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RAUSCHENBERG IN CUBA

By Alexander Nixon, MA, Art History

In 2007, Cuban-born performance artist Glexis Novoa staged a performance in New York City titled Honorary Guest (Guest), in which he and an actor, the spitting image of Fidel Castro, stroll through a gallery exhibition of photographs and artwork documenting Havana’s 1980s art scene. Glexis Novoa (1964-) was a bellwether of this generation of young, provocative performance artists, though we would never know this from joining him on his stroll through memory lane with “Castro.” Guest centers on Castro, who is our focus, not Glexis Novoa. A video camera films Novoa and Castro visiting, ruminating over, artifacts from Cuba’s (arguably) most vibrant and controversial era of artistic production.

Novoa plays the part of tour guide to Castro, stopping in front of photographs and paintings, each sparking Castro’s reminiscences of the 1980s, right before the whole socialist experiment nearly collapsed along with the Soviet Union and its satellite states (1989). Castro’s one-piece Adidas jumpsuit indicates that the persona portrayed here in Guest is not the young, virile guerilla leader, but the thoughtful, even regretful, octogenarian in his twilight, pondering the past. Castro mawkishly prattles on about the things he sees/remembers with a contrived air of authority unbefitting one dressed like he just rolled out of bed. His semi-nonsensical narration maintains our focus on him stroking his beard, this gesture seemingly helping him toss out memories corresponding to the artwork he and Novoa stop to look at.

The video camera records him remarking, “es interesante…. este tipo de trabajo…” or, this type of work is interesting, possibly the most hackneyed statement one can enlist to avoid precise artistic examination—attributing “interesting” to a work of art is the bane of an Art Historian’s existence. We cannot see what it is that he finds “interesting”; what matters is that the artwork leaves dumbfounded the famously verbose Castro. Likewise, the next section of the gallery tour leaves Castro awkwardly torn between his limited remembrance about the subject matter, and his wanting to be the authority on it. It is apparent that Castro is a fish who has been out of water for too long.

The camera pans to the gallery wall, which is covered with magazine clippings. One such clipping is of American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who visited Cuba in 1988, just before the collapse of the Soviet Bloc weakened Castro’s control over the island’s destiny. “Aqui es [el artista] Robert Rauschenberg,” or, here is the [North American] artist Robert Rauschenberg, Novoa informs his companion. “I know him well,” Castro replies, referring to Rauschenberg. “A few times we were up until three in the morning chatting.”

Castro does not embellish his anecdote any further, leaving us with the impression that he is either too old to remember anything else, or that he has never been capable of understanding the real value of artists and their art, save whatever the captions provided. Castro makes statements and declarations, but he does not pose questions, or appear to allow for any ambivalence. He has a simple, smug answer for everything. He tells Novoa, “Yo he hecho mucho performance in mi vida,” or, I have done many performances in my life. Though this may be correct from a technical point of view, Castro completely misses the point of performance “Art.”

In summary, Castro completely lacks the capacity to understand performance art, if not art altogether. Honorary Guest is intended to lampoon Castro, highlighting the impoverishment of his ideology in service of him understanding Cuban Performance Art. Were Castro to have asked his tour guide anything, he may have learned that Novoa had a far more “interesting,” if not more memorable, encounter with Robert Rauschenberg, during the same visit when Castro was up all night “chatting” with the celebrated American artist.

The following study is the result of an investigation of archival video evidence documenting Glexis Novoa’s eventful 1988 encounter with Rauschenberg. This investigation reveals what is known about this encounter is not much different than “Castro’s” ideologically “colored” version of the past. That is to say, video evidence proves conclusively that scholarship is incorrect about this rare meeting of artists from both sides of the proverbial Iron Curtain, due in large part to over-reliance on limited testimony that provided an unreliable narrative. This study corrects this record by providing more accurate details that will help us re-examine and better understand the significance of Glexis Novoa’s 1988 encounter with Robert Rauschenberg.

As we all know, for Americans, visiting Cuba has never been as easy as hopping on an airplane, but Rauschenberg’s 1988 Cuba visit was hardly tourism. Cuba was one of twenty-two countries invited to participate (eleven accepted) in an ambitious international project of artistic collaboration, envisioned by Rauschenberg, and which he called the Rauschenberg Oversees Interchange, or ROCI, a nod to his pet turtle and mascot, Rocky. Here is the artist in his own words on the subject:

I feel strong in my beliefs, based on my varied and widely traveled collaborations, that a one-to-one contact through art contains potent peaceful powers, and is the most non-elitist way to share exotic and common information, seducing us into creative mutual understandings for the benefit of all.

Don Saff, then, an artist and professor at the University of South Florida, helped the artist to decide which countries would participate in the ROCI endeavor. In addition to Cuba, Rauschenberg and his entourage also visited China, Tibet, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, the U.S.S.R., Germany, Japan, and the United States. According to Saff, ROCI countries would be “societies less familiar with non-political ideas or communicating through art.”

[Rauschenberg] has allowed himself to mimic the positions of old as if they are no longer relevant in a global artistic endeavor. Positions that were created by the West and which through ROCI we can clearly see are perceived in contemporary communication. In effect, the artist has passed judgment on each country he visits. He has determined that it is his position to enlighten people on how to communicate non-politically and worldly through art. Although he sees his project as an exchange, it is difficult for any Cuban participant to see past a history of colonialism in this circumstance.

Like his itinerary, Rauschenberg’s intentions were all over the map. On one hand, he wanted to “collaborate with [local artists] and indigenous techniques to make work.” On the other, he wanted to produce artwork reflecting his own personal reaction to the “conditions” of host countries. According to the New Yorker, “[Rauschenberg] was sure some corporation would sponsor this dreamy concept, but none did, and he ended up spending eleven million dollars to finance it himself.” He even sold artwork in his personal collection, including works by close friends Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly.

