Name Dropping


Robert Rauschenberg



“I hated the name Milton growing up. Hated it. It’s not a man’s name. I knew it’d be the first thing I’d change the day I left home.”
The table went quiet. We knew from the tone of his voice this was something real, something important to him.
“When I walked up to the window at the Greyhound bus station the guy said, name?”
“Spell that.”
“He was writing out the ticket. I spelt it for him.”
“First name?”
“I hesitated a second then blurted out – Bob! ... There’s a man’s name, Robert. I expected him to stick his hand through the window and grab me. He didn’t even look up; just wrote out the ticket and slid it under the grill. I looked at it, there it was – just like that I was Robert Rauschenberg.”
Rauschenberg laughed. He was Bob not Milton. He was rust, broken buckets and bedspreads, Dante and old tires, rockets and cockerels, Venus and goats. Head thrown back, he laughed out loud his voice bubbling, even after the punch line was thrown, as if the story went on gurgling inside him. He liked his audience captive, sitting around the long scrubbed-top kitchen table in his loft: the usual gang of studio assistants, friends, casual drop-ins, and hangers on who fed on his hospitality. The scene went on night after night whenever he was in town, up from his place in Captiva, Florida. It was cold that night and the rest of us around the table had the New York winter pallor. He had a movie star tan.
This was all new to me, I’d been in New York for about a year but I had never met anyone that successful before. Just about every artist I knew was young, under thirty, and still struggling for any kind of recognition. Rauschenberg was big time, cover of Time Magazine, everything. Warhol called him “Our Picasso.” While the others at the table were having fun, horsing around, getting high, I wanted to talk shop. So fucking serious. He must have thought I was trying to interview him. I’d been a of fan his work since I was a student, its generosity, its freedom, its laughter, provocation and frailty. I’d mentioned it to Dorothea Rockburne and that most generous of artists had introduced me. I never knew him well, it was his charm that he treated everyone as a friend. If you’d met him you’d have been invited too. He was like that, totally gregarious.
“When I was married to Susan we went to Paris to paint. We were young and it was still the thing to do.” He filled his glass from the bottle of Jack Daniels in front of him. “We’d paint in our room, you know, and of course we’d drop splotches of paint on the floor, which was covered with a heavily patterned carpet. Every time we dropped a blob we’d immediately search out the repeating pattern in the carpet and add spots in the same color. It looked great. The carpet got very colorful.”
The war chased the art world out of Europe. Mondrian, Leger, Duchamp and others became New Yorkers, Piet became Pete doing the Broadway Boogie-Woogie. No longer mythic names from exotic places they were now local guys seen crossing Broadway, buying pants in Klein’s department store, or at the corner deli. The homegrown Abstract Expressionists could take it from there. R.R. had seen that shift from Europe to the states, had been at the core of art becoming American.
On other nights he’d talk about Jasper Johns, another icon of American art, of their days down on Pearl Street.
“I’ll tell you about Jap... Jap’d ask you for a cigarette. You’d say: ‘I’ve only got one left.’ He’d say: ‘That’s okay, I’ll take it.’”
A pair of skinny kids sitting at a make-shift table in a barren cinderblock loft, nineteen-fifties, Beat candles in wine bottles dripping wax everywhere. R.R. liked to tell his stories, it was introspection out loud, a way of looking at himself. like his art. Put it there and see what happens.
“He heated the paint in pots,” said Bob.
R.R. was enthralled by the luscious encaustic paint Johns used on his pictures. Imagine the spike-haired young Johns hunkered over his flag paintings – if ever there was a symbolic shift in the geography of the art world. Hot wax, the very process was like alchemy. Encaustic is a mixture of oil paint and wax, which has to be kept hot so it is fluid until it has been applied. Rauschenberg would look into the pot bubbling on the hot plate, vibrant color come alive and breathing.
“I’d beg Jasper to let me try a brushstroke, just one.”
The paint was so sensual – heavy, viscous, eager to cling to the brush it begins to coagulate as soon as touches the cool canvas, retaining the shape, the very touch of the stroke, even the dribbles, running before they congeal into expressions of flight. Jasper finally relented and let him have a go.
