In 1999, Menil Collection curator Walter Hopps and SFMOMA Director David A. Ross interviewed Rauschenberg in the SFMOMA galleries during an exhibition featuring fourteen major works by the artist that the museum had recently acquired. Hopps had organized the 1976 and 1998 retrospectives of Rauschenberg’s work. In this excerpt from the video footage, Rauschenberg discusses approaching gallerist Betty Parsons for an assessment of his work. Parsons later organized the artist’s first solo exhibition, Paintings by Bob Rauschenberg (May 14–June 2, 1951), in which Mother of God (ca. 1950) was shown. Hopps and Ross join in to comment on the religious references of the work’s title and link the painting to other works from the period, including Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950). Gary Garrels, then SFMOMA’s chief curator, and Peter Samis, then associate curator of education, also participated in the interview. A transcript of the full interview is available on the Related Information page. A transcript of this excerpt is available below.
Robert Rauschenberg discusses Mother of God at SFMOMA, May 6, 1999
Excerpt from Robert Rauschenberg, video interview by David A. Ross, Walter Hopps, Gary Garrels, and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 1999. Unpublished transcript at the SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.
ROSS: It was from a show that you had at Betty Parsons in 1953, it was?
WALTER HOPPS: ’52.
ROSS: But if you could—You know, this—this wonderful—this wonderful white form on this group of maps, but it’s got the most extraordinary legend in the text that’s down at the bottom. Could—could you read that for us, Bob? Do you remember it?
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, you can read it.
HOPPS: I have to get down on my knees to read it.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, you’re—you’re—you’re—you’re—you’re—you’re—you’re kneeling before the Mother of God. [they laugh] You might get a few points for that.
HOPPS: Here’s what—here’s what it says: An invaluable spiritual road map, as simple and fundamental as life itself.
ROSS: And it’s signed, The Catholic—
HOPPS: The Catholic Review.
ROSS: The Catholic Review. So what I always—what I always wonder is, is that your first review?
ROSS: Did you put your first review on your—on this picture at the Betty Parsons show?
RAUSCHENBERG: No, I did that like, I mean, the—the—the scripture—
RAUSCHENBERG: There, the critic, was not referring to this piece.
ROSS: I—I didn’t think so.
RAUSCHENBERG: And just like I—when I had my first show at Betty Parsons, I painted— nothing was—Actually, John Cage bought a piece. And— and—But that was the only thing that was sold. But I—I—I painted in red stars on ones that I liked, to—you know, as a—as a cartoon of—of— that— that those were sold pieces. But the way I got to Betty Parsons was I was with my ex-wife, and we—I was going to the Art Students League. And Betty was having—And I hope I’m not stealing your stuff.
RAUSCHENBERG: But—but Betty was—She had Rothko, Reinhardt, Barney Newman, and— and Clyfford Still. And—and there was—
HOPPS: And Jackson Pollock.
RAUSCHENBERG: And Jackson Pollock.
RAUSCHENBERG: And so that—that was—Those—The imagery that—that was in her what used to be an enormous gallery were just so bewildering to me. I felt creatively uncomfortable with all of her shows. And so I got Sue, my ex-wife, to carry two pieces, and I carried three, from the Art Students League, which was right down the street, was 57th Street. And—and went to—into the Betty Parsons gallery. And she said—I told her that I had brought some artwork up, and would—I—I didn’t want anything; I just wanted her reaction to them, because I was so bewildered by what was being created in that space.
HOPPS: I think you once said that all you really wanted to hear from her is whether or not [mic noise] she thought you were becoming professional.
RAUSCHENBERG: No, I didn’t say professional; I didn’t know professional yet.
HOPPS: But were you an—were you an artist like she could show, or her gallery could show?
RAUSCHENBERG: No, I just wanted to know what she thought.
RAUSCHENBERG: Really. And—And she says, in her gravel voice, “Well, I look at new works on Tuesday. And this isn’t Tuesday.” So I was busy leaving; she said, “OK, put ’em down here, and—and—and I’ll look.” And I was so nervous by then that—that—I mean, she was—she was a real priestess. I mean, you know, she’s sort of a holy Tallulah Bankhead or something. And—and—and a dash and [sic] Tabasco by—by Marlene Dietrich. And so—She was terrifying. And so I was leaving, and she said, “OK, bring ’em back here.” And—and—and I was so nervous by then, that I just— I couldn’t show them fast enough. I just wanted to get—I thought, This is a mistake, this is a mistake. And you know, I just wanna get outta there. And so I put one up and then I’d reach around and get another one, take that one down. She said, “Wait a minute! I can’t see that way.” And so—And then by the time I left—this is that—this—in—that show, became that show—that she was saying, “Well, I can’t give you a show until May.” I said, “I didn’t ask for a show.” [laughs] But—OK. Let me—let—Should I just go on?
