WE COLLABORATED BY POSTCARDS: an interview with Robert Rauschenberg


Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most important and innovative American artists of the post-World War II era, has a long history of designing for avant-garde performance. His work as a stage designer falls into three main periods. From 1954 to 1964 he was the resident designer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, designing sets, costumes, and lights for some 20 dances. During this time Rauschenberg also designed for the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

From 1963 to 1967 he was intimately associated with the Judson Dance Theater, the network of experimental performers and/or choreographers who created what is now called post-modern dance; Rauschenberg designed settings for performances featuring Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs. Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Deborah Hay, as well as multimedia "happenings" of his own devising.

After a ten-year hiatus, he designed the sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham's 1977 Travelogue, and has since done the same for two works by Trisha Brown, Glacial Decoy (1979) and Set and Reset (1983).

If Rauschenberg's paintings and sculptures have always been unorthodox and controversial -- he achieved his earliest notoriety with Monogram, which featured a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle -- his performance designs have been no less so. He and Jasper Johns, for instance, co-created a pointillistic backdrop for Cunningham's Summerspace (1958) and dyed the costumes in the same pattern so that the dancers seemed to disappear into the scenery. His "set" for Paul Taylor's Resemblance consisted of a trained dog whose movements cued the musicians and the dancers. And a performance Rauschenberg created called Spring Training was lit by 30 turtles with flashlights strapped to their backs.

Yet the artist is conscientious about the practicalities of designing for performance. His first design for Cunningham's 1954 Minutiae was a mobile that the choreographer instantly knew would be impractical for touring. So Rauschenberg immediately scrapped it in favor of two free-standing panels that served both as a functional set and as a self-contained artwork reminiscent of his "red paintings" from that period.

Rauschenberg talked from the kitchen of his four-story headquarters on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village (he lives and works at least half the year in Captiva, an island off Florida). It was a busy afternoon -- Merce Cunningham came by to be traced for a panel in Rauschenberg's quarter-mile-long painting-in-progress, and the house hummed with the activities of two administrative assistants, three artist's assistants, a cook, and a dog named Lily.

In conversation, the artist was candid and characteristically irreverent in his comments about designing sets ("I usually don't have an idea until absolutely the last minute"); costumes ("I've never made costumes for any dancer who didn't hate them until ten minutes before the performance when somebody says 'You look great!"'); and lighting ("I didn't light pieces the same from performance to performance -- I would have died of boredom").

How did you become interested in designing for performance? My work has always been environmental, more or less. Sometimes it gets quite flat, other times it turns into sculpture. I've always attempted to bring art into real time -- like performance -- where it will change because of someone's presence. That probably was the lead-in.

What I was after was the drama and the threat of being onstage, exposed, with no way to erase or change. Plus, when I first came to New York, I didn't fit into any particular scheme of art. The Abstract Expressionists were very strong, and in those days my interest in theatre made me more or less an outcast.

Did you have any traditional training for stage design? No. I remember having very strong feelings that theatre basically was at the mercy of the lighting, and I had no training in lighting. At some summer festival in New London, I said, "Where's the lighting technician?" John Cage said, "Oh, Merce and I thought you could do that."

It was terrifying, but I did learn it overnight -- just by watching someone run a show. Jose Limon's company or something. I didn't know how to do a hookup or anything. There was usually someone around who could, and if you told them you wanted these six lights on the same circuitry, it could be arranged a lot easier than taking a degree in electrical engineering.

What were the values you looked for in lighting? I can almost explain it better by describing what I was against, which was lighting that would be a spatial restriction. When I started working in theatre, it was popular to have the lights describe or anticipate the activity on the stage -- which made all the effort and the beauty of the performance almost wasted.

All you had to do was look over there -- the light's coming from over there so you knew exactly where the performer was going. Then there was also a lot of mood coloring -- telling you how to interpret this thing which was pure gymnastic activity. That's a psychological handicap. I just tried to open up the space as changing -- but not in a one-to-one or Mickey Mouse relation to the activities.

How did you manage that? By having no rational reason for a change.

When you say you didn't like to convey psychological mood through the lighting, does that mean you didn't use color? I did, but quite subtly. Almost to the point you could taste it before you could see it -- just from warm to cool or bright to dark. I didn't think it was interesting to have everything just brightly white, so I started from bright white and then made changes that would be needed for the piece.

But I didn't light the pieces the same from performance to performance. I would have died of boredom. After awhile, there weren't any cue sheets made. I'd just go to the controls and play 'em, which made it a lot more interesting, I think, for the dancers, too.

What about designing clothes? I gather at the beginning it was more or less ad hoc. Well, starting more traditionally with Merce, the demands of freedom from restriction were so enormous -- because of the range of movements that he had -- that he was nearly impossible to design for. Then, too, all dancers think of costumes as a handicap. They will fight you to the bitter end for the slightest thing. I've never made costumes for any dancer who didn't hate them. It can be a pair of dyed shorts or leotards or tights, and they're going to hate it. "This is going to make my hips look large." But it doesn't matter how avant-garde they are, if you don't give performers that piece of elastic band around the waist, the pants will fall down on stage.

When you first started doing costumes, was it basically a matter of designing fabric for their tights or whatever? Not really. They were all different. Merce did a piece called Story, for which I had to originate the set every night uniquely from things I found in the immediate environment.

