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 the artist demonstrates the sound aspect of Trophy IV (for John Cage) (1961) by swinging the boot into the metal form attached to the sculpture’s base. Rauschenberg also discusses the concept behind his Trophy series, which celebrates individual friends or collaborators who significantly impacted his work. 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 Trophy IV (for John Cage) 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 Unpublished transcript at the SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.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: Okay. So this work was made in—in what year?
RAUSCHENBERG: I don’t know; ask him.
HOPPS: In what medium?
ROSS: What year?
RAUSCHENBERG: I don’t do time.
HOPPS: It’s with the Combines, in the middle fifties.
HOPPS: Was it ’61?
HOPPS: OK, that was finally the—the so-called late Combines, the sort of end of the run. And it’s— it was done as a trophy, for Merce Cunningham.
RAUSCHENBERG: No, John Cage.
HOPPS: No, John Cage. Right, I mixed them up. John Cage.
ROSS: So—so—so we’re talking about trophies. [Rauschenberg moves the shoe element of the piece; it “kicks” the metal in front of it and it makes a loud noise.] So it’s a musical piece.
RAUSCHENBERG: Yeah. Well, John’s music. [laughs]
ROSS: It makes a great sound. I don’t think anyone ever imagined that it was a sound work. That’s fantastic.
RAUSCHENBERG: I’ve done—I’ve done—I—I—
ROSS: Would you play it one more time for us?
RAUSCHENBERG: I—I do— Trophies is a separate series. I did one for Marcel and Teeny Duchamp. I’ve done one for Jasper Johns. This is the one for John Cage. And just every now and then, you just— there’s somebody who comes up and— that—that— that is so—I don’t know, it’s a kind of a prize or something.
HOPPS: You did one also for Merce Cunningham.
HOPPS: Merce Cunningham that’s one[?]—
RAUSCHENBERG: Merce Cunningham, too. And— But it’s— When you—when you get so involved—and it’s like debts—that you wanna thank somebody back who has given you so much, then there’s a new trophy.
ROSS: It’s odd to use the word trophy rather than homage or, you know, or—
RAUSCHENBERG: “Homage” is a dirty word.
ROSS: [laughs] But a trophy also is like the symbol of a victory. It’s what you get from, after you’ve won a victory. So what’s the victory here? The victory of John Cage.
RAUSCHENBERG: No, there is no—no victory. It’s just a special kind of thanks that— that has been in—in a series of my life’s work.
ROSS: Talk about when you first met Cage. Do you remember the day you first met him?
RAUSCHENBERG: Actually, I don’t remember the first day I met him, but we—we were soul mates right from the very beginning, philosophically or spiritually.
RAUSCHENBERG: And he— He told me that— that— that he had to learn Zen. And I didn’t know what Zen was. And— and I still don’t. So I’m real Zen. [laughs] And that— then—And he said I was natural Zen.
ROSS: Well, the White works, I mean the works that— void of the— in the— in the Mother of God, those all—
RAUSCHENBERG: There’s nothing missing there.
ROSS: Well, a void doesn’t necessarily mean something’s missing. It’s just a white space.
RAUSCHENBERG: Why do you say “just?”
ROSS: That’s right, that’s—
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s full. [laughs]
ROSS: It’s a full space. It’s a space full of white. I keep bringing these kind of negative readings, or that—
RAUSCHENBERG: No, you’re thinking too much.
ROSS: You think that’s a problem with your work, if people think too much?
RAUSCHENBERG: Not with my work.
ROSS: I don’t think anyone would’ve thought, looking at this work, of performing the kick into that metal.
RAUSCHENBERG: It’s obvious to me.
ROSS: Well, now it’s obvious to me.
RAUSCHENBERG: Look, look, there’s even a handle on it.
ROSS: I know. Could you—could you do that one more time, so we understand how it’s done?
HOPPS: As many times, [inaudible; Rauschenberg “kicks” with the piece again several times.]
ROSS: I think on behalf of the—the guards at this museum, we’re glad you didn’t motorize that. [they laugh]
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, I— I— lot of those sound pieces—I mean, and— and showing at Leo Castelli’s, who doesn’t want to be disturbed by anything. And— and— and Oracle was there. I never went to the gallery once, and it was turned on.