ROSS: Yes, please.
RAUSCHENBERG: OK. The— the—the—She came down to my studio to see the rest of my work.
ROSS: This is—you were on Front Street still?
RAUSCHENBERG: No. I was—I was—No, my wife was pregnant. And so her—her mother had terrified her enough about having a miscarriage that we had to live on the—on the—on the ground floor.
HOPPS: This is the studio [inaudible].
RAUSCHENBERG: That was on 96th Street. And— and so she came down. And she was with this old guy. I was younger then. And—and I didn’t know who it was. And—and they selected works. Well, I was still—And I—I almost—I’m almost the same way now. That—that—Or it’s been a recent change. And that is, that I always think that the—the new work that I’m doing—is—is—
RAUSCHENBERG: more revelant [sic].
RAUSCHENBERG: You know? And—and so—And the—the old guy, that—that—that—
HOPPS[?]: We thought that too, by the way.
RAUSCHENBERG: He was—[laughs]
RAUSCHENBERG: He—he turned out to be Clyfford Still. But I didn’t know it. And—and so by the time—
HOPPS: I have to put—I have to put in a quick thing here for Mr. Still. He liked young artists, beyond what the public ever understood. Or especially, by his critics.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, really?
HOPPS: Yeah, he liked young artists. And he went back late in life to teach, just so he could meet some young artists again. That [inaudible].
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, that’s beautiful.
HOPPS: At Pennsylvania. Anyway. He was a fine man; you had a good critic looking at your work.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, he—he picked— they—they picked the show together. And I had— was working on a very tight budget for materials. And this is before the street days.
RAUSCHENBERG: And—And so I just used the canvases again. And so the show that she got was not the show that she and Clyfford Still had picked out. And this is one of ’em.
ROSS: So this is one—one of the works you made after they—
ROSS: They visited. So they didn’t see this in the studio.
HOPPS: There are— This is really a rare bird in several ways. But there are only, I think, six things from that show, where— There’d been legend that Bob had destroyed everything, since nothing really sold. Well, it was wrong on two counts. John Cage ended up getting something. And he didn’t destroy it all. Part, but there— Let’s see. There’s this one. There’s one at the Menil Collection, where I am, managed to get out of Baron Thyssen, called Crucifixion and Reflection, that an artist we know—I don’t think she’s with us any longer—had sort of slipped away with. Bob had it stored there. And then she went off and sold it. But we found it. There’s Man With Two Souls, a fascinating piece of sculpture that Cy Twombly has. There’s a small, as far as I know, untitled painting, it’s with Robert Bass, out in Texas. And it’s a beauty. Has a little piece of mirror on it and some things.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, yeah. With the piano?
ROSS: Does it also have a—
RAUSCHENBERG: With the piano?
HOPPS: No. It has elements on it, and it’s like a— it’s like one of the— the first DNA of Combine painting, in a way. So is this, in a way. Then there’s one other one, that one that John Cage got, called Should Love Come First? Now, we know what it looks like from an Aaron Siskind photograph, ’cause he photographed Betty’s shows. But as happened later with Bob, somehow he was resting or stuck up at John’s.
RAUSCHENBERG: But John gave me his—his place; he was touring.
RAUSCHENBERG: And to thank him, I—I was working all black [sic] then.
HOPPS: Right. You painted two of ’em right on top.
RAUSCHENBERG: [over Hopps] So I painted—I painted—[they laugh] I painted the whole painting black.
ROSS: Can I—ask you about the title of this picture? Because it seems that a group of those pictures had sort of religious titles. You have this Crucifixion work; you have this, called Mother of God. You know, I know that— that— that titles are to be taken seriously when they’re applied. So I assume—I wonder what— what you were thinking about, in terms of spiritual issues, or religious directions or—
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, just that. I mean, nobody ever talks about the mother of God. And so I was wondering about it. I still don’t know the answer. But I just finished the apocalypse.
HOPPS: Hm. David.
ROSS: Well, there’s a level of irony, though, in this also, because of the kind of humor in that—in that legend that you put down below, and the kind of little jab at— at Catholic culture—and the kind of— that kind of piousness of—of it all. And yet this is a picture which is about a void.
HOPPS: There’s a—
RAUSCHENBERG: But it’s made of maps. So you follow one road or another and you’re gonna get there.
ROSS: To this void.