You had to, meaning you gave yourself this task? Right. And costumes kept changing, too. There was a pile of clothes in both wings, and the dancers could wear as many of them, or as few of them, or none of them -- whatever they wanted to do.

They must have really hated that. They loved it! Because Merce is an incredible disciplinarian, his choreography -- unless he does one of those free things – is incredibly rigid, and there's no beat. The beat is the whole piece itself. If you're in the wrong place, there isn't anything that's going to help you get there.

So they enjoyed their moment of free choice, deciding what to put on? Oh, they used it as revenge! Merce wanted that, too.

When you first started designing these things for Merce, how did it work? We mostly collaborated by postcards. We would do a few of these little stick figures and write down a few extremely non-informative remarks. I have some of those somewhere. He'd say something like, “This one will be with about six people and is fairly fast."

Fast in tempo or length? Who knows? Then we would get together, and if whatever I had designed required a specific usage which actually affected the choreography -- as it did in at least 50% of the cases -- he would start working on that end of it. And if something just absolutely wasn’t going to work, then I'd start working on my end of it. But most of that was done just in the last week before a performance, no matter how long you'd been thinking about it or rehearsing.

In theatre, that's another one of the challenges. You don't have the luxury of an extended trial and error. With the Trisha Brown-Laurie Anderson thing [Set and Reset] I had to pay for -- out of my scenery budget -- renting a theater in Yonkers to try out the set. And we were still fixing it up to the last minute, so none of that has changed.

Sometimes people do something else, Phil Glass and Robert Wilson put on performances that cost more than $100,000 for one evening, but I guess my discipline in theatre tells me that the set should still be a mobile unit within the control of a single company.

You mean that it's portable and you can do it again? Yep. The structure "Elastic Carrier: Shiner," came in two sizes, one for a large stage and one for a smaller stage, and the whole structure came apart in 5' or 6’ increments. [Note: Rauschenberg's "visual presentation" for Set and Reset consisted of a structure separately called "Elastic Carrier: Shiner” comprising a large translucent box flanked by pyramids made of the same fabric. Onto all of this stock films of urban architecture were projected. As the piece began the structure flew from the stage floor to a half-way position and the dance was performed underneath.]

You made two sizes when you built them, one for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and one for touring? Yes, and I thought that I could use the larger one also for museums. We may have to switch to 16mm projectors for special occasions -- 35mm is not possible for touring because those things weigh several hundred pounds apiece, and I used five of them.

Were all five projectors manually operated? No -- not even remote control. They were just turned on at the beginning and turned off at the end. There were all sorts of problems I wouldn’t have thought existed, such as that you can only slant a movie projector so many degrees down, and it was never enough.

So there were all sorts of tricks with mirrors that had to be done and we had to find the right mirrors. Some would spread the image but would cut down on the reception about 30% or something. We also had problems with the receptivity of the fabric we used. The front and bottom of the structure were made of this silver-looking fabric that Dazians had; they said the only customer they ever had for that particular fabric was NASA. It stopped the image so it didn't spill out over the dancers.

But I wanted something that could carry a film image in a crystal formation and repeat it naturally. If you stop it at the first facet, it's not going to pass through to the next one. So we finally used for the inner core of the fabric crystal regular sharkskin scrim.

I've noticed that a lot of your designs over the years for dances and performances used films. Why? Because film exists in time, too, and it changes light. The same way that I was interested in having 30 turtles light a piece that I was dancing on stilts. It just seems more interesting, like leaving the TV on in a room with the sound off. I said a long time ago that I’m not a studio artist, and I always wanted my work to look more like what was going on outside than inside. That’s a self-assumed challenge. That would lead you to theatre.

When someone approaches you to design for a performance now, how does it work? They'll usually give me a rough description of what they're up to. With Glacial Decoy, Trisha said she was using five dancers but you would only see three people onstage dancing the entire time -- when the piece moved to the right, somebody disappeared and somebody else appeared, so the dance would keep shifting around as if the stage were much larger than it was.

So I thought, "Well, I'm not gonna get caught with a static set for this." I started thinking about something that would, like, wave across, and that's how the computer-operated slide sequence as a pulsing, changing backdrop came about. There were four images, and we had eight projectors. One was doing a fade-in, another doing a fade-out, then the same slide would be moving down to the next panel. It was a lot more complicated than it looked. I had less trouble with the costumes on that one than with the computers. 

What were the glitches in setting up the computer system? I had about three too many engineers who all volunteered their services. Each one was an expert in his field, and none of them could agree. I'd really rather disagree with the dancers -- you have a fighting chance there. But with those computer people! The whole program kept having to change and change, and everybody's technical ideal of how to do it the best finally got down to mine.
It was one of those things where it's the third performance and you only have four total and they say, "Oh, that's what you wanted?" And you haven't changed your mind since you started working on this thing. It's very good, though, because you're always learning so much. The trouble is, I never have the same problem again, because I never do the same thing twice.

Do you construct all the sets you design yourself? Yes.

What about the clothes? Sometimes I work with someone else, sometimes I do them myself if it’s a construction or apparatus or device.

Do you make sketches first? No. I don’t with painting either. I just make ‘em. Then I see what they look like.

Every time I swear I’ll never do another piece of theatre. Then when it comes up I just forget all those months of torture and I'm hooked again.

Theatre Crafts, April 1984