Artist Robert Rauschenberg returns to the city his family has called home since 1948 to exhibit his art in memory of his late mother.
May 11, 2005
After graduating from Cecilia High School in 1956, Dickie Landry was having a hard time deciding on his life’s work. He was torn between pursuing a life as a classical or contemporary artist or honing his musical chops either in jazz or classical music. While reading an issue of Time magazine, he saw the art of Robert Rauschenberg. “When I looked at what he had painted,” Landry says, “it completely freed me of all ties to classical, jazz, whatever. He had painted his bed and put it on the wall. I thought if he could do that, then I’m free to do anything.” Landry compares the experience to hearing jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman for the first time, musicians who had the power not only to change the direction of music, but of individuals’ lives as well.
Landry went on to become both a world-renowned musician and a visual artist in his own right. But at the time, he had no way of knowing that a magazine article would be an introduction to a lifelong friendship with Rauschenberg that began in New York in the ’60s. Or that more than three decades later, Landry’s adopted hometown of Lafayette would host an exhibit of works by Rauschenberg, considered one of the most pre-eminent American artists of his time.
For Rauschenberg, his upcoming exhibition at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum is a homecoming of sorts. While not born and raised in Lafayette, Rauschenberg’s sister and his parents moved here in 1948. The exhibition, Scenarios and Short Stories, is dedicated to his mother, Dora, who passed away six years ago at the age of 97.
Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925. His father, Ernest Rauschenberg, worked as a lineman for Gulf States Utilities, and his mother, Dora Matson, was a telephone operator from Galveston before she married Ernest and became a fulltime mother.
After graduating from high school, Rauschenberg enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin to study pharmacy but didn’t complete his freshman year. He was drafted into the Navy and served for two and a half years. During that time, his father was transferred, and his family relocated to Lafayette.
Janet Begneaud, a local real estate broker for the past 36 years, is 10 years younger than her older brother and was 12 years old when her family came to Lafayette. Even with her father’s job with the utility company, Begneaud remembers living on very modest means. “I didn’t have a ready-made dress until I graduated from the university here,” she says. “We were poor, but I didn’t know it. We really had a happy, loving family.”
While his family put down roots in Lafayette, Rauschenberg headed to the Kansas City Art Institute, Paris’ Academie Julian, and North Carolina’s Black Mountain College to study art. In the process of transforming himself into an artist, Rauschenberg changed his name. “I didn’t want to be called Miltie or Ernie anymore,” he says in a phone conversation from his home in Captiva, Fla. “I had had enough of it for two and a half years in the Navy. So I started calling myself Bob. I liked it. Then later when people got to know me better and just assumed that I had some dignity, it became Robert then. So now I’m known as either Robert or Bob.”
He also reinvented himself in a more profound way through his fiercely independent artwork. Beginning in the early ’50s, Rauschenberg bucked conventional styles and experimented in a variety of mediums. His White Paintings were simply white house paint on canvas; he continued that color theme with the series of Red Paintings that incorporated collages. By 1959, Rauschenberg’s unconventional vision manifested itself in pieces like Monogram, which incorporated a stuffed goat, tire, and tennis ball on a canvas, blurring the lines between painting and sculpture. Such creations helped pave the way for the Pop Art movement of the 1960s — which Rauschenberg ignored to focus on other artistic pursuits including set design, silkscreening and performance pieces.
Rauschenberg’s father never really understood his desire to be an artist. “My daddy didn’t understand that someone would go be an artist,” Begneaud says. “He had worked all of his life, and he didn’t even finish high school. Even though Daddy didn’t understand a lot about it, he had to appreciate that it was a pretty big thing. There was a big write-up in Time magazine, and Daddy was real proud of that. I think that was the first time that he started thinking that maybe there’s something to this.”
In 1963, at the age of 60, while working on the line, the elder Rauschenberg suffered a heart attack. He drove himself to the hospital and died a day later. “It was a tremendous loss because right after that Bob’s career started blooming,” Begneaud says. “Looking back on it, I guess what Daddy was thinking about was that Bob needed to make a living.”
Rauschenberg has made quite a living. The year his father died, he had his first career retrospective show, and in 1964, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale — a top honor in the international art circuit. A bona fide star was born, and Rauschenberg’s paintings now easily fetch $1 million and have sold for as much $5 million. He employs nine assistants in Florida and another nine in New York City. In 1999, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one of his paintings for $12 million.
Over time, according to Begneaud, her mother accepted her brother’s life. “She was the happiest, silliest little lady, and she was so proud of Bob,” she says. “She really didn’t understand what his work meant, but when we would go to one of the big shows, she would say, ‘Bob sometimes does pretty things.’ Well, that used to kill him when she would ask him to paint her a pretty picture. Bob was really generous about inviting mother and I to his shows because he didn’t come to Lafayette to visit very much, but he would always come on her birthday.”
