“Fall in love with Robert Rauschenberg, galactic master of art and life, through his worldwide collaborations.”
~Dorothy Lichtenstein, president of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
To close our week long celebration of Robert Rauschenberg, oral historian Cameron Vanderscoff brings Rauschenberg’s 1975 visit to India back to life. Though Rauschenberg’s stay was not long, the materials, use of color and environment in India made a lasting impression on his work. Vanderscoff, who was on the interviewing team for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, shares how significant this trip was by recalling his own trip to India that traced Rauschenberg’s steps many decades later. Discover how the change of location forced Rauschenberg’s art to new boundaries.
Enter our drawing for a chance to win a copy of Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History to learn more about this legendary artist!
• • • • • •
In November 2016 I found myself tracing Robert Rauschenberg’s trail to India. It was the final chapter of life history collection for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, and I had already conducted sessions in his studio-residences in New York and Florida as a part of our team’s efforts to document those two great centers of his biography and work. By comparison, his 1975 trip to India could easily be dismissed as a footnote: he was only there for a handful of weeks, and while multiple art series either emerged on the trip or were inspired by it, well, Rauschenberg was always a prolific artist.
I booked tickets because I thought there was something more there that required witnessing to name. In ’75 Rauschenberg was still in the earlier years following his ‘68 move from New York City to Captiva, Florida, and from then to now, questions have circulated about that relocation and what it signified for the vitality of his art. What did it mean that one of the great protagonists of New York’s upstart postwar rise in art world had moved to a secluded island in Florida? While the restless city would find ways to adapt to having less Rauschenberg, what would Rauschenberg do with less New York?
In May and June of 1975, Rauschenberg was also about to turn 50, and he was no longer downtown’s wunderkind. We live in a society that can forgive many things of artists except aging on their own terms. And Rauschenberg never really returned to the metropolis in the same way as before. While he maintained a home in Manhattan, Captiva was his primary residence until his death in 2008, and he did much of his work there, sourcing materials from the tides and junkyards of the Gulf Coast instead the post-industrial cityscape. In some quarters, uncertainties remain. Leading art critics like Calvin Tomkins have wondered “if something went out of his own work when that kind of shared energy [with his famous collaborators in NYC] was no longer available to him.” Other commentators have noted that even today the art world and market lag decades behind in understanding or valuing much of his Captiva-era work.
“His 1975 trip to India could easily be dismissed as a footnote: he was only there for a handful of weeks, and while multiple art series either emerged on the trip or were inspired by it, well, Rauschenberg was always a prolific artist.”
My work on the Project focused on Rauschenberg’s Captiva years, and I wondered if the defining qualities of his time in India—it was a different and distinct setting from his American homes, a relatively new landscape of different sights, sounds, smells, and colors—made it the perfect setting to serve as acid test and testament to his creativity in these years of redefinition.
So I found myself traveling to India 41 years after Bob. It was the first weeks after the 2016 election, when every American abroad was a de facto ambassador, trying to simultaneously comprehend and articulate what was about to happen in Washington. India was having its own disorienting moment with Narendra Modi, who, right around the time I arrived, launched an abrupt and sweeping “de-monetization,” with the stated goal of removing “black money”—the cash current of corruption and tax evasion—from the market. Practically, what this meant is many larger denominations—the lion’s share of the rupees I had just withdrawn—were suddenly illegal tender.
As bank runs and demonetized rupee black markets roiled across the country, I traveled from Delhi to Ahmedabad. Unlike my 2016 trip, Bob’s ’75 journey was not his first time in India. However, his one earlier visit had been a whirlwind pass-through with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on their 1964 World Tour. His ‘75 visit was at the more personalized invitation of the Sarabhais, a prominent family of art patrons and industrialists who played central roles in the economic and cultural life of Ahmedabad. Rauschenberg made the impetuous decision to accept, assembling a coterie of friends, family, staff, and supplies—including cases of Jack Daniel’s—to travel to the Sarahbai compound, the Retreat, nestled in the dense heart of Ahmedabad. There, without access to his usual palette of New York or Gulf Coast found objects, Rauschenberg, always a worker and creator, had to seek new materials.
Sheets of paper hung up to dry at the Kalam Kush mill in November 2016
A series of interviews I conducted there that are now archived in the Oral History Project’s collection—including exchanges with Asha Sarabhai, Suhrid Sarabhai, and Manu Dantani—document the burst of creativity that ensued across those weeks. With the Sarabhais’ support and facilitation, Rauschenberg drafted everyone on hand into the shared endeavor. He invited children and adults alike to mold a mud-like compound by hand, and worked with employees of the local Kalam Kush paper mill and his own team on custom paper-based pieces, while launching expeditions out to the Khadi silk shops and secondhand textile markets to source their spools of color.
Both then and now, the Retreat is aptly named: it’s an oasis of calm, spotted with stately houses, roaming peacocks, and a small army of family workers and employees, all sheltered under a bower of trees and quiet. The surrounding city is a riot of life, honking auto rickshaws and street hawkers, the sweep of ornate mosques and Jain temples and old city skylines set alongside neighborhoods marked by poverty, struggle, commerce, and striving. It’s a scene of contrasts, of beauty and hardships.
The Retreat was the center of my efforts there, as it was for Rauschenberg. I interviewed Asha and Suhrid by the pool at their Le Corbusier designed house, and they remembered those days in 1975 as a rush of artistic production, with reams of materials coming in from the world outside the Retreat to be refashioned in the world inside of it. They also recalled that it was an exercise in endurance. May is the zenith of the hot season in Ahmedabad, with daily temperatures consistently soaring past one hundred degrees, a time when local life and work rhythms are dictated by motion of sun and shadows. I was there in the cool season, but the movable walls of the Corbusier house—custom designed to manage ventilation—carried in them the memory and anticipation of heat.
