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Finding the factor: Documentarian explores Rauschenberg in Venice


By Ken Stickney


Amei Wallach had never seen the empty downtown lot where Robert Rauschenberg’s boyhood home once rested.

Nor had she passed the nearby Church of Christ, where the Rauschenberg family attended services. Baptists now hold the keys.

Finding the Port Arthur of 1925, Rauschenberg’s birth year, is increasingly more difficult. Downtown is subdued now, banks and most restaurants gone. Tankers and cargo ships still hover over the seawall in passing. There’s little evidence of Rauschenberg’s Port Arthur years, 1925-41, here, save for the hulking, empty 10-story Hotel Sabine, the city’s tallest building.

Wallach, a longtime New York art critic, was in Port Arthur this week working on her documentary in progress about Rauschenberg’s triumph at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where he captured the Golden Lion award and “pop art” — a term he abhorred — gained global prominence. Rauschenberg himself called his art “abstract expressionism.”

An experienced documentarian, author and contributor to The Smithsonian, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and other leading publications, Wallach’s crew captured footage at the 2017 Venice Biennale for use in this work. The artist’s hometown will contribute additional images.

She arrived Monday and was to remain through Tuesday afternoon, visiting the Museum of the Gulf Coast and speaking with local people who knew Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 — museum director Tom Neal and former Lamar State College Port Arthur’s president Sam Monroe, among them — searching for some fingerprints of Rauschenberg’s Port Arthur past.

Tuesday’s schedule would include a visit to Pleasure Island and past the church and homesite.

The artist’s surviving younger sister, Janet Begnaud of Lafayette, Louisiana, had planned to make the trip Monday with her son, Rick, but fell ill. Wallach planned to travel to Lafayette, two-plus hours east, Tuesday night to meet with the Begnauds.

Otherwise, her time was spent in seeking connection, including visuals, with Rauschenberg’s past here. Camera and sound crews accompanied her. Of particular interest to them Monday was a section of the museum dedicated to Port Arthur native Janis Joplin, with whom Rauschenberg dined in Los Angeles the night before her death. They set up cameras in front of the 1965 Porsche, a replica of Joplin’s car, painted by Joplin “roadie” Dave Roberts, who had painted Joplin’s original.

The award in Venice, Wallach believes, transformed Rauschenberg’s work and his life. She said the documentary — the working title is “Taking Venice, the Rauschenberg Factor,” which is likely to be completed by year’s end, would tell that part of his story. She also said the turbulent 1960s, including his participation at the American Pavilion in Venice, changed the artist’s political outlook, made him more of “an activist.”

The critic Monday spent considerable time pondering “Signs,” a piece Rauschenberg created to capture the spirit of the ‘60s, with included images of Kent State, Janis Joplin, the Kennedys, James Meredith and more. No. 3 of 10 artist’s prints hangs at the entrance of the Rauschenberg gallery at the museum, a gift from the artist and probably his own copy, said Monroe. The museum wanted one, Monroe said, “and one just showed up.”

“Bob was so generous that way,” Monroe said.

In fact, much of the gallery was provided for by the artist himself, who cherished the museum and his connection to it. He took an active role in planning his gallery there, which includes about two dozen works — some original.

One work on exhibit there this week was “Barely There,” not yet cataloged by the Rauschenberg Foundation as the artist’s work. The family of a New York deli owner — Rauschenberg used to eat there — held it in their possession for more than a half-century before its recent sale.

Tony Webber, CEO of Southwest Museum Services of Houston, bought the 27-by-36 combine piece, which he said was likely created between 1962 and 1965 and given to the deli owner, Rauschenberg’s friend. Its public showing in Port Arthur was its first; it’s scheduled to remain until month’s end.

At one point, Wallach reached out toward the displayed copy of Rauschenberg’s Grammy-winning cover for the Talking Heads album, “Speaking in Tongues.”

“I’d forgotten about this,” she said with a wide smile.