“You had to be quick. I loaded the brush with red paint, turned to the flag painting, and landed the blob of red in the middle of a white stripe.”
We all laughed. The way he told it he’d made a terrible blunder, amazed at his own stupidity, but you could sense, under the apologetic laughter, a sneaky glee, a delight in his own bad boy behavior.
Walking home in the cold with Janet, one of Bob’s helpers, through the ill-lit streets of SoHo, she told me who was who around the table.
“The big blonde guy, the all-American athlete? That’s Matson Jones, Bob’s boyfriend. He was straight before they got together,” she said. Bob didn’t like flamboyant gays, she said. “It’s like that Milton thing – it’s not a man’s name.” It seemed odd to me but she insisted. We stopped at the corner of Canal as a chill wind gusted up Church Street.
“It’s about being manly men,” she said. “That’s why Bob and Jasper didn’t care for Andy for years, they thought Warhol was just too swish!”
We parted and I went south to my new loft in the even more desolate area of the old Washington Market just blocks from Wall street, where the streets were all cobblestone; a ghost town where the only sound was the cast iron shutters banging in the wind.
Too swish. Manly men. ‘Abstract and chronicle of the time.’ Hard to blame them, maturing through such homophobic times, Joe McCarthy had Congress by the balls, crusading against Commies and queers. American men had won the war, and the country was still enamored of its rugged boys with crew cuts, no-nonsense, can-do guys. They wouldn’t want the art of sissy European aesthetes, they wanted tough guys like Jackson Pollock throwing paint, picking fights, like de Kooning snagging broads, getting drunk. Men’s men. Even now, at the end of the sixties, with men on the moon, the silent majority was still sneering at the long-haired hippies.
I thought about Matson Jones, had he really been straight? I’d never thought of it as a matter of choice. I could see being curious, anyone could be curious. I could see being bi but didn’t you need the impulse, didn’t you need to feel drawn? Was I drawn, I wondered. I liked gay men. They were often less inhibited than straight men, unconventional by definition. I’d never felt that impulse, though, that arousal, it seemed silly to fake it. Up ahead the unfinished towers of the World Trade Center shone in the night sky. Out on the empty lots where they’d been demolishing the Market the bums had their campfire blazing against the cold winter air.               
My new home was a raw loft in the dairy block of the old Washington Market, one of the cheese buildings. The space was still in its industrial state - dirty, smelly, no kitchen or fancy bathroom, a broken sink and holes in the floor. Just great. The problem was heat. Mia’s house was always so warm. The big front windows looked out on the Hudson River, from Hoboken in the north down beyond the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. The view was fantastic. The wind off the river was freezing. There is only so much plastic you can use to seal up the windows, block out the cold, at some point you have to have heat. The joy of those big lofts is the space, the bane is the heat. The old radiator by the window was barely enough to melt the ice in the toilet. Already, after only a couple of months, I had a gas bill big enough and late enough for a cut off notice and still the place was freezing with another month before the spring.
“The best way to steal gas,” my neighbor Bendiks advised, “Is with the Hoover.”
We stood in the lingering salt air of Feta cheese that had been stored here over the years looking at the gas meter. Bearded Bendiks Kosta a passionate champion of abstract painting, a Latvian American full of tearful outrage at the Vietnam War; blustering Bendiks, perpetually giving up cigarettes. He pulled on the collar of his vintage overcoat, a thrift-shop tweed too tight for his muscular body, and traced a square tipped finger across the gauge.
“See, the gas flows this way ... turns these dials.”
There was no hint of larceny or collusion in his voice he might well have been explaining how to make toast.
“There’s two ways you beat it. Undo the meter and turn it around in the middle of the month so it runs backwards. Or, attach a vacuum cleaner once a month and suck the dial backward. It’s what I do.”
One earflap of his shaggy fur hat sticking out like a broken wing, he turned to me, eyeing the electric blanket I was wrapped in.
“That plugged in?”
With a fifty-foot extension cord it was the way I kept warm. Wrapped in my electric Viking cape I moved about the loft leaving a trail of hot breath on the frigid air.
