During the 1950s and ’60s, artists revered Pollock but they copied de Kooning. When they stopped copying de Kooning, they started copying Rauschenberg. It’s hard to peg down genius, but Bob was one. We first met as students at Black Mountain College in the fall of 1950. Work crews were being assembled to take care of maintenance of the facilities at the school. Bob, Cy Twombly and I were designated to work together and assigned to creosote buildings. I clearly looked disgruntled at the prospect. I was 18. Bob and Cy were both in their mid-20s and very handsome. They approached me, one on either side, each putting an arm around me. Bob leaned over with his infectious laugh and smile and whispered in my ear, “We have a car.” That was all it took. We drove to Asheville, fooled around all day, and when we got back Bob made brown paintings with newspaper and the creosote. I wonder if they still survive.
Bob always had that kind of attitude toward precedent and it is part of what made him so great. He wasn’t much of a reader—I don’t know if I ever saw him read a book. His attitude towards art history partly came through Duchamp whom he knew and whose widow, Tina, was a life-long friend. Classical art had little allure for him. So he was never too bogged down with the past and was always very rebellious and free in the decisions he made in his work. There was something so straightforward about him—in his life, his work, his sexuality. You felt his full presence in everything that he did. He was ambitious too and out to change the stodginess of the art world seemingly by just being himself.
When the Combines first emerged in the art world, they received terrible reviews. The New York Times slaughtered him. Everyone was looking for something known and no one saw what was in front of them. I went to his first exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery with an architect who couldn’t understand why anyone would look at something that was so terribly made. Everyone hated them. However, little by little, people began to see in them a way out of the orthodoxies that then dominated the art world. An overly scrupulous group of de Kooning followers had allowed Abstract Expressionism to become uninventive and Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz hadn’t yet succeeded in reinvigorating representation. Then along came Bob and, making it look easy, started assembling the things he saw around him, one next to another, always including aspects of nature, and setting it all off with a whole new approach to painting. Everyone in those days was talking about movement and color, a lot of very formal considerations. Rauschenberg took a striated, colored umbrella, attached a motor to turn it, stuck it in a collaged mass of paint, wood and photographs and called it Charlene (1954). That was what he had to say about color theory and formal art making.
But what makes Charlene great, just like all his best work, is that it is personal. Bob’s work is diaristic. He was not doing Pop Art, as many later said he was; he was collecting and making his life into an art object. Charlene was a friend, a dancer with Merce Cunningham. Images of his father, his former wife, Susan Weil, and his son Christopher reappear throughout his work and the objects and images he employed were used with love as the stuff of his daily existence. He was generous in that way and his need to make things was completely infectious.
When other artists saw what he did, Bob’s work inspired them. They wanted to do it themselves. At least fifty percent of the work I see in Chelsea today has been influenced by Bob. His collages were in dialogue with art history, too. That seems to contradict what I said earlier, but Bob didn’t study art history, he lived it.
These days, I sometimes feel that art is becoming as radio is now. When I was a child, all you had to do was turn the radio on to hear something interesting and wonderful. There was great drama, well-written and acted, great humor and inspiring music. Radio was a magical means of mental transportation. Slowly, it was taken over as a commercial medium and now you really have to search to find something worthwhile. It is bland. Bob was against this in art. He wanted to stir things up and to make trouble and he did. He used his wonderful mind to this end. I remember sitting in Bob’s kitchen after work one evening having a drink with him and Brice Marden. I had been reading Borges on memory, and we began discussing how memory works. “I like to use my memory for the future,” said Bob, “because I already know what happened in the past.” To all of our good fortune, Bob’s endless inventiveness extended to all aspects of his life with those around him. This is the passing of a giant. To paraphrase de Kooning on Gorky: Bob, bless your dear, sweet heart. We will always miss you.