In this post, OHMA student Dian Zi (2018) reflects on how oral history collects details of the organic truth of a public figure’s life through Mary Marshall Clark and Sara Sinclair’s presentation on the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project.
We tend to associate artists with their works and their works only - when we think of Edvard Munch, we think of The Scream; when we think of Vincent Van Gough, we think of Starry Night. But who were these artists other than their works and their legacy? What were their insights as ordinary people in real lives other than their artistic contributions? In other words, how did they live their lives as human-beings in flesh and blood?
A prominent member of the American Post-War avant-garde, Robert Rauschenberg created countless works in his lifetime, bringing his sense of beauty and excitement into American arts. In the eyes of the public, he was an accomplished and gifted painter and graphic artistic, whose work anticipated the pop art movement, and for whom The Guggenheim Museum installed its largest exhibition (encompassing four hundred works).
To preserve the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg’s life and work, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, in collaboration with INCITE/Columbia Center for Oral History Research, developed the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. On Thursday, February 15, 2018, Mary Marshall Clark (the co-founder and co-director of Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts program, and a director of the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project) and Sara Sinclair (a graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program and project manager for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project), co-presented the project materials of this collection of oral histories.
During their presentation, Mary Marshall and Sara focused on their collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's art historians and archivists and invited some of them to talk about how such collaboration has shaped the project's design from preliminary research to the completed transcripts.
However, what drew most of my attention throughout the presentation, was not the well-known artist Robert Rauschenberg they referred to, the public figure who made his American dream come true, but the Bob they were kept talking about. The Bob who was a lover, a husband for a short period, a father, a friend, a mentor, and a wild soul. The Bob who enjoyed companionship, loved food and longed for friendship.
So, I went on a quest, to find more versions of the Bob from the collections of Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. Who was Bob? How did Bob live his life? What do his friends, his lovers, and his fellows have to say about Bob?
In Laurie Anderson's words, Bob was a person who loved food and would send acquaintances limes from Captiva, Florida - "His studio in New York was cool, and he always sent me limes from Captiva. For many winters, I’ve gotten limes from him. As I said, we weren’t friends, but I guess he sent limes to a lot of people and I was really happy to feel that he thought of me and maybe just that I needed some vitamin C or something, I don’t know."
Listen to Laurie Anderson’s oral history interview on her relationship with Robert Rauschenberg:
In Christopher Rauschenberg's words, Bob was the loving weekend dad who happened to be an artist - "My relationship with dad was great. I was also in some Happenings. Open Score, 9 Evenings. I was one of the ball boys in 9 Evenings. My best was one of the ones, I’d rolled out those old-fashioned laundry carts that had a metal thing and a wooden lid, and then it was this sort of big canvas container, which was full of turtles that had flashlights taped to their backs, which I’d put out onto the floor, and that was the lighting for the piece, was these turtles crawling around, shining flashlights wherever they wanted. That was my favorite thing that I did." [Note: refers to Spring Training, 1965]
In the words of Donald Saff, who was an artist and a long-time friend of Rauschenberg, Bob was the artist who was loved by many strangers, felt great empathy and made art out of it - "Around 1977, Bob and I went to China to work on a paper project at the Xuan paper mill, the world's oldest paper mill, in Jingxian, China. In one of the conversations with the cook, through a translator, he was asking about his family, and the cook said that he himself couldn’t see his own family because the cook needed permission to go twenty miles away and he didn’t know what was happening there, and he hadn’t been there for years or decades. This conversation––almost a singular conversation with this cook––somehow gave Bob the idea of introducing the world to itself through his art. "
These details deconstructed the public Robert Rauschenberg and transformed him from a public figure of arts into Bob, a person who sent people limes from Florida, a dad who invited his son to make art together, and a person who could make friends with anyone from any culture. The Bob who remained a stranger to the art appreciators of Robert Rauschenberg's works. The Bob who breathed, who loved, who created, who died. He was the Robert Rauschenberg who gave new meaning to sculpture and made "Monogram" which is a stuffed goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. He was also the Bob who craved food and sent limes to people from Captiva, Florida. They were both integral parts of the influential artist who has inspired many other artists in the past and will continue to inspire art-making.
How lucky we are, being able to meet and remember both Bobs, through the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, the dedicated work of Mary Marshall Clark, Sara Sinclair and many other interviewers and participants of this project.
From my perspective, the Bob who was brought to life again by others' words is the reason why we need oral history. We practice oral history not to retell the legacy the public already knows, but to uncover the stories, the happiness, the jokes, and the fragments of life those were overlooked. There is no life in mere legends; the details of organic truth are also the inseparable elements of one's life.
To read and download transcripts, listen to the audios, or watch the videos of the interviews conducted and archived for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, please visit the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation or the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives.
Originally from Shanghai, China, Dian Zi joins the 2017 OHMA cohort as a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she concentrated in History and Public Policy. Her interest in oral history stems from her curiosity about her family's experience during the Cultural Revolution. For her graduate thesis, she is undertaking an oral history project on motherhood and parents who have children with special needs.