Robert Rauschenberg, By Those Who Knew Him Best

The Columbia Oral History Series’ first publication traces the life and times of one of the 20th century’s greatest American artists.

Sara Sinclair
August 14, 2019

Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008) was a breaker of boundaries and a consummate collaborator. He used silkscreen prints, melded sculpture and paintings in works he called “combines,” and joined forces with engineers and scientists to challenge our thinking about art. Through working relationships with John Cage, Merce Cunningham and others, Rauschenberg bridged the music, dance and visual art worlds, inventing a new art form for the last half of the 20th century.

Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History tells the story of this great artist set against the ever-changing American art world through 45 interviews with key figures in his life—family, friends, former lovers, curators, critics, studio assistants and collaborators. The interviews were conducted for the Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. The book is a testament to both Rauschenberg’s legacy and the ability of oral history to bring the past to life through the transmission of memory.

I edited Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History by using a process that puts narrators in conversation with one another.

Rauschenberg’s story begins in New York City’s small art world of the 1950s, where, longtime New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins said, “You could, on a Saturday morning, see all of the new shows that had opened during that week of contemporary work.”

Together, the narrators of the book track the art scene as it grows through the 1960s and as the energy in the city dissipates following that expansion. They speak to the emergence of an art market that none of them anticipated, and muse about the impact it has had on the work.

As Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher said, “I think [the market] might change the energy in New York City, and, more dangerously, it changes the energy in the artist.”

The book then follows Rauschenberg’s move to Captiva Island, Florida in 1970 and his trips across the globe, illuminating his inner life and its effect on his art and that of those around him.


Sara Sinclair was project manager and lead interviewer for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research.