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The Real Rauschenberg

“Every day, he would walk past a used furniture store in SoHo and saw the sad-looking [stuffed Angora] goat in the window. Bob felt so bad for it, he had to take it home. He already had the tire and cut it to go around the goat’s middle. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, installers, not knowing the tire belonged on the goat, tried to remove it.”  —Dr. John Fenning

This is just one of many stories famed artist Robert Rauschenberg shared with Dr. John Fenning, the Fort Myers orthopedic surgeon who started out a collector but soon became a longtime friend.

So what happened to the goat? Rauschenberg named the combination painting/sculpture, or “combine,” Monogram, for his large initials, RR, on its base. Completed in 1959, it is now safe and sound in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Fenning and his wife, Frances, of Fort Myers, began their own collection of Rauschenberg artwork in 1982 and met him about five years later at an art show. Fenning replaced Rauschenberg’s hip about 10 years ago, and they remained close until the artist’s death in May 2008. At 82, immobile from a heart condition, Rauschenberg asked that his life support be stopped. He died at his Captiva home.

Fenning will share his personal collection of about 80 Rauschenberg pieces in an exhibit at the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art from Jan. 12 to March 20. Here, he joins Myra Janco Daniels, founder and CEO of the museum and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, to share personal memories of their friend.


What was Robert Rauschenberg really like?

This exhibit isn’t a first for Daniels. She showed Rauschenberg’s paintings in the Phil more than 20 years ago, selling some for several hundred thousand dollars apiece. “Bob was a brilliant man and very open with me,” she recalls. “You didn’t have to second-guess him.”

“But he was a loner in his vision,” says Fenning.

“He liked to have parties at his home and was a good cook,” Daniels recalls. “Sometimes Darryl [Pottorf], his partner for 25 years, would do the cooking. I remember sitting with Bob when he was sick. He was a gentleman and wanted to help others.”  

“Yes, helping others was his passion,” Fenning says. Among Rauschenberg’s many causes, including donations to fight leprosy and AIDS, was Change, a nonprofit organization he created to provide emergency support to artists in need. 

“Bob liked to make bird’s nest soup,” Fenning adds, referring to the Chinese delicacy. “We often had it at his house. It tastes like a bit of salt, a bit of wildness and is brownish. We always sat at the counter looking into the kitchen.”

“I recall Bob liked to exchange recipes and make chowders. The house is modern and mostly a large gallery with a very efficient kitchen at one end,” Daniels says. “It’s unusual, with an elevator and two bedrooms.” He kept a team of assistants busy there on his art projects.

 When Fenning first met Rausch-enberg, he bought Ruminations, a Rauschenberg series containing 15 prints with photographic portraits of modernist musician John Cage and Tatyana Grosman, founder of the Islip, N.Y., studio where Rauschenberg’s prints were made. 

Once, flying to their second home in Montana, the Fennings spotted President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, at a Salt Lake City airport en route to financier Ted Turner’s ranch, where Carter planned to fish. Frances Fenning informed Carter she saw him and his daughter every day—in a Rauschenberg print at home.

Fenning says Rauschenberg remained friendly with his former wife, New York artist Susan Weil Kirschenbaum—they were married from 1950 to 1953 and had a son—and Rauschenberg owned a five-story New York brownstone. “A friend was driving him around the city one time,” Fenning says. “Finally, after rolling into a slum, the driver exclaimed, ‘I’m sorry! I’m lost!’ Bob answered, ‘That’s fine!’ and started snapping photographs of the neighborhood.” 


What kind of artist was Rauschenberg?

Rauschenberg was a master of improvisation, inviting random occurrences into his work.

He once urged the printer at Grosman’s to continue to pull prints when a limestone block split—something other artists would have considered the ruination of their work.

Famously, he literally erased a drawing by his much-admired friend Willem De Kooning—with De Kooning’s permission. It was not a negative act but created a tension he did not find otherwise, having erased some of his own drawings. Spontaneous artwork from a spontaneous person.

Neapolitans will recall the unusual exhibition Beamer Paintings and the BMW Art Car Rauschenberg displayed about 2004 at Eckert Fine Art, now located in Kent, Conn.  