“You need a space heater,” said Bendiks. “Get a used one at Lee Sams.”
I went on pacing the chilly loft in my electric cloak distracted by the existential questions of youth and art. Debating myself like a plugged in Hamlet on the barricade, the wind ballooning the plastic at the windows, until I could take it no longer. I got a used space heater on the Bowery and wheeled it across lower Manhattan on a shopping cart.
Going over to Bendiks’ to borrow his tools, I found a letter, downstairs, in my mail. There was no note, just a check, enough to cover my utility bill. It was signed Robert Rauschenberg. I was stunned. I hadn’t said anything, had I? I remembered only a fleeting reference to money and paying bills. He obviously paid close attention. I wrote him a note of thanks.
Outside on the loading dock one of the remaining dairy companies had put out a stack of cheese overnight. When expiration dates came due they had to throw it out, it was the law, but the cheese was still good. I picked through the stack and took a wheel of Brie for Bendiks. With the main market gone the neighborhood was mostly deserted, the streets eerily quiet. Quiet enough to hear someone singing, “See the pyramids along the Nile” before I saw the singer. He was at the corner of West Broadway standing in the cold singing in a raspy voice, hands in the pockets of his baggy trousers; no coat or sweater or shirt, just a tee-shirt, surrounded by clumps of graying New York snow. A tough old guy watching the cranes work on the Trade Center, singing, oblivious to the cold.
When I got to Bendiks’ top floor loft and pushed open the metal fire door, Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” was blasting on the stereo. He was up on a beam with a handsaw hacking at the wood. Like the man in a cartoon cutting off the branch he sits on, Bendiks’ perch was ridiculous. An antiquated hoist system made of thick oak beams and an enormous cast-iron wheel dominated one end of his loft. It looked like a medieval torture contraption astride an open shaft that ran floor to floor clear through to the basement. It had become an obsession for Bendiks, something else to get passionate about. How to get rid of it? The wheel alone was six feet tall.
I stood at the window looking down at the singer in the street. He hadn’t moved from his corner.
“That’s Treflich,” Bendiks joined me. “He owns that pet shop across the street. Tarzan Treflich, African safaris, tracking and hunting. He catches exotic animals for the zoos.”
“And he likes singing hits from the fifties,” I said.
“Just that one. Sings that same line over and over. I wish he’d learn the goddamn song!”
I could faintly hear ‘See the pyramids along the Nile,’ through the closed window
“This thing is driving me crazy,” Bendiks glared at the hoist. “When I first moved in I loved it. Now I can’t stand it. That fucking wheel weighs a ton.”
The juxtaposition of the beautiful cast-iron wheel and haunting pyramids seemed perfect for a Rauschenberg combine.
“Oh, no, no,” Rauschenberg said when I told him about the big wheel. “Back when I was making the combines friends who came to visit always brought me something they’d found in the street: a fender, a chair, an old Coke sign. I never used any of it. They weren’t right. People thought any old thing would do ... it had to be the right thing.”
We were at the kitchen table again, his entourage busy cooking on the big range behind us as we talked. He was thoughtful through myriad stories, pictures of existence, the way his art was built of countless things.
“When I showed my all-white paintings,” he said, “some guy came up to me at the opening and said: ‘This is not painting, this is philosophy.’ So I said, ‘Oh? What would you have said if I had told you this is philosophy?’”
We talked of Minimalism – were we marching the last steps of Modernism, right at the off ramp, leaving little in the box?
“Save the box itself,” he laughed.
It seemed the last inevitable step was an art of pure ideas without objects – not even the box. And, of course, we talked of his erased de Kooning.
And then about making choices, the freedom to choose; permission you give yourself, how often opportunity sees you before you see it, how often your own stance blocks your view. There was safety in theory that wouldn’t do in practice.
“Oh, I can tell you about that,” he said, his voice going gleeful with malice, the chortling bad boy setting the school on fire. “Years ago when Merce (Cunningham) took his dance company on tour in Europe, I went with them to do the sets. I only agreed because Merce gave me complete freedom to do what I wanted. I had to set up something on stage was all, anything I liked, and the dancers would improvise around it, interact with it as they performed.”