The project’s artistic collaboration-for-collaboration’s-sake attitude did not put it above criticism, and some cited ROCI’s resemblance to colonialism, highlighting ROCI’s “invasion” overtones, and Rauschenberg’s “invader” attributes. Then again, even at its worst, colonialism was a two-way exchange—and this would be the case in Cuba, with both artists brushing off a little on the other. A less critical observer may have thought of Rauschenberg’s desire to be an objective outside observer more Alexander von Humboldt, or more Alexis du Tocqueville, taking nothing for granted while holding up a mirror to the host country, than Hernán Cortés. In laymen’s terms, Rauschenberg was a fish out of water.

Unlike the other countries visited, Rauschenberg’s Cuba visit was special because it formed a second bookend to his long and illustrious career, the first one marking his artistic point of origin. According to the Guggenheim Museum, “during a [1952] trip to Cuba… [Rauschenberg] first experimented with transfer drawings, taking printed images, primarily from newspapers and magazines, placing them face down on sheets of paper, and then rubbing the backs of the images with an empty ballpoint pen or other burnishing device to transfer the original to the paper.” Such early experimentation was a catalyst for Rauschenberg’s trailblazing artistic career, with him making major contributions in both the visual and performance arts, his career a one-man chronicle of American Postmodernism. In terms of his artistic journey, Cuba was Rauschenberg’s point of origin; the turtle was returning to his nest. But 1988 Cuba was very different from the 1952 Cuba. Decades of cultural transformation initiated in 1959 by Castro’s Revolution transformed the nation into a Communist Society, with far-reaching implications for Cuban culture.

PART I: THE CUBAN REVOLUTION: INSIDE THE REVOLUTION, EVERYTHING

In Mural (by Jackson Pollock) and Cuban artist Wifredo Lam’s Jungle, both painted In 1943, we see a fragmented, undulating soup of semi-figurative shapes reflective of Pablo Picasso’s influence. Any similarities between art from Cuba and the United States ended with the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s new political and cultural transformations were outlined by then-Cuban President, Fidel Castro, who declared the following in 1961:

The problem under discussion here, and that we are attacking, is the problem of freedom of expression for writers and artists… The Revolution has to understand that reality, and for instance it has to act in order to give artists and intellectuals that are not genuine revolutionaries, within the Revolution a field to work and to create, and that their creative spirit, although they are not revolutionary writers and artist, has opportunity and freedom of expression within the Revolution. That means, that within the Revolution everything; against the Revolution, nothing. Against it nothing because the Revolution has its rights and the first right of the Revolution is to exist; therefore, in the face of the Revolution’s right to be and to exist, no one.

Initially, “within the Revolution everything” was limited to the countryside, where literacy campaigns, schools, clean water, and electricity brought the Cuban campesino (peasant) out of the proverbial darkness of ignorance and poverty. But in the 1970s, the Cuban government tried to deepen the Revolution’s ideological penetration of all aspects of Cuban society by enlisting the arts in its effort to transform Cuban culture. Born in 1964, Glexis Novoa owes one hundred percent of his free arts education and training to the Cuban government. The following statement encapsulates Cuban attitudes about the inseparability of culture and ideology.

We aspire to universality. The bankruptcy of the imperialist and bourgeoisie cultural project is based on their ignorance. They tried to dominate the rest of the world, denying an equal integration with the international cultural movement. With dreadful regional and colonialist criterion it is not possible to represent the cultural being of the peoples of the West… We are also, geographically and culturally, in the West. But we do not close our borders, on the contrary. We fight our cultural battles on the principles that inspire Western culture and on its aspirations and vocation of universality.

The use of the term “cultural battle” was very important. During the 1980s, the Cuban military was engaged on several real battlefronts with armed struggles in Central America, including Guatemala. The visual arts became a weapon of propaganda used by the government, extoling Cuba’s free education, including training in the fine arts. However, unlike film, for instance, the visual arts remained  relatively unaffected by state censorship of the 1960s—and onward into the 70s. This would change in the 1980s as a result of performance artists—like Glexis Novoa—who disrupted public events with increasingly provocative acts.

In the 1980s Havana art collectives formed with names that suggested links to Cuba’s guerilla past, such as El Grupo Provisional, which Glexis Novoa founded (late 80s) with two other young Havana performance artists (Francisco Lastra and Carlos Cárdenas). According to Novoa, “[el Grupo Provisional] existed when we were going to do a project. When the opportunity arose we [conveniently] used the name Provisional and included any number of artists in that exhibition.”

The group’s strategy was influenced by both the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) and the 1916-17 Zurich Dada Cabaret Voltaire. They believed that “those past experiences were also a reaction to a political environment and could find a similar fate in Cuba.” This statement reveals Novoa consciously, if not conscientiously, understood El Grupo Provisional was primarily a reaction to a political “environment.” Ironically, during the 1980s Cuban performance artists, like Novoa, would enlist Cuba’s revolutionary heritage in its incremental war of attrition against the frontiers of acceptability. Their appropriation of this militarism denotes awareness of the “within the Revolution, everything” environment in which they acted, or performed. According to Novoa, performance art developed very late in Cuba compared to other countries due to restrictions on information.

A key moment in the history of performance in Cuba was the incorporation of performance into the program at the Instituto Superior de Arte of Havana in the mid ‘80s. Even when it was not taught as part of the curriculum, some professors, like Consuelo Castañeda and Flavio Garcilandia, promoted performance art in the academic arena. The spread of performance by this means created a wider audience and promoted the realization of performances in different artistic events. At that time, the majority of happenings were elaborate pieces that included artists, musicians, dancers, poets and even critics.

All of the instructors mentioned above taught where Novoa studied; he was a recent graduate of at the time of Rauschenberg’s talk at el Castillo. In 1981, three new art spaces (re) opened, Galería HabanaCentro de Arte 23 y 12, and Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas, that play important parts in recognizing emerging talent, like Glexis Novoa. According to Novoa, “there was an art for art’s sake attitude due to the lack of commercial forces driving galleries, sales, etc.” At that time there was no private sector in Cuba, no auctions at Sotheby’s, and no articles in Vanity Fair. A Cuban artist working “outside” of the political system would be like a US artist working “outside” the market. Fidel Castro did not mince words: within the Revolution, everything… against it, nothing.