Dora Rauschenberg was also a practical woman. Begneaud tells the story of how Dora put her son’s art to work when Hurricane Andrew was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. “When I talked to mother I said, ‘You ought to let Byron [her husband] come get you and go on over to our house.’ She had a great big picture window, and she said ‘Oh no, I’m going to be fine. I’ve already boarded up the windows.’
“I said, ‘How did you board them up?’
“She said, ‘I got the yard man next door to come and help me. You know those two old things that were up there in the attic that Milton had painted …’ She never did learn to say Bob.
“She said, ‘I just got him to nail them up there, so that window won’t break.’
“So I said, ‘Where did you nail it?’
“She said, ‘Right there on the porch. You hardly won’t see those nail holes because he put them way in the corner.’ So I talked to Bob on the phone and told him what she had done, and he died laughing. After the storm though, we took them down, and they were OK.”
Rauschenberg says that when he found out what his mother had done, he called her and asked her which way she had faced the paintings when she nailed them to her house.
“Well, inside,” she replied. “Do you think I want the neighbors to know what you do?”
Begneaud says of their mother, “The best thing she ever gave Bob, aside from a ton of love, was the ability to laugh at ourselves, to have fun and be silly. When we would take her somewhere, she was the life of the party. She was so funny and really sweet.”
Inside Dickie Landry’s apartment in downtown Lafayette, his own pieces of art hang on his walls, along with Rauschenberg’s posters and art. There’s one photo, taken in 1988, that shows a grinning Landry and Rauschenberg sitting next to one another in a plane en route to Havana, Cuba. The plane ride was just one leg of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange program that Rauschenberg founded in 1984. Through 1990, Rauschenberg spent $7 million to fund the endeavor. At one time he sold parts of his own art collection — including works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns — to raise the funds.
The idea behind ROCI was to create art from cultures around the world, while exposing those cultures to contemporary American art. The traveling exhibition was held in China, Tibet, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, Japan, Malaysia, the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union. Landry accompanied him to Mexico City, Moscow and Havana and played his saxophone during the opening of each installment of the exhibition.
Rauschenberg is also the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Change Inc. “Its mission,” he says, “is to offer emergency funds overnight to artists that are in peril.” Landry was one of the early recipients of Rauschenberg’s generosity; when Landry’s New York apartment was badly damaged in a fire, Change Inc. gave him enough money to get back on his feet. Landry later donated some of his own artwork to Change Inc. in gratitude, evidence of their friendship and Landry’s respect for Rauschenberg that continues to this day.
“He’s still working,” Landry says. “He’s not giving up. He told me in February, ‘My body can’t do what it could do, but my mind’s still working.’” Four years ago, the 79-year-old Rauschenberg suffered a stroke that left the right side of his body paralyzed.
“The guy wakes up in the morning, and he’s making art,” Landry says, “and he goes to bed making art. Prolific is not the word. It’s just amazing. And the truth is, I’ve talked to senior art majors at UL, and maybe 70 percent haven’t a clue who he is. That’s very unfortunate because he’s one of America’s — the world’s — greatest living artists. It’s a shame that people don’t pay attention to that. This is a huge deal for Lafayette, for him to come and show anywhere around this area. It’s major.”
Begneaud recalls a recent conversation with her brother about his upcoming exhibition. She says, “I told him the other day, ‘This probably won’t be the biggest show you’ve ever had and certainly not the most important show you ever had, but I want it to be the most fun show you’ve ever had.’
“He kind of laughed and said, ‘No, it will be the best show I ever have.’”
The Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum will present Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition, Scenarios and Short Stories, from May 21 through Sept. 3. Exhibitions by Rauschenberg’s son, Christopher Rauschenberg, and his longtime friend and collaborator Darryl Pottorf will also be on display. For more information, call 482-2278 or visit www.louisiana.edu/uam.
A look at the two artists exhibiting with Robert Rauschenberg
A photographer based in Portland, Ore., Christopher Rauschenberg (son of Robert Rauschenberg) will exhibit color images from his travels in Europe in his untitled exhibition. “They are all images put together that overlap slightly and are hung as one panorama,” he says. Although he admits to carrying a small digital camera around in his pocket, he still prefers to work with film. Describing his approach to his work, Rauschenberg says, “For me, the theme of my work in general is to look at the ordinary world and appreciate it. My sense is that my work is to get people to pay attention and look at the things that go on around them. That’s a big part of art in general, and that’s the part that resonates with me.”
Darryl Pottorf: A Perspective
A longtime friend, collaborator and assistant to Robert Rauschenberg for 25 years, Darryl Pottorf has lived and worked on Captiva Island, Fla., for the last 13 years near his friend. Pottorf has shared a dozen exhibitions with Rauschenberg. “I am extremely visually oriented and always have been,” Pottorf says. “I’ve always been a dreamer, and I try to put together a combination of things that create a total visual experience. Sometimes that has a story to tell and sometimes it doesn’t, but I like the viewer to try and discover it.” Pottorf’s exhibition will consist of his various works from the last 25 years. “I’m not really known in Lafayette,” he says. “So I thought I should do a variety of work to show where I’ve come from and where I am.”