March 19, 2013

Point The Way: Robert Rauschenberg’s New York Home and Studio is Now a Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg was a man of big ideas. Creating art from scavenged materials and masterfully mixing media—painting, sculpture, printmaking, set and costume design, even musical composition—he became a seminal figure in 20th century art, propelling the transition from abstract expressionism to pop art and later movements. Many people know his pioneering silk-screens, collages, and “combines.” Few people, however, are familiar with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which he established in 1990 and oversaw until his death in 2008. Even fewer have been inside the New York headquarters. Only open to researchers, curators, and the occasional journalist, this hidden zone offers a glimpse into how he lived and worked.

What started out as a redbrick and brownstone five-story town house acquired its Renaissance revival style after being sold in 1889 to the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin for the Protection of Homeless and Destitute Children, which was running the next-door orphanage, St. Joseph’s Union, and needed offices and living quarters for the staff. Though the orphanage eventually moved away, the mission continued to occupy the house and a chapel annex until Rauschenberg bought them in 1965. He made the property his full-time residence and workplace until the early 1970’s. That’s when he bought the compound on Captiva Island, Florida, that would become his primary home and studio for the rest of his life.

A center of scholarship and philanthropy, the foundation is definitely not a mini museum or a white-cube gallery. The Dickensian orphanage vibe hasn’t changed. As the foundation’s executive director, Christy MacLear, explains, “It’s a project space, refined enough to present things but with a feeling of grittiness. There’s a sense of Bob in all these spaces.”

Examples of Rauschenberg’s less commercial work, including gossamer silk-screens on fabric, an extension of his 1980’s costume designs for the Trisha Brown Dance Company, are displayed throughout, along with more recognizably Rauschenberg-ian prints and assemblages. A long room on the ground level most resembles a public art gallery, with changing displays. Recently, it was hung with mixed-media works from three late Rauschenberg series: Scenarios, Short Stories and Runts.

The space behind the gallery is the most dramatic: the soaring, sunlit chapel, already cut in half when Rauschenberg arrived but with its Gothic-inspired windows and golden paneling mostly intact. After buying the property, he had the altar deconsecrated and removed and added a skylight to bring in the sunshine necessary for an art studio. It’s much brighter today, as a neighboring building was later torn down. Just outside the chapel-studio, Rauschenberg kept paints and inks and other supplies in the former sacristy’s cupboards and drawers. They still bear the labels of the priests’ garments once stored there–from chasubles to albs.

A former second-floor drawing room at the front of the town house contains desks. At the rear is Rauschenberg’s bedroom, now a conference room where a large piece from his Salvage series accompanies classic modern furnishings. A glass display case holds small treasures from his personal collection, including 13-year-old cookies that bear portraits, in icing, of musician David Byrne, art critic Robert Hughes, and domestic diva Martha Stewart–participants in “Synapsis Shuffle,” Rauschenberg’s interactive exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The eat-in kitchen, still functional, is a monastic as in Rauschenberg’s day. “Bob wasn’t interested in anything resembling a formal dining room or living room,” senior curator David White suggests. There’s not much to the kitchen, save a few chairs gathered around a wooden table and an ancient-looking cast-iron stove with tangles of gas pipes wrapping its blackened front.

Adjoining the kitchen, a onetime refectory has become a gallery with various Rauschenberg constructions displayed alongside potted plants and an Egyptian sarcophagus bought during his 1970’s trip to the Middle East. “For Bob, everything was fuel for art,” White notes. Even the apples from the small grove of trees planted on the roof: Rauschenberg cast the cores in gold, silver, and bronze.

The building perfectly captures an artistic vision, but the foundation is also looking toward the future. Interior Design Hall of Fame member Annabelle Selldorf, who last year transformed a foundation-owned warehouse into a satellite project space, will be consulting on an organizational revamp of the headquarters as well–MacLear has no specifics now. “It’s like living in a house before you renovate it,” she suggests. “We’ll figure out what we need as we go.” Without erasing Rauschenberg’s indelible fingerprints.

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