Without full support from the Cuban state cultural apparatus it was difficult, if not impossible for a Cuban artist to be known abroad. According to Fusco, in Cuba, artists who deviated from ideology faced “internal exile, expulsion from professional organizations and jobs, and social marginalization.”

True power is not reducible to censorship, the extreme state scenario…. The power of the state is much more sophisticated, more elaborate, more diffused insofar as the cooperation of the art community is engendered through as series of social engineering moves, the limit of choices and the attractiveness of rewards. You don’t need censorship when everyone [self-] censors. Even so, “some of the artists who engaged in performance were emboldened by the widely held belief that Soviet style perestroika would reach Cuba. In 1986, Castro had announced a plan to rectify Cuban socialism and some artists saw this as an invitation to act as the critical conscience of society. Havana’s art scene in the late 1980s was the country’s most dynamic cultural front.

Nevertheless, as previously noted, Cuban visual artists were relatively privileged; living fruit of Cuba’s free education. There may no equivalent Cuban expression for giving an inch and one taking a yard, but the idea applies. In 1983, during Conferencia Ilustrada, a roundtable about Dada art at the National School of Art (ISA), Novoa performed the first of many performances to come, collaborating with a group of other artists. They produced a “scatological work” within a series of simultaneous actions, such as painting upon an easel with excrement stored in a can. With a palette knife he painted a representation of a toilet. In 1984, Cuba hosted its first Biennial, which galvanized Cuba’s position as a global cultural bellwether. Such cultural grandstanding on the world stage emboldened Cuban visual artists. For artists, like Glexis Novoa, the Genie was out of the bottle. For the Cuban Government, it was more like opening a Pandora’s box. According to Luis Camnitzer, a leading expert on Cuban Art, the Biennial would be the “undisputed platform from which the international success of the eighties generation could be launched.”

The year 1989 is also a time marker: the fall of the Soviet empire and the emergence of what was came to be called “globalization.” It is also when the concept of the curator-as-explorer emerged in the contemporary art world, registering what James Clifford had observed and Hal Foster was soon to label as the “artist-as-ethnographer” paradigm… new impetus in the movement. The island and Havana city in particular was at once center, margin, harbor, and platform. The debates had implications in all levels; Cuban cultural policy became an example for the Third World. …. The debates were translated into institutions, plans, and programs, resulting in particular cultural and artistic practices. This view would later inspire events such as the Havana Biennale.

Cuba’s cultural leadership in the Third World was yet another shield behind which El Grupo Provisional could “react” to the political environment. By the time of Rauschenberg’s 1988 arrival in Havana, Novoa had executed five performances in Havana, including a group show held at the University of Havana in 1987. He had discovered that performance art required fewer resources than installation art—his second “genre” of production.

Novoa’s bold work would earn him recognition as part of a “conceptually and critically aggressive generation.”  After using visual artists as a propaganda tool for several decades, the Cuban Government could hardly throw them all in prison, not without its reputation as a cultural beacon diminishing.

During the island’s much heralded visual art’s renaissance of the 1980s, performance art had become the aesthetic strategy of choice for serving up irreverent critiques of state art pedagogy, the state’s power over artists, and the perceived hypocrisy of socialist officials. Artists in comic get up would interrupt academic conferences with satirical gestures… Lampooning bureaucrats… performance is cheap to produce and portable… Unlike painting and sculpture, performance art is imperceptible to authority before it is, making it an ideal means of intervening in unexpected places.

Similar “lampooning” happened to Rauschenberg during his Havana public appearance for ROCI. The timing of Rauschenberg’s Cuba ROCI visit coincided with the apex of Havana’s 1980s performance art scene. Similarities between Rauschenberg’s ROCI objectives (collaboration, indigenous techniques, etc.) and the following characterization of Havana performance art in 1988 should not be lost on readers:

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year [when performance proliferated] in the city of Havana. One might say they became fashionable. But the real reason was the urgency and need for free expression. Furthermore, the characteristics of such direct and independent practice to performance became the ideal tool for communicating ideas.

Rauschenberg’s Cuba ROCI exhibit was Novoa’s first real exposure to a contemporary (non-Cuban) artist. The texture of Rauschenberg’s paintings as well as Rauschenberg’s incorporation of everyday objects in his artwork greatly impressed Novoa. Like most Cuban artists, he had only been exposed to foreign art through the “flattening language” of magazines, newspapers, books, and television. He notes, Most of the pop artists had a very flat language…remember…we received flat information….so this integration of big, life-size objects suggesting the use of these objects…objects often of industrial design….that make a link between the use and the object.

The subtleties of Rauschenberg’s work notwithstanding, by “occupying” all of Havana’s major art venues, he might as well have painted a bull’s eye on his back. Rauschenberg’s 1988 Havana exhibit was the first time any artist—an American one at that—had taken over Havana’s galleries and museums. Keeping one’s enemies close is one thing, opening the gates to the proverbial barbarian “invasion” quite another. A US citizen gaining total access to Cuba’s museums beggared belief. One critic called him an “art imperialist,” who behaves like, a “big-time visiting American aided by ambassadors and surrounded by his entourage.” In the age of post-colonial theory, ROCI seemed to some critical eyes like a project of cultural invasion.” Even if we were to agree with this cynical outlook, we would still have to explain why the Cuban Government, arguably the embodiment of post-colonial theory, welcomed the US artist with open arms. By way of investigation, we turn to a government-run newspaper, that announced Rauschenberg’s intentions in the following way: “El Norteamericano que quiere unir el mundo por el arte,” or, the North American—meaning Rauschenberg—who wants to unite the world through art. We must wonder how his artwork could live up to such (local) lofty expectations? Maybe this was the point.

