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It is hard to imagine a time when Robert Rauschenberg wasn’t wildly admired. But it certainly was the case in the earliest days of his career, especially among the older generation of Abstract Expressionists who found him irreverent. They labeled his antics “anti-art,” and disregarded him altogether.
Rauschenberg was up against a stigma that dated back to the 1930s, held by artists like Pollock’s mentor, Thomas Hart Benton who believed that intellectuals, Marxists, and homosexuals had overtaken the American art scene. Abstraction equalled immorality in his view.
Yet the young Rauschenberg would find among the reigning patriarchs of the New York School, his greatest and earliest champion in the painter Jack Tworkov who was twenty-five years his senior.
Although drastically differing in temperaments, Tworkov and Rauschenberg both shared a common adversary: hundreds of years of European history, theory, and dominance in the arts. Tworkov and the New York painters of his generation argued from an existentialist platform “[declaring] their independence from all institutionalized concepts of the artist’s role in society,” wrote Dore Ashton. And they placed an importance on the individual over all else. “Painting is self-discovery,” Pollock told Selden Rodman in 1956, “Every good artist paints what he is.” Rauschenberg took this notion and ran with it.
Tworkov first became acquainted with Rauschenberg in the milieu of downtown New York. The journals of Tworkov, the letters of Rauschenberg, and two revelatory books by Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors (1965) and Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the art world of our time (1980) reveal the depth of their relatively unknown friendship.
In The Bride, Calvin Tompkin’s witty account of the lives and work of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jean Tinguely, and Rauschenberg, Tworkov told Tompkins that he was drawn immediately to Rauschenberg’s “sense of comedy, his high comic spirit,” and his attitude of “you never know how it’s going to look until you do it, so let’s do it.” “[Rauschenberg] has always been able to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art.” He continued:
Twentieth-century art has been a constant expansion of these limits, of course — people once thought that Cézanne had gone as far as you could go. But Bob always wants to go still further. Look at what he did with collage. If it was all right to make pictures with bits of pasted paper or metal or wood, he asked, then why couldn’t you use a bed, or even a goat with a tire? He keeps asking the questions — and it’s a terrific question philosophically, whether or not the results are great art — and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists.
The friendship between Tworkov and Rauschenberg intensified at Black Mountain College, in 1952. Tworkov taught painting that summer and traveled with his entire family: his wife Wally, and their two daughters Hermine and Helen. Among his students that summer were Fielding Dawson, Jorge Fick, Dan Rice, and Dorothea Rockburne. And of course there was Rauschenberg. “Rauschenberg didn’t take classes with anyone, but he certainly came and went from Tworkov’s classroom, and often,” Rockburne told me.
Rauschenberg photographed Tworkov in the studio, in the classroom, and documented Tworkov’s two daughters, Hermine and Helen, playing in the fields and hills that made up Black Mountain. These photographs illustrate a love and affinity Rauschenberg had for Tworkov and his family. Hermine celebrated her thirteen birthday at BMC. Rauschenberg made a solar print and gave it to her as a gift, inscribing it, “a birthday picture for Hermine.” Hermine Ford (previously Tworkov) recalls, “Rauschenberg and my father were very fond of each other. Rauschenberg’s presence was very much felt. We all loved each other!”
A point never discussed, yet likely critical to Rauschenberg’s attraction to Tworkov may have been that Tworkov was very much a family man. Rauschenberg had recently become a father himself (his son Christopher was born the previous summer) and Tworkov, unlike many of the other larger-than-life figures of the New York School, like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was an attentive husband and caring father. These were traits that “did not hold a lot of credence with the students at the time,” explains Black Mountain historian Mary Emma Harris. “Kline was the star of the summer . He hung out with the students, went to the local beer joint, and drank with them at the Cedar Bar in New York. Tworkov was a family man.”
Rauschenberg undoubtedly was also drawn to Tworkov’s philosophy. Tworkov “encouraged his students to explore other means of expression,” wrote Delia Graze in Dictionary of Women Artists. Rauschenberg found encouragement in statements such as these that were sympathetic to his experimental nature. “If advanced painting is not unexpected then how is it advanced?” wrote Tworkov in 1948.
Rauschenberg assumed the responsibility of packing up Tworkov’s studio that summer and arranged for the works to be returned to New York from BMC. While Tworkov “undertook to store a number of the white and black paintings in his New York studio when the summer was over,” wrote Tompkins in Off the Wall.