“When we arrived in a new city I would go off around town searching for props, mostly thrown out stuff I could make a set from, you know: old tires, abandoned carts, broken bedsteads, typical street finds. After weeks of this, one town after another, I was tired and I had nothing to wear, no clean clothes. So instead of going round scavenging material I spent the day at the Laundromat. That evening, for the performance, I put an ironing board on stage and brought out my basket of laundry and began to iron. I was the set. The dancers came out and danced around me, improvising as usual, but the audience was more fascinated with my ironing than they were with the dance. Look at that American underwear. That’s no way to iron a shirt. He’s doing it all wrong. He’s going to burn those trousers. Merce was furious, said I ruined his dance, and forbade any repeats.”
The most provocative thing he could do was be himself. Old friends and touchy feelings. It didn’t take much to see there was unfinished business between Bob and Jasper too. In the sculpture garden of the old MOMA one evening I was startled when introduced to Jasper Johns. In middle age this portly man looked nothing like my image of the skinny kid with spikey hair I’d known from catalogue photographs – an impish look, a kind of spit in you eye American Rimbaud. The brief introduction swept aside, I’d barely reconciled my surprise when everyone turned toward the commotion across the courtyard. A small group was approaching led by Rauschenberg in his fringed suede jacket. He was crouched and hooting, gyrating all over the place in a weird, loopy gait, like some excited orangutan. It was all for Johns’ benefit and Jasper didn’t look too impressed. He didn’t laugh like everyone else. He wore a cool sardonic mask till Rauschenberg finally straightened up in front of him.
“Well,” he said. “I can’t top that.”
The conflict between theory and practice bothered me. It was easy to imagine all the wondrous accidents or unforeseen obstacles that could occur in the making that wouldn’t occur in the planning. Was I becoming too rigid, too tied to theory and formula? I needed to be more open, more receptive to the chaos of being. Lay off the dogma.
Happy hour at Fanelli’s bar in SoHo was always a loud mix of local ragmen, tradesmen, artists and firemen from the hook and ladder next door. The place was old and cramped, a brown-stained atmosphere of pressed tin and dark framed photos of old time prizefighters posed in action or stiff mug shots. The place smelled of booze, tobacco, and the eye-watering disinfectant they used to hide the tang of urine coming from the constantly flapping door to the lavatory. Ancient, ninety at least, diminutive and comically vain Mike Fanelli, the owner with boot-blacked hair, stood at the end of the bar, proud that customers mistook him for the son not the father of the toothless geezer behind the bar.
I was by the coffee station reading Jack Anderson’s column accusing Nixon’s White House of harboring homosexuals. This stuff was everywhere, even in the pretty liberal (pre Murdoch) New York Post; couldn’t they get over it? I was there to meet my date, my on again, off again, girlfriend, Bailey, when Bendiks walked in with a woman. She was dressed like most women we knew in jeans and work-boots and a heavy flannel shirt. The Downtown vogue. The guys all dressed the same way, now the women were doing it too. Her name was Mary. Bendiks had mentioned her so often I assumed she was his girlfriend. We sat and drank and when Bailey showed up, in her blue jeans and Frye boots and work shirt, we gave up on our movie plans to sit and talk.
The women were intense. The feminist movement, women’s liberation, was at fever pitch, one wrong word and you were in the doghouse. Hell, everybody was intense. The Black Panthers were on the warpath, the gays were Stonewalling, protests against the war were daily events. You were nothing if you weren’t intense. Mary was a strong, Rosie the Riveter, woman with her sleeves rolled over muscular biceps. She followed the conversation with contradictory sighs and hoots whenever she had nothing to say. I found her looking at me several times as we talked as if there was something more she wanted to add.
Old Mike Fanelli, oblivious to the changing times, still the young gigolo of the 1920’s, shuffled over to our table arching his eyebrows to serenade Bailey with dated breath. In deference to his age she smiled and listened. Bendiks went for more drinks, and Mary put a hand on my leg and leaned in close:
“Can I ask you something?”
Her confidential tone curled my toes. What now?
“Is Bendiks gay?” She whispered.