Twenty minutes into Rauschenberg’s public appearance, Novoa and two collaborators (aka, El Grupo Provisional) staged a performance. Though not on the agenda, this performance did not stray far from the ROCI agenda: Novoa and his co-provocateurs used an “indigenous technique”—performance art—to lure Rauschenberg into collaborating with them. Novoa’s collaborative performance art during Rauschenberg’s 1988 public appearance in Havana, which is the central focus of this investigation, may have been Novoa’s boldest and most significant. In hindsight, it also appears to have marked the beginning of the end, both for him and his fellow generation of performance artists. Rauschenberg’s Havana public appearance was held to address local confusion, if not criticism, about his work, which filled the museum, in addition to two other big time Havana art institutions, wherein his public appearance occurred.

For ROCI CUBA, Rauschenberg produced a series of paintings on aluminum and steel using vivid primary colors, evoking the pre-1959 American cars commonly seen in Havana. His works were exhibited in 1988 at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Castillo de la Fuerzaand Casa de las Américas, and at the Galleria Haydee Santamaría, Havana. Countering criticism that his paintings did not celebrate the complete history of Cuba, Rauschenberg, during an open forum for students and the public, maintained, “To break down barriers, I think you need to see as an alien does—to get lost in the city, or in the country, to see things in Cuba that maybe you are blind to.”

Rauschenberg may not have been much of a celebrity in Cuba, but the government sure treated him like he was, and this no doubt fueled frustration by Cuban artists who must have been perplexed by Rauschenberg’s seemingly apolitical artistic style. In the next section of this study, we read criticism about Rauschenberg’s perceived “failure” to celebrate the  “complete history of Cuba” sufficiently. What about Glexis Novoa—what was his reaction to Rauschenberg’s artwork? Glexis Novoa, then twenty-three, was struck by the presence of an “army” of art handlers helping to mount Rauschenberg’s exhibition inside the Castillo de la Fuerza, a Spanish fortress overlooking the mouth of Havana’s harbor, and a UNESCO-designated (1982) World Heritage Site. He watched with disbelief as art handlers drilled holes into the walls of the Castillo. Far from celebrating Cuban history, Rauschenberg was defacing it!

According to Novoa, Rauschenberg’s artwork of monumental “macho-man sized” proportions struck a dissonant chord. However, not all of Rauschenberg’s ROCI work in Cuba was super-sized. In addition to the much larger works he displayed in three locations in Havana, Rauschenberg also designed three posters, one for each of his Havana shows. These posters were much smaller in size (the size of a typical poster) than Rauschenberg’s artwork inside Havana’s museums. Another difference was their public display (posting) all over Havana to announce Rauschenberg’s three exhibits. Print editions of Rauschenberg’s posters did not remain in public view for long. According to the Miami Herald, “Rauschenberg’s catalogues disappeared in the first hour.” Paper was (still is) a precious commodity in Cuba. Novoa swiped one of Rauschenberg’s posters for want of paper, but before we address what he needed the paper for, we can also consider Rauschenberg’s three ROCI posters, starting with the one that Novoa brought along with him to Rauschenberg’s 1988 Havana public appearance.

RAUSCHENBERG’S ROCI CUBA POSTERS

Rauschenberg’s signature use of photo transfers and bright graphic colors is superficially reminiscent of Cuban propaganda art, but such similarities are more style than substance. In Cuba, images are highly political. In Rauschenberg’s artwork, images are subverted into a metaphysical language of form, color, and verisimilitude. Rauschenberg’s primary objective, as we recall, was to play the part of the alien observer, holding up a mirror, albeit one distorted to his liking, into which his host country could gaze. His three ROCI posters reflect a playful obsession with the Cuban flag, specifically its big white five-pointed star. This conclusion is meaningful to this investigation because it underscores Rauschenberg’s total devotion to being a fish out of water. If he had not embraced his outsider status so thoroughly, Novoa and his colleagues may not have been so emboldened; Rauschenberg’s neutrality was their shield.

Four stripes of text run horizontally across the Castillo de la Fuerza poster, providing the date and location (February 10–April 3) of Rauschenberg’s Castillo exhibit. The topmost line of text reads, “Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange.” Excluding the text, most of the visual elements are photographic transfers of objects/ideas that struck Rauschenberg’s visual fancy in Cuba. “The artist likes to point out that his palette is not limited to paints; it consists of an infinite repertory of photographs, most of them taken by him.”  One of his few “unfulfilled dreams” was to photograph the world in its entirety, “big as life.”  His only fear is that he might “run out of world.” Perhaps ROCI was his attempt to fulfill this dream. The world provided his raw materials for art, as demonstrated by his posters. Cuba is both subject and the medium. The artist is ancillary.

 (He called this indexing visual strategy “introducing the world to itself.”)

Close inspection reveals triangles, stripes, and even stars; all the elements of the Cuban flag! The red, white, and blue color palette of Rauschenberg’s Castillo poster references the colors of the Cuban flag. The colors dominate the viewing experience, as do the crisscrossing lines and silhouettes. The crooked lamppost, another ubiquitous object in Cuba, leans over the horizontal red stripe, nearly forming a red triangle. Even the little red man resembles a star. This red, star-like figure, serves as self-visualization: the artist gazing at his surroundings. The poster portrays Rauschenberg observing inasmuch as it illustrates the things, the places, and the people, he observed. The Castillo poster, we note, is equal parts self-portrait and landscape. Rauschenberg has provided us the raw materials of a flag, but the viewer must weave them together. In Rauschenberg’s two remaining posters, he also played with the Cuban flag and its five-pointed white star, wedging it in between letters and words.

There are subtle references to flags in the form of draped fabric hanging (very flag-like) from clotheslines in the lower portion of his second poster, this one designed for his Casa de las Americas exhibit. In the upper portion, flag references include a bright yellow star hovering slightly off-center. This yellow star is masquerading as the letter “A,” of the word “Americas.” As soon as we acknowledge the (subtle) presence of a yellow star, we begin to notice stars in multiple places. The star is also wedged into the words, “HABANA CUBA,” where it likewise masquerades as the letter “A.” In Cuba, the star is a stand in for the Revolution as well as Cuba, a reduction of the Cuban flag into a visual essence.