From L to R, Asha Sarabhai, Manu Dantani, and Suhrid Sarabhai in November 2016. They are in the same place in the Retreat where they collaborated with Rauschenberg in 1975.
My own time in Ahmedabad was like re-drawing a map of Bob’s time there, one full of annotations in the margins and strikethroughs and exclamation marks. I found myself following Bob’s materials back into their origins—and deep into their histories. I visited the Kalam Kush mill, which is still making paper with the same traditional recipe. It is also still across the street from and affiliated with Gandhi’s former ashram on the Sabarmati River, where he lived when he led the Salt March.
When I went there with Asha and Suhrid, skilled laborers were hand-operating wooden molds and rinsing them in stone vats of water. At that time the mill was producing its standard white paper and a seasonal issue, a gorgeous yellow-gold paper dyed and embedded with marigold blossoms. I met a veteran worker on the line there who had been a young man when Rauschenberg and his team visited in 1975. With the Sarabhais translating from Gujarati to English, he shared his recollections of Bob’s visit in between pours of paper pulp into the frame. The Sarabhai’s longtime employee at the Retreat, Manu Dantani, likewise recounted the crafting of individual pieces like Little Joe. In spite of the intervening decades, the ‘75 visit felt alive to me, their stories bringing it almost close enough to touch, making it almost clear enough to see.
“In spite of the intervening decades, the ‘75 visit felt alive to me, their stories bringing it almost close enough to touch, making it almost clear enough to see.”
Both Rauschenberg’s trip and work there were very much a story of place as a well as people. Ahmedabad is a historic center of textiles and the arts—the Sarabhais were originally textile barons—and the diverse materials Bob encountered there have deep wells of history and legacy. Even the mud-like compound that he had everyone patting and shaping has a long past as a building material in the region. In this way, in using these materials, he both made them a small part of his body of work while he himself was woven in as a small part of the enormous saga of art and innovation in Ahmedabad. It’s a story that dates back over thousands of years of living tradition, and carries into the 20th and 21st century through other modern artists who have worked there across forms, from Alexander Calder to Suhrid’s aunt Mrinalini Sarabhai, a pathbreaking figuring in classical Bharatanatyam dance. Asha herself is a celebrated designer of textiles and fashion, which Rauschenberg went on to model in the 90s.
Like Rauschenberg, I encountered these materials as an outsider, first as color and light, texture and touch. I saw the paper coming damp off the line and hung up to dry overhead in rows that shimmered in the morning light. I breathed in the tamarind and fenugreek of the mud-like compound when they were crushed across my palms. I turned around in the back of a cab and saw a woman passing by on a motorbike, a long bolt of her pink silk sari bannering out behind her against the sky. The Sarabhais’ generous drivers took me to the Khadi shops, which are known for their handspun “nonviolent” ahimsa silks, where the silkworm is allowed to break free from its cocoon instead of being boiled, leaving unique imperfections in each cloth as the signs of their life and transformation. At one shop, I noticed Bengali sari patterns just like the one Rauschenberg used in his ’75 piece Mirage.
Asha told me about the marks and ripples that Rauschenberg’s own journey left in its wake:
“I woke up in the morning to thinking, what was it that really struck me about Bob? The main thing was that it was as though he thought—the way I felt it was that he thought the potential in every human being was there to either be more of themselves, or to be both more of themselves and more of something else. So it was this strange thing of drawing out and bringing in; that you could just keep expanding in the best sense.”
Something happened in India, not just for Rauschenberg, but for the other people who shared in the art-making. From the perspective of the work, Rauschenberg not only came out of it with two new series—the paper and “mud”-based Bones and Unions—but with the inspiration for a third series in textiles, Jammers. Faced with a setting that challenged him and forced him to scrap his assumptions about materials, the man who was known for menagerie-like Combines, electric experiments in art and technology, and proto-Pop Art lithography collages was ready to start over. And perhaps most importantly for his subsequent work, what he saw in India changed his sensibility for color and beauty. As Asha put it, he had a gift for “alchemy, and I think that he had the capacity, for me, anyway, to turn things into gold in the best sense.”
Ahmedabad can be seen as a hinge moment, an inflection point in his career that spoke to both his past and his future. In one sense, it shows he retained the creative dynamics he had as a young man in New York, the up-and-comer who could scramble unlikely ingredients and create something improbable and compelling. At the same time, in Ahmedabad I found a prime example of Rauschenberg as a middle aged artist who was trying reinvent himself not just at home but around the globe. His later years with his home base in Captiva were not a retreat from the center of the world, but, at their best, a journey out into it. Nine years after Ahmedabad, he went on to launch the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, where he worked across four continents over seven-odd years.
Silks for sale at a textile show in Ahmedabad in November 2016
One thing comes through clear from my own time there. Whether I was sitting at the Corbusier house eating delicious Gujarati food off a Thali plate—my always-gracious hosts provided gentle pointers on how to properly eat with my hands—or hearing the call to prayer roll through the traffic and hum of the old city, I felt close to something else that Rauschenberg’s life and work can teach us: to hold on to the ability to fall in love with the world, again and anew. And what’s more, to practice that most important art in small, daily, imaginative ways, like the way Bob could see mud or a taxidermized goat or busted road signs or a Bengali sari and perceive possibility. There’s something sustaining in that, a memory and a manual for creativity across life.
When one can do that in the sort of context that happened for Bob, and for Asha, and for Suhrid, and for Manu, and others on those sweltering weeks in 1975, art can be inscribed not just in the crafted product, but the communal process. Asha put it best in a letter she sent to Bob in later years, looking back to those fast-flying summer days: “Time was so short and yet long—for it was able to contain much of warmth and gentleness and care.”