Again! What’s going on? Bendiks was just Bendiks. I’d never given a thought to his sexual preference.
“I dunno. You’d be a better judge of that.”
She pursed her lips and squeezed out a muted trumpet call.
“I can’t get him to fuck me.” She announced louder than intended.
A contradiction of the times: demanding respect while craving affection. Bailey’s head snapped round, gave me a look, her eyes widening. Mary stared at her glass on the table. Oblivious, old Mike Fanelli kept up his soft-shoe patter.
I had no idea what to say. How do you account for someone else’s choices? Bailey read the confusion on my face and left Mike mid sentence.
“Anyone hungry?” she said. “You feel like eating?”
“Remington’s? China town? ... How about Saint Adrian’s?”
Sweeping the floor, pushing the big broom over the rough unfinished boards suffused with a history of stains: barrel rings from the stored cheese, ink spills by luckless clerks, paint splashes, smeared footprints, embedded paper clips and thumb tacks, I found myself singing See the Pyramids along the Nile. From somewhere, long forgotten, my mother, was pinning washing to the clothesline singing - See the market place in old Algiers – lines I didn’t know I knew rolled effortlessly off my tongue – Send me photographs and souvenirs. I wrote the words on a sheet of yellow paper and put it in my pocket – a present for Treflich.
Days later I saw him standing outside his pet shop, suspenders over his wife-beater. He wasn’t singing, just standing there, hands in his pockets, musing over the empty street, watching the last of the black snow disappear from the sidewalk. Close up I could see his arms were scarred, his neck and face as deeply cracked as some old master painting. His gruff, unsmiling look was not inviting. I handed him the paper without a word and walked on. As I crossed West Broadway I glanced back. He was looking at the sheet before wadding it into a ball that he casually tossed toward the gutter.
Did he already know the words, or just not care? He obviously resented my interference. I felt bad. I loved that he sang, it was like his very own mating call. I banged at Bendiks’ door and over his shoulder, when he opened it, I saw a young guy get up from the table and head for the bathroom. Bendiks didn’t mention him, nor did I, besides the immediate distraction was the hoist, the medieval torture machine – it was gone. Someone had cut through the beams, patched the floor, and left the immense wheel leaning against the wall.
Bendiks, smiling, followed my look, explaining with a single word:
After the opening of his show at the Castelli gallery, Rauschenberg threw a big party at his loft on Lafayette. As usual his generosity made it inclusive, no one turned away. Walking in a quick glance around the crowded room showed me the royalty of contemporary art: painters, choreographers, composers, writers, dancers, and how few people I really knew. The immediate stand out was Barnett Newman, the painter, near that long kitchen table. He was hard to miss, very erect and elegant in a dark suit; his head held high sporting a bushy mustache and a monocle – a monocle! Immediately I thought of Kropotkin and the anarchists I had heard of from Barbara Reise on the train a couple of years before. Newman looked like an nineteenth century diplomat. You could see your face in his highly polished black oxford shoes. The contradiction between his art and his appearance always baffled me. It was easy to align, say, the Spartan lifestyle of Samuel Beckett with his work, but I couldn’t match this loquacious, stylish political radical with his zipper paintings. Smiling, even beaming, he took an avuncular interest in the younger artists, overlooking their relationships, deciding who was too sad and who was really in love. His wife Annalee, short with thick wavy hair and enormous dark eyes, never left his side. She kept a close watch on his drinking with an occasional “Now, Barney,” touch to his arm.
The booze the older generation drank was not like our parties. Here that scrubbed kitchen table was full of liquor bottles: bourbon, scotch, rye, vodka, gin, you name it. Our parties were simple gallon jugs of cheap wine and the cheese from the street.
Jostling through the crowded room I found myself squeezing by John Cage deep conversation with the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. I found Bailey and told her about Barney Newman’s polished shoes. They’d put on music now and people had begun to dance. Real dancers, maybe the ones who’d surrounded R.R. while he did his ironing. The music got louder, the room began to bounce and the dancers went at it like a performance. No moochers here. Young athletic muscles trained to writhe in sensual rhythms. We watched in admiration then overwhelmed moved up front to join the amateurs by the potted plants.