In his third and final poster for his exhibition at El Museo Nacional we see continued fascination for stars. In it, flag allusions are seen in visual concert with highly politically charged iconography. In Cuba, painting Che Guevara or Jose Martí is the easiest way for an artist to declare revolutionary solidarity. Rauschenberg painted both. Portraits of Che Guevara and statues of José Martí are as omnipresent in Cuba as ceiling fans. Even so, we note that the bright green word “OVERSEAS” is a complete visual obfuscation of Che’s little star—the prominent one on his beret, worn in all of his photos.

He could have moved the image slightly to the left in order to have the letter “A” in “OVERSEAS” floating directly over Che’s star, or where it should be located. In the other two posters, we noted Rauschenberg’s attention to these seemingly small compositional details, specifically with the letter “A.” In this instance, it is squarely in the center of the poster, created out of the letter “A” in “NACIONAL.” Prominent stars visually compensates for its absences elsewhere. Like his play with the star on Che’s beret, Rauschenberg camouflaged the letter “A” into the reaching right hand of Jose Martí, who stands Prospero-like and all-powerful.

Where is Che’s star? Is it up Jose Martí’s sleeve? We find it nested within the word “NACIONAL”—a fitting location. The triangle, or pyramid-shaped ceiling fan mirrors this visual balancing act and serves as a compass for viewers. Its four extensions establish four-dimensional space, with length, width, height, and depth. These lines lead up, down, diagonal, and across to easily resemble a star’s pointing extremities. A “star” appears hovering directly above Che’s beret, where the little star should be. The star icon masquerades as everyday objects, like the ceiling fan. Such visual play with politically charged symbols might have been received poorly by his Cuban audience had Rauschenberg not balanced it out with a fierce monochromatic red, which gives the entire composition a Communist tone. Rauschenberg’s fascination with the Cuban star may not have been rooted in Cuba. The star was an important local icon as well as a personal one for Rauschenberg. Take a look at the red star in his 1950 painting The Lily White. It is incised with random numerals in a rough geometrical pattern and embellished with a little red star—“something that makes every painting look better,” Rauschenberg stated, as it implies a sale. The star in Lily White is a visual point of origin, one loaded with personal meaning for Rauschenberg. Behind all the stars there is a highly personalized visual reference. He mentions it midway through his public appearance, which will now be our focus.

PART III: CASTILLO DE LA FUERZA PUBLIC APPEARANCE

Now that we have reviewed Rauschenberg’s three posters, we can concentrate on his appearance at the Castillo de la Fuerza, during which Glexis Novoa and other members of El Grupo Provisional staged a performance. The Castillo de la Fuerza, a colonial fortress located at the mouth of Havana’s Harbor, served as the location for one of Rauschenberg’s three exhibits, as well as his public appearance. Rauschenberg’s public appearance was held, in part, to address criticism about his failure to celebrate Cuban culture fully and accurately. Between him and his audience stood a language barrier, a generation gap, and an Iron Curtain. His audience, enviably young and tan, watches him ramble with amused boredom. In the words of one observer,

Rauschenberg’s [Castillo show] was received [by his Cuban artist audience] with reservation… or with a mix of irony and indifference… by Cuban artists… who were engrossed in resolving more pressing problems than those presented by the traveling tortoise.” The same observer also asked, “Was [Rauschenberg’s] incursion an effort to facilitate a dialogue or a blind monologue?”

Several aspects of Rauschenberg’s Q&A can be enlisted in his defense against such criticism. First, Rauschenberg’s disheveled appearance conveys little pretense about his authority. Second, allowing the public to ask him questions is not a monologue, though, in truth, he did all the answering and none of the questioning. The Q&A format suggests Rauschenberg’s intention to have a one-on-one interchange, instead of a blind monologue.

“I had a couple of colleagues, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly,” Rauschenberg states, “and we didn’t have a kind of self-pity attitude about the world. We worked as though the world was a fact, and it was filled with objects that were real, and without criticism.”

We may wonder if his having “had two colleagues, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly,” refers to paintings by Johns and Twombly sold to finance his ROCI project. The translator, seated on Rauschenberg’s right, struggles with the word, “self-pity.” Frustrated, he discards the translation altogether. Rauschenberg goes ahead without realizing that his translator needed more time. The hare speeding ahead of the tortoise characterizes the first twenty minutes of Q&A.

To make matters worse, Rauschenberg’s poetic license with words works with English, but fails to translate into Spanish.

“Now later another generation came….” Rauschenberg says, picking up his meandering train of thought. “Then pop art began… I think after we had revealed the fact that the world—reality—was nothing to be ashamed of.” Rauschenberg’s rambling statement meets silence. He acknowledges this with an aside, “I’m not through, am I?” Translation: I am bombing here.

“I never thought of myself as one idea leading to another…” he informs his audience. “Because that’s, uh, didactic. As far as what the Northern part of the United States is doing, is, it’s a big cafeteria for artists making money…. I am not particularly happy about what’s going on there. It’s not as innovative and creative as it was, say, in the 50s and in the 60s… I think success is a kind of disease for creative people and spreads very rapidly. I have met colleagues who are interested in just promoting their own style and their financial stability. And that has nothing to do with creativity. You have to be excitingly raw, in order to [awaken] the world.” Rauschenberg tells his audience, “I have a turtle that I’ve had for thirty-five years. His name is Rocky…, he wins all the races.”

Talk about one idea leading to another!

Apparently, Rauschenberg saw himself as a refugee fleeing from a bad habitat—a “diseased capitalist” art world. However, someone in the audience protests that Rauschenberg’s turtle comments do not, “provide any explanation whatsoever.” (Perhaps about him uniting the world with art?) “Ok, alright,” he states, meaning, if my last comment didn’t explain things, then the following will: “There’s the international legendary connotation from Hindu and many other religions that the turtle carries the weight of the world. So it’s both.”