A letter to Tworkov in New York from Rauschenberg at BMC, early August 1952, offers insight into the relationship built that summer:
My dear Jack you and your family gave everyone at B.M.C. something to think about. Even Tommie [the dog] has not gone back home. I will write again, but not so hurriedly next time.
Rauschenberg would write two more long letters that year reporting on his journey with Cy Twombly to Italy. In the first he wrote, “We stopped at Palermo and hated it.” And in the second he explains, “I just got back from Florence. Cy and I went up and scratched Michael Angello [sic] and that silly sissy Fra Angellico [sic] off the list and I’m sick to my stomach of Martyres [sic], Saints and Christ.”
Back in New York, Tworkov continued to be Rauschenberg’s “staunch ally, exerting himself on Rauschenberg’s behalf” and managed “against considerable opposition from other artists to get one of Rauschenberg’s black
paintings into the First Stable Annual ,” reported Tompkins in Off the Wall.
It was Tworkov who kept encouraging his dealer, Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery, to go down to Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street studio. When she finally did in the early summer of 1953, “she saw the white and black pictures and several of Twombly’s abstractions. She offered them a joint show in the fall,” wrote Tompkins in Off the Wall. The bulk of Rauschenberg’s show at the Stable was made up of the very paintings Tworkov had stored for Rauschenberg in his own studio the previous summer.
While others vilified Rauschenberg, Tworkov continued to give him “full, active, and generous support,” wrote Tompkins. It was at Tworkov’s insistence that Rauschenberg was later accepted into the Charles Egan Gallery in 1954, according to Tomkins in Off the Wall:
Tworkov showed with Charles Egan, whose gallery, at 46 East Fifty-seventh Street, also represented de Kooning, Kline, Guston … Egan had not taken on a new artist for a long time, but Tworkov kept after him, and finally Egan consented to come down with Tworkov to the Fulton Street studio. Rauschenberg was not overly hopeful about the visit, nor did Egan seem particularly enthusiastic about the gaudy new red paintings. After he had been there for a while, though, he asked Rauschenberg how soon he could be ready for a show. “About a week,” said the artist, Egan gave him a month.
Rauschenberg would show his Red Paintings at Egan Gallery in December of 1954. “What I remember was feeling really excited to see the work,” Hermine Ford recently told me, “that this was an occasion … to see Bob’s new work … The work, just like him, was so charismatic.” The show was hardly a financial success, yet it sparked one of the most important early critical reviews in Artnews of Rauschenberg’s work written by another throwback from the New York School, Frank O’Hara.
Rauschenberg immortalized his mentor by including a Tworkov drawing in what would be the artist’s first Combine, “Untitled” (c. 1954). This work, also called “Man with White Shoes,” or “Plymouth Rock,” features a combine on wheels that is part shelter, part porch, part folded painting. In it, Rauschenberg embedded numerous images of personal relevance and significance.
It’s likely Rauschenberg enacted Tworkov’s great mantra, “To paint no Tworkovs” when after wining Top Prize at the Venice Biennial in 1964, he cabled back to the studio in New York and instructed that all his screens be destroyed to avoid ever repeating himself.
Mentions of Rauschenberg’s comings and goings are scattered throughout Tworkov’s dense journal entries sighting dinners, gallery openings, and art world gossip. In one entry, written sometime in the early 1960s, Tworkov expands upon the significance of his young friend’s work and effectively summarizes the admiration he had for the younger artist:
It’s difficult for anyone experienced or inexperienced in art to accept Rauschenberg’s object of a shaggy goat with a rubber tire around its middle, its nose desecrated by blobs of paint as a sculpture or a painting or as an art object. The inevitable meaning of these objects is in the shock of the sensibilities, it attacks the commonplace by substituting commonplace objects for art … More to my point is the presentation by Rauschenberg of completely unpainted panels in his first exhibition at the Stable. Just as an audience was booming for Mondrian, Rauschenberg’s totally empty canvases asked, how far can you go? If you are interested in beauty, what’s wrong with a totally empty canvas? This is all the more interesting in the light of the fact that when Rauschenberg turns to “legitimate” composition, he is one of the most talented and brilliant painters of the abstract movement.
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