We danced next to the broad shouldered sculptor, John Chamberlain, with
Zapata mustache and heavy hands. He was big, over six feet, and used to throwing sculptures of crushed auto parts about. I felt sure he crumpled them in his own hands like so much paper. He was sort of dancing with Helen, the glamorous wife of the painter Brice Marden. Maybe they’d started by flirting and teasing but John was drunk, that was easy to see, and his moves had turned aggressively sexual. Helen was getting scared; each time she tried to pull away he got more physical, more grabby, she wasn’t having fun.
Still dancing I put a hand on his arm and said something to him, something sixties like: “C’mon, man. Lighten up.” I didn’t expect what happened next. I was very skinny, a featherweight compared to his sculpture, with a mop of curly hair. Without letting go of Helen he reached out and grabbed my hair and tried to yank me off my feet. I had not done much fighting in my life, but this did not seem like a manly way to do it – being dragged about by the hair. I fought back as best I could, and it looked like Helen was struggling to fight him too, but not only was he strong he had the advantage of a pre-emptive strike. Immediately others piled on. Someone jumped on his back and had an arm around his neck, someone else was trying to pry Helen loose. Either we were such wimps or he was too drunk to feel any pain. We couldn’t put a dent in him. Far from violent the tussle took on the benign zaniness of silent comedy – torn shirts, bulging eyes and grimaces. More guys joined in and gradually the whole scrum was pushed, pulled, and dragged to the head of the stairs. And even there he wouldn’t let go. Then Hiroshi, Rauschenberg’s diminutive Japanese cook came running up with an iron skillet as big as himself and began to beat Chamberlain over the head with it. He also whacked the hand that was holding my hair and at last he let go. A couple more heavy cracks to his head and finally Chamberlain’s fighting spirit gave out. He slid down the stairs feet first and slumped at the bottom.
There was a general ‘Ha! Take that!’ from the head of the stairs and we all went back to dance with a sense of triumph.
It had little affect on Chamberlain. A few days later I walked by him in his usual spot at the end of bar at Max’s Kansas City, there wasn’t a flicker of recognition. Man of iron. I kept that picture of him as a rugged steel worker turned sculptor for many years until a friend told me he had actually been a hairdresser before becoming a sculptor.
Spring came and I could finally pull the plastic from the windows and look out at the Hudson River. The great ocean liners were back, returning from their winter cruises. Day after day they sailed into the harbor with their retinue of tugboats. Rauschenberg had gone back to Florida. And I found myself thinking of Newman’s polished black Oxfords and his old world monocle. The bigger stories were the war and the women’s movement, but quietly the view of men was changing too. The classic tough guy had lost favor with the young. A broader more complex picture of the male was evolving, though bigotry wasn’t dead just lying low.
My loft was livable by this time, though the term livable would be met with derision by later loft snobs. For the artist taking a raw space, cleaning out the crap, and making it useable as soon as possible was the idea. Rudimentary kitchens and bathrooms, knocked together out of spit and two by fours with home-made plumbing were the norm for artist’s lofts. Exposed brick and beams and everything else, along with street found furniture was pretty standard even for the more successful. There were one or two with money, of course, who converted their lofts into magazine color plates: dividing walls, hidden lighting, built in cabinets, deluxe kitchens and bathrooms, but they were generally frowned on as the bourgeoisie dilettantes.
Bill Wegman was moving into a space once used by an electrician’s school, and the walls were covered in slate blackboards. He gave me one for a kitchen table. Sol LeWitt was breaking up an old sculpture and gave me the bases to make a huge worktable. Bailey, my on again off again girlfriend, gave me her pots and pans. She had decided to move on, to go live in Paris.
With the warmer weather I found I had more neighbors than I knew, not many but more than I’d thought. Artists of all kinds close by. We’d meet at the cheese piles on the loading docks, sorting through the boxes of Saint André, Camembert or Brie. When the market trucks left at midday the streets were quiet again. Quiet enough to hear Trefilch out there singing.
Send me photographs and souvenirs.
I stood and listened, even he was moving on.