Why does the artist make so much ado about turtles? The answer can be found in revisiting Rauschenberg’s obsession with stars. Rauschenberg’s strained effort to win over his audience to the turtle camp was due to the fact that the turtle was a kind of personal syncretism, as we will see by returning to his ROCI poster depicting his turtle Rocky. In it, we see a single subject sandwiched between horizontal lines of text. We can guess who this turtle is and to whom it belongs. The turtle’s pedigree is not so interesting at its physical form, or shape. This bird’s eye view highlights Rocky’s resemblance to a five-pointed star. Four appendages, two arms, and two legs, extending from the shell, form the four cardinal points of a star. Rocky’s head forms the fifth point of the star, or its spire. In terms our earlier analysis of Rauschenberg’s stars, we can speculate that Rauschenberg was not only aware of Rocky’s star-like resemblance, or to a star representation, but also that this resemblance crystalized a personal visual motif.

Rauschenberg’s fascination with stars seems to be a visual analog of him being a fish out of water. He does not evaluate—he only observes, he does not evaluate. If any verisimilitude is to be uncovered it is in the pure idiosyncrasy of his effort. Whatever may or may not be the merits of this approach, we must agree that it was one of the key ingredients necessary for the Novoa-Rauschenberg interchange to arise, partly because Novoa incorporated one of Rauschenberg’s posters—the Castillo de la Fuerza poster—into the performance he staged during Rauschenberg’s Castillo public appearance. But also because Rauschenberg’s outsider status—his neutrality—served as cover for El Grupo Provisional’s “manifestation.”

PART IV: VERY GOOD RAUSCHENBERG

Near the end of Rauschenberg’s public appearance, Novoa and the two other Provisional members “stole the show.” They enter from the back of the room, wading through the audience upstage toward Rauschenberg. The poster is so big it requires two men and both of their arms to carry it. But where is Novoa? We don’t notice him because the outsized sheet of cardboard obscures him from view, but he is present, standing to the left of his comrades. He carries something that viewers can’t see. The rest of us have no problem seeing what’s on the bigger placard.

“Very Good Rauschenberg” is written in large capital letters. On the lower right is written “Grupo Provisional.” Unlike Rauschenberg, El Grupo Provisional did not cling to their mother tongue, using English to literally proclaim to the artist, “Very Good!” To the right of those words is the profile of a Taíno Indian, a clear reference to the Indian chief (Hatuey) who led a failed rebellion against Columbus. The three diagonal scratch marks on the warrior’s left cheek simultaneously suggest paint and blood—a visual connection between art and violence. The crude black border framing the subject matter and the text emerging from the stylized Indian’s mouth appear to reflect comic book art.

The intention seems clear: the imagery summons parallels between colonialism and Rauschenberg’s artistic “invasion.” Next, Novoa’s colleagues place Very Good Rauschenberg in front of the visiting artist. The placard is so big that it acts like a mini-Iron Curtain, isolating Rauschenberg from his Castillo audience. This division produces simultaneous impressions of intimacy and claustrophobia.

Nothing indicates that Very Good Rauschenberg is part of the program. “¿Que es esto?,” the Cuban official on Rauschenberg’s left exclaims with an amused tone. “What is this?” Photographers surround Rauschenberg, further obscuring the audience’s view of what’s transpiring. A murmur fills the room as the audience shifts to get a better look.

Held by Novoa in his right hand is the Castillo de la Fuerza poster evaluated earlier. Novoa hands it to Rauschenberg, while reaching into his back pocket to find the paintbrush for Rauschenberg to use to sign his name on the (his? Novoa’s?) Castillo de la Fuerza poster. All of this is happening in front of  Very Good Rauschenberg, the large square placard that forms an impromptu backdrop. Next, Novoa leans in and asks Rauschenberg to sign the poster with the provided paintbrush.

Why this?” Rauschenberg politely asks, referring to the brush, though we must also wonder the same in reference to the Castillo poster. “It will look better this way,” is Novoa’s reply. What he probably meant was, “It will be more valuable this way.”

Rauschenberg immediately obliges—or takes Novoa to task, depending on our interpretation of events. Up to this point, Rauschenberg has been more of a prop, or pawn, on Novoa’s “chessboard.” This changes when Rauschenberg writes his (sprawling) signature across the poster, from the left edge to the right. Rauschenberg’s hand reaches the far right edge of the poster, but he does not lift the brush. Instead, he allows it to slip over the edge onto Novoa’s plaid pants, Novoa’s pants becoming a medium drawn unexpectedly into this scenario. This singular gesture transforms Rauschenberg’s role from participant to collaborator.

Novoa may have tricked Rauschenberg into leaving his mark, but Rauschenberg retaliated by leaving an additional (spontaneous) mark on Novoa’s plaid pants. Nevertheless, the day belonged to Novoa: Rauschenberg’s act of signing one of his own works—the poster—inadvertently made it, the poster, a work by Glexis Novoa. “Thank you very much,” Novoa says to Rauschenberg, who has just finished marking Novoa’s pants. It is over. El Grupo Provisional retreats back into the jungle—mission accomplished.

PART V: CORRECTING THE RECORD

Scholarship about what just happened relies exclusively on eyewitnesses who were blocked from seeing what really transpired behind Very Good Rauschenberg. El Grupo Provisional’s makeshift “cardboard curtain.” A comparison of scholarship about the Novoa-Rauschenberg interchange with the video archival accounts yields striking disparities. This comparison reveals that scholarship about the Novoa-Rauschenberg exchange, based entirely on eyewitness accounts, provides an unreliable narrative. The witnessed subject, the large, obstructive square placard—limited the audience’s view of what happened. Scholars state that Rauschenberg signed his name on Very Good Rauschenberg, mistakenly omitting the presence of a second, smaller placard that Novoa requested Rauschenberg sign—aka the Castillo de la Fuerza poster.

The black and white photo (above) clearly shows Rauschenberg signing his Castillo poster, which we have spent enough time analyzing in this paper that we should take no time recognizing it. (Apparently, in addition to neglecting the video record of the event, scholars have also overlooked the photographic record.) If we are to believe existing scholarship about what happened, Rauschenberg signed Very Good Rauschenberg, not his Castillo de la Fuerza poster.

Rauschenberg “was greeted by El Grupo Provisional…. who stormed the museum’s auditorium bearing a sign reading “Very Good Rauschenberg” that they insisted (in Spanish, which he did not understand) the befuddled artist autograph.