HOPPS: He always turned it off as soon as you’d leave.
RAUSCHENBERG: As soon as I—[they laugh] I’d turn it on. And they wait ’til I’m gone, and they turn it off.
ROSS: [laughs] Well, Cage, of course, is famous for saying that one sound is as good as any other sound, and that the hierarchy of sound that we call music is an irrelevancy, in a way, to—to his idea.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, the whole thing is—the whole thing is— I mean, what—Now, he says— he says that— that— that all sound is music. That’s the difference.
HOPPS: I have another sound story. Duchamp actually got into the Stable Gallery to see a show of Bob’s there. It was a one-person show of Twombly and a one-person show of Bob. Two shows at the same time, really. And Bob had an early piece in. It was a box with iron nail spikes in it, and rocks, called Music Box. And Duchamp happened into that show. As far as we know, it’s the first show of Bob’s he ever saw. And he did see others. And someone demonstrated this for Duchamp, who had a wonderful quip. He said, “Ah, yes, it’s playing my tune.”
ROSS: Quite an honor.
HOPPS: So he—he liked that work, you know.
ROSS: Can—can you talk about the—the— the role that Duchamp played for you as a young artist, looking at or thinking about that?
RAUSCHENBERG: Not really. I mean, I can—I can. But, I mean, he didn’t play a role. The first Duchamp I ever saw was in the Museum of Modern Art, and it was— it was in—in an exhibition with— standing right ne—A sculpture. And it was the Bicycle Wheel. And it was by a—a Miró. And— and they both looked equally interesting to me. So I—I don’t know. I— I don’t— I don’t—
HOPPS: Duchamps weren’t available to be seen, David…
ROSS: In the fifties.
HOPPS: …until 1956, when they went on view at the Philadelphia Museum.
RAUSCHENBERG: But my point is that…
ROSS: So Duchamp wasn’t [inaudible].
RAUSCHENBERG: …that— that— that— they looked absolutely—I mean, the—the— the nude was just as realistic, and just as much of art as—as the bicycle wheel on the stool.
ROSS: But when you became aware of works like the Fountain, like Fountain, or like the other readymades of Duchamp, which maybe you’d heard of as a rumor, since you weren’t able to see them as a young man—
ROSS: How did— how did the idea of the readymade affect you as you went out and used material from the street to create your Combines and your sculptures?
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, with my economy at that point, it was—I mean—I mean, I think of anything as being material. It— so it wasn’t— wasn’t a handicap. And— nor was it anything special about a—a readymade. I was confused about—Well, about the— the idea that— that— that you make ready— that you put out editions of readymades that are not ready made. And that— that always confused me about Duchamp. But then— then, if he deliberately decided that, you know, I mean—I mean—
HOPPS: That came near the end of his life. And the one way—I know this firsthand, David—the one way he was going to have some money coming in for his widow were those Schwarz editions.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, really?
HOPPS: The income for those were all slated to go to Teeny. And it was for a nice reason, too, Bob. He didn’t want her to have to sell one-of-a-kind things she still owned in order to survive. I mean, that family didn’t—He wasn’t producing art to sell. And nobody had any normal work to earn money. So he had to be very inventive about how he could survive.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, now— now— now— now, there’s the poetry. A sup-poetry.[they laugh]
ROSS: That’s the poetry, right. But it’s also equally practical to your use of— in a way, to your use of found material, because that was economically what—
ROSS: . . .was necessary. There wasn’t anything intellectualized about it; it was just what you had to work with. So it was a kind of…
HOPPS: He liked it, too. I mean—
ROSS: …pragmatic of you.
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, actually, it was my richness, too, for living in New York City.
HOPPS: See that piece of dowel? There on top, and arou— and the posts around the shoe? That’s better than if you went to the lumber yard and bought brand new dowels, or had somebody make—
RAUSCHENBERG: I don’t make dowels.
HOPPS: They don’t.
RAUSCHENBERG: I don’t make ’em. [they laugh]
HOPPS: You don’t. But if you had to buy one—
ROSS: Let’s— let’s walk over here and look at—
RAUSCHENBERG: No, I like— I like the experience that— that— using found objects or— or something that— that doesn’t just start from the artist’s hands.
HOPPS: Right, it has a history.