In 1965, Robert Rauschenberg purchased a five-story building at 381 Lafayette Street at the border of the Noho and Soho neighborhoods of Manhattan. The structure was constructed as a townhouse in the early 1800s and became part of an orphanage and school in the latter half of the century. In 1929, the school moved to Staten Island, but the convent and offices remained.
Now, Rauschenberg’s newly renovated New York houses the artist’s namesake foundation, which is a year into crafting the artist’s catalogue raisonné — a project it estimates will take 15 to 20 years to complete, with the first volume set to be published in 2025. Researchers can visit the space by making an appointment to view the foundation’s archives. (A spokesperson said appointments are “mostly limited to students and professionals.”)
When Rauschenberg purchased the building, pews and an altar still stood in the chapel, illuminated by stretching pointed windows. The artist removed the religious fixtures and spent a year renovating 381 Lafayette before moving in. He exhibited art and threw parties at his new mansion, creating a community space inside the brick church. Soho was the newest frontier for up-and-coming New York artists and galleries, a gritty neighborhood unrecognizable from the upscale shopping district it is today.
By the 1970s, Rauschenberg had come a long way since his youth in Port Arthur, Texas. He had won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale and become a major figure of the New York creative scene, working with collaborators including Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.
Rauschenberg displayed his own work at 381 Lafayette while he lived there, but now a mix of work fills the exhibition spaces. The 1969 Carnal Clock series stands in a cavernous exhibition space on the first floor. Internal lights brighten the collages, which combine explicit photographs with more eclectic imagery — Rauschenberg’s pet turtle, a wok, the head of a buffalo-skin rug.
Other sections of the space feature Rauschenberg’s sculptures and paintings. In the corner of the chapel, a 1986 sculpture includes a clock and two molded metal gas cans. On a chapel wall, “Same Time Piece (Galvanic Suite)” (1990) again explores the concept of time (a recurrent theme throughout the artist’s career). In the painting, two women face each other underneath abstracted clocks. They are clearly in motion, but it’s impossible to tell which way they are moving.
Rauschenberg moved to Captiva, Florida, in 1970 but held the property until his death in 2008. Now the building is in its fourth iteration: The foundation renovated the space into offices, exhibition galleries, and an archive (there are no living quarters on display besides a kitchen). While the organization distributes grants and hosts artists and researchers, its greatest task is safeguarding the contents of Rauschenberg’s life and art.
Over his six-decade-long career, Rauschenberg created thousands of works, sometimes painting over existing artworks to make new ones. In his famous Combines series, the artist incorporated three-dimensional everyday objects into paintings and collages. In his collaborations with dancer Merce Cunningham, some of these works were even used as stage decor.
The scholars and students who arrive at the archive are often art historians, but sometimes they reflect Rauschenberg’s wider interests, too. Recent visitors included a composer and an international space lawyer examining Rauschenberg’s 1970s work with NASA.
“Bob was a total groupie for NASA,” Halbreich said while leading a tour of the house on February 22. The artist attended the 1969 Apollo launch and incorporated space imagery into his work. His varied oeuvre — and his vast collection of archives — offer a dizzying array of interests.
“You have to find the order,” said Rauschenberg Foundation Director Kathy Halbreich, who has led the organization for five years and announced her upcoming departure last month. “You have to maintain the artist’s order.”
Editor’s note 2/28/23 1:20pm EST: This article has been corrected to reflect that the building is five stories high, not 10, and that archival research appointments are limited to students and professionals.