We saw in our earlier analysis of Rauschenberg’s public appearance that Novoa, in fact, did not ask Rauschenberg to sign Very Good Rauschenberg. Clearly, eyewitness testimony of the interchange was limited, if not mistaken. Photographic and video evidence shows no insistence, nor do we observe any “befuddling.” Rauschenberg’s decision to mark Novoa’s pants was without hesitation: direct and straightforward. Another citation about the occasion ignores Rauschenberg’s having signed anything at all: “Provisional’s carnivalesque, faux-groupie play was masterfully impish in its dismissal of the “very good” artist, the simple, silly gesture farting on myth at several levels: the art student’s adulation of fame, the anti-imperialist position of the Cuban national institution, the “Indian’s” warm embrace of the conqueror, the “universality” of the language of art.”

“Dismissive” is an inapt characterization of what happened. This scholar concludes that the entire interchange was “farting” in Rauschenberg’s face. Video evidence confirms that the exchange was polite, even cordial. Novoa politely asked Rauschenberg for his autograph, and thanked Rauschenberg for providing it.

During the same conference, Grupo Provisional staged the performance “Very Good Rauschenberg,” during which Novoa, Lastra, and Rodriguez approached Rauschenberg with a placard, painted with the face of an Indian, which read “Very Good Rauschenberg,” and they asked him to autograph it. Surprised by the intervention, the disconcerted artist finally accepted to sign the placard, thus participating in a way in the criticism of himself. According to Novoa, both performances showed an irreverent attitude before “the gringo” who was doing what he wanted in different spaces of the city.

This citation above portrays a “disconcerted” Rauschenberg, who “finally” agreed to sign “the placard.” The video evidence shows no deliberation by Rauschenberg. Novoa handed him the brush and Rauschenberg immediately complied.

Grupo Provisional members Glexis Novoa, Carlos Cárdenas and Francisco Lastra presented Rauschenberg with a crudely painted placard bearing an Indian head that said, ‘Very Good Rauschenberg’, and asked him to sign it, which he did. Although they addressed Rauschenberg in these performances, the artists were once again making fun of the hypocritical obsequiousness of the Cuban cultural bureaucrats, who, despite the anti-American stance of the Cuban government, had given the ‘Yankee imperialist’ free rein to show his art in several of Havana’s art spaces at once, a gesture they viewed as a form of neocolonial submission. It was a symbolic assault on the cultural bureaucracy in which body language spoke louder than words.

This following citation repeats the same erroneous account: “During a reception at the museum the artists stormed [into] the auditorium bearing signs that said Very Good Rauschenberg, which they insisted he autograph.” Though Provisional’s entrance may be characterized as “storming the auditorium,” Novoa’s (entrance) cannot. If anything, he was invisible—camouflaged even. In addition, Novoa is not seen touching Very Good Rauschenberg. We cannot assume, therefore, that Novoa is directly involved with the activity, but we do know that Rauschenberg was not asked to sign the piece. Also, note that the author refers erroneously to the two placards involved in the plural, as in “bearing signs” that said Very Good Rauschenberg.

Another twist to the story is Novoa’s personal website, which cites the mistaken version of events. Scholarly inaccuracy may be forgiven due to unreliable testimony, but reading this inaccurate account (citation on following page) on the website of Glexis Novoa must raise eyebrows. He knows better—literally. However, when reading his glowing citation, we can understand why the artist likes the fictionalized version:

El Grupo Provisional [skewered] the self-colonizing impulse behind the museum’s decision to turn itself over to Rauschenberg’s self-aggrandizement. The government did not censor Novoa’s own incursion perhaps because his performance overtly targeted the foreigner, the not-so-subtle jab at the state by reclaiming and institution for Cuban artists clearly having been lost on the government.

In the final analysis, Very Good Rauschenberg may have been “making fun of the hypocritical obsequiousness of the Cuban cultural bureaucrats,” but Novoa’s less visible collaboration with Rauschenberg does not support this conclusion. Scholars use words like “skewer” in their effort to cast Novoa and his peers as iconoclasts. To observers, especially “secondary” ones, Novoa’s real “performance” was completely missed, and, therefore, misunderstood:

Novoa’s performance reclaimed this important cultural institution. Arguably it was the most important one in Cuba, and it had been handed over to a foreigner for, what New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called, Rauschenberg’s own self-aggrandizement.

The above description casts Novoa and his peers in the role of St. Mathew slaying the two-headed dragon, as played by the Cuban Government and Robert Rauschenberg, but we know the story is a little more complicated than that. This above-cited version of the event, its implicit characterization of the proverbial good, the bad, and the ugly, is belied by Novoa’s brief but fruitful exchange with Rauschenberg.

We now know that Rauschenberg’s Havana public appearance was interrupted by more than one performance piece. When we compare the first, involving Very Good Rauschenberg, with the second, involving a signed poster, we see why the first one gets so much attention. Very Good Rauschenberg is much bigger in size, more easily seen, while the Castillo signing might as well have been invisible. Very Good Rauschenberg makes use of familiar visual language with clear references to colonial history. The Castillo poster makes use of, well, a Rauschenberg’s poster. Indeed, Novoa’s decision to use Rauschenberg’s artwork challenges the whole premise of authorship, if not flipping it upside down.

Art Historians should be quick to recognize the similarities between this “appropriation-of-authorship” and Rauschenberg’s famous Erased De Kooning. Its importance, we know, is based exclusively on the same kind of execution and authorship that characterizes Novoa’s interchange with Rauschenberg. In 1953, Rauschenberg, then in his early twenties, asked artist Willem de Kooning (1904-97) to give him a work of art to erase. “It had to begin as art…. so it had to be a de Kooning if it was going to be an important piece.” De Kooning accepted Rauschenberg’s proposal and the result was Erased De Kooning.  A short summary of this 1953 exchange reveals important parallels to the Novoa-Rauschenberg interchange. Furthermore, these parallels add weight to the significance of the Novoa-Rauschenberg collaboration.

