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 discusses the concept behind his series of White Paintings and notes that other people, including artists Cy Twombly and Brice Marden, have painted these works for him over the years. 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 White Painting [three panel] 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 Unpublished transcript at the SFMOMA Research Library and Archives, N 6537 .R27 A35 1999a.
HOPPS: David, there’s something I wanna say right off the bat about this. When Bob made this set of pure white paintings, he wrote Betty and wanted them shown at her gallery. She refused. Sadly, the letter is missing. We know the—I’ve seen the original letter of yours at Parsons, and it somehow got out of the Archives of American Art, Betty Parsons’s materials. Bob wrote a rare—And it’s rare for him to write a letter. And you referred to these paintings as having one white, as in one god, in trying to describe them, which I thought was a beautiful phrase. They weren’t shown at Betty’s—
RAUSCHENBERG: I think there was something mentioned about the alpha and the omega or something there, too.
HOPPS: Right, right. There’s a—a unit—there’s a—a one, a two, here’s the three, triptych; then there’s a four, and a seven. That’s the whole set.
RAUSCHENBERG: Seven was infinity. I mean, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing something that I— that was this easy.
HOPPS: Right. [they laugh]
ROSS: But these were easy, because in fact, they weren’t about painting; they were about a white surface. Is that what you meant…
ROSS: …by easy?
RAUSCHENBERG: I mean, like—like just putting your hands on something and doing something with it, you know? I mean, it—it—it cleared my concept, satisfied me, because it was—I—I did them to see how—how far, you know, you could push an object, and yet it still means something.
RAUSCHENBERG: But I didn’t wanna spend the rest of my life doing that. You know? I just— I was doing this for myself. It’s my [inaudible].
HOPPS: [over Rauschenberg] Well, there’s been speculation that somebody in the gallery objected strenuously to Betty Parsons—one of the older artists—that this not be shown. And people have said, for example, that it was Barnett Newman. I know—and want very clearly to say—I—came to know Newman very well, and I absolutely believed him, first hand, that he would’ve never vetoed this painting. So it wasn’t Newman. He was the one member of the old New York School who attended Bob’s retrospective that Alan Solomon, the late Alan Solomon, did in 1963.
RAUSCHENBERG: He went to all of our dance concerts, too.
HOPPS: Right. He was there. He stood and he—and—He explained to me—I said, “It was wonderful, amazing you went there.” You know, Bill de Kooning didn’t go, et cetera. He said, “Well, I wanted to stand with Rauschenberg.” And that was a very spec—special expression. He wanted to stand up for him, be with him, all around that show. Which he did.
ROSS: There’s some— there’s something else about these paintings, though, that—that—that’s fascinating to me, besides the fact that they remain so pure because you insisted on them retaining an absolutely pristine surface, even if it meant repainting them to keep them pristine.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, absolutely.
RAUSCHENBERG: And they’re not—they’re not collections of nostalgia or—They don’t have any history.
ROSS: So it’s a—it’s, again, a void.
ROSS: A void of history?
RAUSCHENBERG: Well, actually— actually, the— the— the— the first group was made— I got bored just painting white.
RAUSCHENBERG: And so Cy Twombly helped me. Then—then—then they’ve been painted again by—by Brice Marden.
HOPPS: And not so coincidentally, the studio assistant, Brice Marden.
RAUSCHENBERG: And Pontus Hultén, I saved him shipping charges by just giving him the directions, and he painted him.
ROSS: So they were a painting, but they became a conceptual element as well.
RAUSCHENBERG [over Ross]: And Darryl Pottorf—
RAUSCHENBERG: —has painted them. And—I always picked good artists, though. [he laughs]
ROSS: Uh-huh. Well, it’s important that they were all good artists.
RAUSCHENBERG: Not just anybody.
ROSS: But there’s something else about this picture, also, and that is that it seems to be a ground for the shadow of the—of the viewer. Is that something—
RAUSCHENBERG: That’s what— that’s what— that’s what John Cage said.
HOPPS: John Cage said. He said they’re landing strips for little motes that we don’t see, and they’re—and for shadows.
RAUSCHENBERG: I called them clocks.
RAUSCHENBERG: Whereas, you—if—if one were sensitive enough that—that—that you could read it, that you would know how many people were in the room, what time it was, and what the weather was like outside.
ROSS: All the information you need.
RAUSCHENBERG: Want one? Paint one. [they laugh]
ROSS: Well, thanks for the permission; I think I will. Maybe we can walk over this way, because there’s obviously a lot—
PETER SAMIS: Maybe we should get all of your shadows on it first, before we—
ROSS: Oh yeah, sure.
ROSS: Can you—can you stand here, so we can get your shadow on—your shadow falling on here, too?
ROSS[?]: Get your arm in there. Yeah, I think the arm is good there.
RAUSCHENBERG: Oh, you took that seriously, about the time, huh?
ROSS: Yeah, absolutely.
RAUSCHENBERG: Who wants[?] the hands of the clock? [they laugh]
ROSS: I’m the minute hand.