a wonderful metaphor.”
Learning about Robert Rauschenberg’s collaborative approach to art and life made me think of what we in oral history call sharing authority wherein the goal is to remove hierarchies (for example, between academic historians or museums and the public), by working together to produce or create something that one authorial point of view alone could not create. The oral history biography (or oral biography), an exciting genre with a lot of potential, also differs from the traditional authored biography for the same reason.
While a traditional biography represents an interaction between an author and a subject, an oral biography engages many “authors” in what becomes not only a complex conversation about one person/subject, but also an opportunity to record the stories and contributions of the people being interviewed.
“And so one of the things that moves this away from a traditional biography,” explained Sinclair, “is that [Rauschenberg] was in the center of so many different artistic scenes in New York City, the visual art world, the performing art world…there was this work going on with scientists and engineers who were getting involved in the performing arts, and he was at the center of all of these different worlds.”
Clark and Sinclair also said that the oral biography form pushed the bounds of oral history practice at INCITE/CCOHR, and that the idea of collaboration was echoed again in the partnership between the oral and art historians who worked together.
“Having that kind of partnership opened up so many lines of inquiry,” said Sinclair, referring to the institutional memory of archivists and curators at the Foundation, in particular collections manager Gina Guy, and senior curator David White. While the Foundation relied upon the oral historians for their interviewing expertise, the oral historians in turn relied upon the deep knowledge of Foundation staff as a springboard for the interviews.
Rauschenberg’s collaborative spirit lives on at the Foundation in other ways, too. So much so that today in Captiva it can feel as if Rauschenberg and his co-producer friends are still there. Artists in residence recently collaborated on a “Jungle Dinner,” for example, and ate outside under the native shade trees, echoing the days when someone entering Bob’s vast studio holding a bag of fresh vegetables, or maybe Florida grouper, might shout, “Bob, I just got some fish!” as he headed toward the tiny kitchen where a pot of soup sat steaming. Others gathered around the wood stove nearby talking.
“Throw it in to the soup!” Rauschenberg would have said, prolonging the party – and the prolific output.
Holly Werner-Thomas comes to OHMA with a Master of Arts in American history from American University in Washington, D.C. Holly has previously focused on both institutional history, as for the National Building Museum, and on crisis, as with the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project, in her oral history work. She is currently focusing on gun violence survivors across America.