With great respect and trepidation, Rauschenberg approached de Kooning to ask for a drawing to erase; with some reluctance and consternation, de Kooning consented. According to Rauschenberg, de Kooning agreed to participate because he understood the concept behind the request and did not want to impede another artist’s work. Back in his studio, Rauschenberg set to work reversing de Kooning’s masterful draftsmanship, a process that took considerable time and numerous erasers. Rauschenberg had a penchant for storytelling, and some of the finer details of his account were embellished over the decades (de Kooning’s demeanor grew more intimidating, the number of erasers increased). However, the central plot points, present in the first major public airing of the tale in Calvin Tomkins’s February 1964 New Yorker profile of Rauschenberg.

The autographed Castillo poster adds another twist. Ironically, by signing the poster that Novoa presented to him, Rauschenberg relinquished his authorship and Novoa acquired it. According to Novoa, his 1988 interchange with Rauschenberg was not an attempt to replicate Rauschenberg’s 1953 artistic exchange with Willem de Kooning. I interviewed Glexis Novoa and I asked him if his Castillo performance had been inspired by Rauschenberg’s “interchange” with de Kooning. It had not—he hadn’t even heard of it.

The similarities between Erased De Kooning and the Castillo poster are so striking that they make all the more glaring the omission of Novoa’s collaboration with Rauschenberg from the official record. Both involve a young, upstart artist brazenly throwing the gauntlet down before a living legend. Both involve a younger artist appropriating an elder artist’s work. Both challenge the notion of authorship. Both are equal parts performance and painting. Finally, both erase one author while manifesting another simultaneously.

EPILOGUE: RAUSCHENBERG BRUSHING OFF ON NOVOA

We find evidence of Rauschenberg’s influence on Novoa in work created immediately following the former’s ROCI Cuba visit, as well as in work created by Novoa many years later—namely, Honorary Guest, which we analyzed at the inception of this study. In Novoa’s 1989 painting, Untitled,  his big red star wedged in between a line of text, dominates the frame. This use of a star wedged into text is identical to the stars intruding into text in all three of Rauschenberg’s ROCI posters, including the signed Rauschenberg Castillo poster—Novoa’s Erased Rauschenberg. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that Rauschenberg rubbed off on Novoa, in addition to brushing him with paint. Rauschenberg’s visit marked the beginning of the end of an era. Thereafter, work by Cuban performance artists would become so brazen that the government was obligated to respond, notably jailing one artist (not Novoa) for publicly defecating on the official Cuban newspaper (la Granma). Novoa, like many of his peers, left Cuba in the late 80s seeking success abroad. He now resides in Miami, Florida. As of the completion of this study, his website still cites the inaccurate version of how his 1988 interchange with Robert Rauschenberg unfolded.

The Novoa-Rauschenberg Exchange is a valuable case study proving that the only thing one should expect from an echo chamber are echoes. Scholars parroted other scholars without consulting available primary sources (photographs and video evidence). Due to Cuba’s unique “state” of cultural isolation, this scholarly lassitude can be understood, if not forgiven. In a world in which not even the artist is necessarily a reliable narrator, we Art Historians must seek hard evidence, where available. Trust but verify. If scholars like Coco Fusco, Luis Camnitzer, and Rachel Weiss (the who’s-who of scholarship about Contemporary Cuban Art) can “get it wrong,” then anyone can. Thanks to places like the Rauschenberg Foundation and its vast archive, valuable evidence is publicly available; it is a shame—if not an academic misdemeanor—to let such a goldmine go to waste.

This study has shown that, in Cuba, ideology and art blend together so mellifluously that we Art Historians must take extra care when “unpacking” eyewitness testimony. We recall Castro’s 1961 declaration, “within the Revolution, everything, outside of it, nothing.” We must evaluate all Cuban art produced “within” the Revolution in terms of this underlying cultural superimposition by the State. When evaluating El Grupo Provisional’s “manifestation” during Rauschenberg’s public appearance, scholars accepted the testimony of onlookers as fact. But in Cuba, looks can be especially deceiving. In Cuba, all artwork ineluctably declares its allegiance, aesthetic, ideological, or otherwise, to the Revolution, or it is, by definition, anti-Revolutionary. However, artists, or artist collectives like El Grupo Provisional, subverted these parameters by enlisting them in performances, making an ostentatious “show” of being within the Revolution, and, in so doing, satirizing the state with carefully contrived obsequiousness.

Take “Very Good Rauschenberg,” for instance. The large cardboard placard of the angry savage was Provisional’s way of proclaiming, “See? We are within the Revolution,” enlisting conventional, even cartoonish, imagery in their audacious effort. This imagery echoed commonplace anti-imperialist ideology (text and image) that is so publicly pervasive in Cuban society. Such ideological grandstanding allowed Glexis Novoa to momentarily peek through the Iron Curtain, undetected by anybody—not even the scholars. Ordinary Cubans are not supposed to have any private moments with foreign dignitaries, like Rauschenberg. Only Fidel is allowed any all-night “chats” with foreign celebrities. If a (Cuban) artist wanted to ask Rauschenberg questions, it had be in public, with everyone watching, listening, this ensuring that everything remained within the Revolution.

But El Grupo Provisional guaranteed that Big Brother would not be watching by deploying the disgruntled native, so-to-speak, putting on a quintessentially Cuban anti-imperialist dog ‘n’ pony show. While Big Brother was looking away, Novoa poked his head through the Iron Curtain and said hello to Robert Rauschenberg, on Novoa’s terms, and with his own devices. Rauschenberg’s autograph, obtained by Novoa during their brief but important exchange, is, in the final analysis, a recording of Novoa’s short stint outside of the Revolution. No small feat in Cuba. 

___________________

Alexander Nixon is a writer, journalist, critic, and songwriter. He has written one novel and published several short stories, as well as produced numerous music videos available online with his band, The Violets. He has a BA from Stanford University (Latin American Studies, Fine Arts, 2000), and an MA in Latin American Studies from NYU (2008).

Published by ArtSlant 

Categories: Featured, Visual Art

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