In an act befitting the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg’s renowned altruism, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation offered to lend works to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, leaving the choice of works and the design and subject of the exhibition open to the curator. Such magnanimity is rare. I have done my best to do exactly as requested: bring new eyes to Rauschenberg. The unforeseen opportunity to guest curate such an exhibition is a great honor and the gift of a lifetime bestowed on me in 2012 by Sarah Schroth, Director of the Nasher. My gratitude is boundless.
Unexpectedly immersed in Rauschenberg’s art, which had seemed so familiar, I was continually surprised by his profound insights into the world of relationships, difference, and things in themselves, or, as he wrote at the age of twenty-five in 1951: “(therefore it is).” Although it is doubtful that he knew Martin Heidegger’s concept of “the Being of things,” Rauschenberg’s peerless attention to and perception of everything in itself recalls the German philosopher’s description that something “is, as it is.” In Rauschenberg’s voracious hunger for life in and through art, he renewed mine. I am sincerely grateful to all those at the Rauschenberg Foundation who initiated, supported, and, with cheer and generosity, worked with me, my students, and everyone at the Nasher on this exhibition: Christy MacLear, David White, Susan Davidson, Helen Hsu, Thomas Buehler, Laurence Getford, Shanna Kudowitz, and Bernard Lagrange. My special thanks goes to Christopher Rauschenberg for blessing the project.
Katharine Adkins, the exhibition’s coordinator, expertly guided it through many stages to completion, attending to a myriad of details, including editing a wide variety of texts and much more, with patience and professionalism. It was a pleasure to work with Brad Johnson on the exhibition design, and with Wendy Hower, Rachel Goodwin, Reneé Cagnina Haynes, Chanelle Croxton, and J Caldwell on everything from the catalogue, banners, and online images, to design. With cheer and goodwill, Charles Carroll and Kelly Woolbright added all the new research we discovered about the works in the Nasher’s collection to the registrar’s records, and Kristen L. Greenaway was a staunch supporter of a paper catalogue for the students. Everyone on the Nasher staff contributed his or her labor and support to this exhibition. My thanks to Molly Boarati, Juline Chevalier, Alan Dippy, Kenneth Dodson, Jamie Dupre, Patrick Krivacka, Lee Nisbet, Marshall Price, Jessica Ruhle, Trevor Schoonmaker, Marianne Wardle, Stephanie Wheatley, and Kathy Wright.
In the fall of 2013, Duke undergraduates Lauren Acampora, Katherine Hardiman, Emma Hart, Jacqueline Samy, and Taylor Zakarin joined me in a two-semester seminar as curatorial assistants and authors of essays in the catalogue, for which they each earned the honor of Graduation with Distinction. They stood up to the unruly demands of an ambitious and complex exhibition, grappling with and surviving a professor whose motto, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I adored and hounded them; they coped with me; their individual essays attest to each student’s investment in the project. Each chose a very challenging topic and arrived at original conclusions, making unique contributions to the history of both Rauschenberg’s work as well as that of artists in the Nasher’s collection.
Thanks, too, to Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger for lending an important drawing by Bruce Conner to the exhibition, as well as to the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library for lending Bruce Conner ephemera. The curatorial aim of Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting was always to put Rauschenberg’s art in dialogue with selected works from the Nasher Museum collection, but no dialogue is more prominent than that featured in the section of the show titled Bruce Conner One Man Show (with Rauschenberg). This intentionally ironic title builds on Conner’s notorious games with identity and showcases twenty-four works from the Nasher Museum’s newly acquired collection of Conner’s art in many media. I have worked closely with the artist Jean Conner (Conner’s widow) and the Conner Family Foundation—especially Robert (Bob) Conway, its director, and filmmaker Michelle Silva, its curator of films. Jean thoughtfully answered questions about Conner’s art and history, and she and Michelle graciously fact-checked the students’ essays on Conner. Michelle also advocated for the exhibition; and Bob tirelessly helped sort out details of Conner’s titles, answering my seemingly endless questions.
Another major aspect of the exhibition is the visual conversation it sets in motion between Rauschenberg’s and major Soviet artists’ work in the Nasher Museum’s little known, but extremely important, collection of Soviet nonconformist art from the 1980s and 1990s. The learning curve on this aspect of the exhibition was steep, but rewarding. I have many of the artists in the show to thank, including Leonid Lerman, Vitaly Komar, Shimon Okshteyn, Arsen Savadov, and Georgii Senchenko, all of who personally responded to my queries. The American artist Dennis O’Neil, founder of the Moscow Studio, generously narrated the history of the unique print workshop that he founded in Moscow in 1991, and shed critical light on four Wallpaper works in the exhibition by Vera Khlebnikova, Igor Makarevich, Pavel Makov, and Leonid Tishkov.
Jane Ashton Sharp—Associate Professor of Twentieth Century Art, Russian and Soviet Art, and Soviet Nonconformist Art, as well as Research Curator of the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection, the premier collection of Soviet nonconformist art in the U.S., at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University—was the authority I frequently turned to with questions about works in the Nasher Museum’s collection selected for this exhibition. Jane generously lectured to the seminar on Soviet conceptual art, as did Pamela Kachurin, Visiting Assistant Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. Pamela also answered my own and students’ questions about the Nasher Soviet collection, as well as translated material from the collection. Valerie Hillings—Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Associate Curator and Manager of Curatorial Affairs for the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi Project—also answered questions about the Soviet works. The art historian and curator Bettina Jungen, at the Mead Museum of Art at Amherst College, tutored me on the history and iconography of Oleg Vassiliev’s House with an Attic series (1992), four prints of which are in the exhibition. Last, but most importantly, I would like to recognize Dr. Michael Mezzatesta, the director of the former Duke University Museum of Art, for his uncommon vision, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and courage to collect what is now the Nasher Museum’s significant corpus of Soviet unofficial art of that period.
France Family Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies