Rauschenberg

The New Yorker was kind enough to post Calvin Tomkins’s 2005 profile of Robert Rauschenberg, Everything in Sight. In the middle is this one little anecdote:

He was back in his chair, sipping from a fresh glass of iced white wine. Rauschenberg used to go through about a bottle and a half of Jack Daniel’s a day, and I wondered how anyone could drink so steadily and still function, let alone keep working at his level of energy and inventiveness. A few years ago, when his health broke down, he spent a month at the Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, California. He didn’t drink for a couple of months after leaving the center, and he still hasn’t gone back to whiskey, but he takes in more than a bottle of white wine a day, and when he goes out to dinner he sometimes allows himself a vodka-and-soda, or maybe two. “One of the things they teach you at Betty Ford’s,” he said, “is ‘Don’t ever be without something to drink.’ I still don’t enjoy wine, but it’s the easiest thing.” Didn’t “something to drink” mean something nonalcoholic? I asked. “That’s what she means!” he said, with his cackling laugh.

Ten years ago I heard this story about a writer, who when she was a young writer, scored the plum assignment of an interview with Rauschenberg. Arriving in the afternoon to find him still asleep, she roused him only to watch him pour a tumbler of whiskey and sit drinking it in silence across from her. When he finished, he went back to bed, but he forgot to show her out, so she spent the next several hours showing herself around his place, and she got her profile.

I mention these because the heavy drinking thing doesn’t fit the artist’s general rep. Rauschenberg was gregarious, but he was not a tragic, hopeless drunk, like Pollock and de Kooning were. He never lost control, except in the ways he wanted. He just operated on an alternative fuel. In his later years, we learn from Kimmelman’s obituary, he grew rich, expanded into philanthropy, and built a mini-real estate empire in Florida. Meanwhile, his works convey all the exhilaration of life as one long bender.

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