“Bob had an incredible variety of interests,” Fenning says. “Once while visiting our home, he was impressed with the deep chime of our grandfather clock. ‘I’d like to perform a dance with that chime,’ he said. Bob had a fine history of performance art and worked with [longtime experimental choreographer] Trisha Brown and her dance company. If Picasso invented collage, then Bob completely redesigned it and invented the newest approaches.”

“Bob was a proud man with reason to be proud of his accomplishments,” says Daniels. “Nobody told him what to do.”


How did Rauschenberg come to art?

In rejecting abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg altered the course of modern art and influenced many later artists. He did not have early art training, Fenning says. That occurred later at Black Mountain College, N.C., with artist Joseph Albers (whom he told this writer he couldn’t please); AcadémieJulian, Paris; and The Art Students League of New York.

Fenning recalls this conversation with Rauschenberg:
“When they started talking about the old masters in the Louvre, I just left,” Rauschenberg said. “I had my own ideas.”

Fenning replied, “You’ve always been out of the box.”

“You have to be, John,” Rausch-enberg said. “I took it all in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the Greeks to the Rembrandts, and now I’m it. …There is no reason not to consider the world as one great painting.”

Rauschenberg described to Fenning his working method when he gave up three-dimensional art for prints: “I lay out about five or six in a series of images I like,” he said. “Then I start on any series and name it after one image I like.”

“With Bob, everything was life,” Fenning says. “He created his own world. Some of his newer [media] had faults. Some shipped works were left on a cold tarmac and cracked. I don’t know what happened to them.”

Fenning will never forget a trip to Bilbao, Spain, after the opening of Rauschenberg’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum there in 1999.

“About 45 of us Americans decided to have dinner at our hotel after the opening,” Fenning says. “Bob loved eating baby eels. The evening was very nice. The Basque chefs came out afterward and we applauded them. And all of that was because of Bob. I picked up the check and was amazed the total, with wine, was just $1,300!”

The Fennings recently returned from a Rauschenberg exhibition at New York’s Gagosian Gallery, his artistic estate dealer. Fenning, who turns 78 this month, still sees patients. He is on the board of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and has been invited to join the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s board. The foundation, whose assets totaled $15.9 million in 2009, brought on Christy MacLear as executive director last July. She is former executive director of the late Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.


What were those closest to Rauschenberg like?

Rauschenberg’s son, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg, 59, is president and chairman of his father’s foundation. Choosing to live in Portland, Ore., because of its ambiance, he exhibits his art widely and roams the world. Captiva artist Pottorf, 58, who began there as Rauschenberg’s assistant, was executor of his estate. He says it was amazing how the artist loved to give his money away. Like Rauschenberg, Pottorf contributes to many Fort Myers arts groups. 

Shortly after Rauschenberg’s death, Christopher lamented his father’s battle with alcoholism in an interview with Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett. “Alcohol is a powerful dragon to slay. I’m sorry he couldn’t make that happen,” he said. “People have flaws. He had that one, but he was a good deal as a dad.”

Pottorf, in a 2008 interview with the Italian ABnewsTV posted on his website, recalled how Rauschenberg, who did not have AIDS, once noticed people standing many feet away from Robert Mapplethorpe, art photographer and AIDS victim, at his Manhattan opening. Rauschenberg rushed up, kissed him squarely on the mouth and broke the tension.

In his will, Rauschenberg also remembered his sister and nephew, Janet and Byron Begneaud, and his former wife.

Speaking of the artist’s thoughtfulness, Fenning recalls that one of Rauschenberg’s several nurses had a daughter who was on a foreign cruise when her father died at home suddenly. “Bob hired a plane to take the nurse to a port so she could tell her daughter directly of her father’s death.” 

Fenning recalls how Pottorf, in a reverent gesture, applied a thumbprint with Rauschenberg’s ashes to a painting in the Fennings’ collection. “You couldn’t know Bob and not love him,” Daniels says.


Art and architecture critic Donald Miller interviewed Robert Rauschenberg three times in Naples.   

Art © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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