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 identifies some of the imagery in Scanning, ranging from a photograph he took of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to paw prints made by his kinkajou, Sweetie. Hopps likens Rauschenberg’s use of animal imagery (including the mosquitoes and caged bird in Scanning) to that of medieval and early Christian artists, who incorporated animals as innocent witnesses of human behavior. Rauschenberg also discusses working on Scanning on his studio floor. Gary Garrels, then SFMOMA’s chief curator, and Peter Samis, then associate curator of education, also participate 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 Scanning 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 Unpublished transcript at the SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.
SAMIS: Can you give us a tour of this one, Bob? Just kind of the— the tour— a tour of the surface of this one and the image?
RAUSCHENBERG: Do what?
SAMIS: Give us—could you give us a tour of this one and the images and— as you remember them? And do you remember in any way, the— the way it evolved? I mean, it might not— that might be more than you remember, but just—
RAUSCHENBERG: No, it’s not more, it’s just not my habit.
ROSS: How much of this—
RAUSCHENBERG: You have to have room for other people to express their life, so I never explain my work.
RAUSCHENBERG: I’ll tell you stories around it and stuff like that, you know, but—
ROSS: How— how much of the photography in this work was actually found imagery and how much of it were images that you made yourself?
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, I took those— I took the photographs of the Cunningham Company at its peak. And—
ROSS: And the rooftop water towers?
RAUSCHENBERG: And the rooftop is mine and—
ROSS: What about these— these—these mosquitoes up there? What— what— what’s going on there?
RAUSCHENBERG: They’re big.
ROSS: They are big. [Rauschenberg laughs] They’re like helicopter-size mosquitoes, they seem to me. This is a picture made in nineteen-sixty—
ROSS: ’3. The Vietnam War is taking place, space is [inaudible] —
RAUSCHENBERG: [over Ross] Well, I— this was about— about the time that— that I was, like—The Cunningham Company was breaking up and— and this is— This is why I—I held onto this one so much. And this is—these are prints of my kinkajou. And—
ROSS: What is that?
HOPPS: It’s an animal.
RAUSCHENBERG: Prints of my—footprints of my kinkajou.
HOPPS: It’s a marsupial pet.
RAUSCHENBERG: [laughs] Yes.
ROSS: How long did you have a kinkajou?
RAUSCHENBERG: Her name was Sweetie. [laughter]
ROSS: And — and was she asked to walk on this picture, or did she just happen to…
ROSS: …get involved. [inaudible voice]
ROSS: She had a nice touch, though.
GARRELS: So Bob, you’re saying this—
RAUSCHENBERG: I respected it. I thought, You know, I—I—I can use that.
GARRELS: Did you work on this—did you— would you turn it as you worked on it? Or did you work on it always the same way? Or was it flat and up and down or how did—
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, I mean, kinkajous, even though they’re— they’re prehensile, [laughter] they— they— they can’t step down when they’re hanging by their tail.
ROSS: Yeah, well.
RAUSCHENBERG: Enough to be effective as a painting.
ROSS: Yeah, well.
RAUSCHENBERG: So this is on the floor.
GARRELS: And now, you worked— you worked it on the floor, too, not just the kinkajou?
HOPPS: [inaudible] One of the later silkscreened paintings of that series, he’s— he’s working down [inaudible]. Fortunately, his dog, Laika, knew never to walk on his art. [inaudible] visiting Jasper Johns’s studio, Laika walked on the Jasper Johns. Anyway, the screening was done down on a flat surface. And some of the painting probably was, too.
HOPPS: One thing that means a lot to me is the way animals turn up in Rauschenberg. It’s absolutely—it’s very important to me. I have no idea how conscious he is of it, but one of the more important Medieval images is putting animals into the work, in Christian iconography, as the innocent witnesses of how human beings behave. So it means a lot to me that along with our Cunningham dancers here, who have their good and bad days, there are mosquitoes and kinkajou prints that remind us of our faithful, innocent witnesses to our foibles. I think that’s a very important quality that’s maintained in Rauschenberg’s work. Of course, the most famous one is Monogram, the beautiful goat, heroically standing in there for—keeping his eye on our folly. Oh, a third animal I should mention, of course, the bird here in the cage. We get echo—
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, that’s my dog.
HOPPS: That’s your dog. We get echoes from mosquito to helicopter to space rocket.
RAUSCHENBERG: And the umbrella.
HOPPS: [inaudible]. And the umbrella.
SAMIS: Is that a helicopter there? Is that what—
SAMIS: Down the line?
HOPPS: Right here. It’s sort of hard to see, but it’s in there.
ROSS: But this colored passage right in front of you, Bob, which seems like a piece of— from—from a—a— a piece of wallpaper or [inaudible]—
RAUSCHENBERG: That’s East Hampton.
ROSS: How so?
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s a beach scene.
ROSS: Ah. Those are the beach umbrellas?
GARRELS: How would you start a piece like this? Would you start any— in any particular place? Would you—
RAUSCHENBERG: You have to. [over Garrels]
GARRELS: . . would you have a silkscreen—
RAUSCHENBERG: Or you don’t get started. [over Garrels] [laughs]
GARRELS: Can you talk about that, where you would begin?
RAUSCHENBERG: No. I mean I . . .I . . . I can’t imagine where you would start.
ROSS: But you can remember where you would start. Like in, in the newest work we have just acquired.
RAUSCHENBERG: No I don’t remember where I started.
HOPPS: Let me get a last word in on this painting.
ROSS: Oh please.
HOPPS: Barge may be the largest silkscreen Bob ever did. I think this is perhaps the most beautiful. I’ve always especially loved this one. So congratulations, David Ross.
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s got more heart. That doesn’t mean it is less art. [over Ross]
ROSS: I particularly love this [inaudible], particularly this blue piece here [indicates]—it’s just extraordinary. That’s the real, that’s the real. [inaudible]
HOPPS: [over Ross] In the painting Bob did called Winter Pool, David Geffen has, there is all sorts of gorgeous lyric painting that goes on. And that turns up from time to time. This just isn’t crummy little incidental splotches. It means a lot to me. These sections here. Two layers there, it’s done . . . something underneath, and then, then . . . probably black and then over-painted with white. This um. . .[indicates yellow in upper right]. Great restraint.
ROSS: I particularly like the reappearance of the white space. Reminiscent of Mother of God, also there’s that full white space. Nothing empty about it.