When I was growing up in Sarasota, Florida, encircled by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, there was no notion of capital A art. I don’t think I went to a museum or can remember going until I was in college, but as early as I can remember there was an artist I’d deeply admired throughout my life. His name was Robert Rauschenberg, and when I was growing up, he lived just down the coast on a little barrier island called Captiva from 1968 until 2008 when he died there from heart failure.
See: while my parents were learned-ed folk, they never prescribed what I should read or do or care about, but as long ago as I can remember, I remember the work of Robert Rauschenberg. His aesthetic cast a spell on me. And later, when I was in college, my father and I were in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa, and he told me how at one point somebody couldn’t afford to pay him a debt, and so they traded him three Rauschenberg prints instead. To recoup the money, he sold them to an art dealer in Switzerland, and decades later I cursed him for selling them.
And the reason I’m leading you down this path is to tell you about how Rauschenberg ended up between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pine Island Sound on a 35-acre spit of sand that became his spiritual lodestar. After all, isn’t that the kind of real-estate we’re all searching for, especially as the calendar renews itself?
Rauschenberg was born in 1925 in the tiny town of Port Arthur, Texas, and later after a stint in the marines, used the G.I. Bill to study in Paris which ultimately led him to New York as an artist. From the 1950s on, he became a waypoint on the arc of contemporary art as a conceptual, sardonic, formal, and absolutely against the grain artist who introduced a stuffed goat to painting and the erasure of a drawing to conceptualism.
When it comes to art in the 20th century, you simply cannot overstate the influence of Robert Rauschenberg. He broadened the scope of what art could ultimately mean.
For almost a decade now, I desperately wanted to visit the Rauschenberg property, which now serves as a residency program for artists spanning dance, sound, and visual disciplines. And finally (yes finally!) a friend of mine invited me down to visit while she was there.
On a Saturday afternoon in autumn I pulled into the property and found myself in sheer awe. After dragging my open mouth across the place, we made our way to the Fish House—maybe the most iconic piece of the property.
In 1942, the political cartoonist and conservationist, J.N. “Ding” Darling built this raised structure on the rim of the Sound with a drawbridge that you could pull up behind you to keep from being disturbed. In 1978, Rauschenberg bought the 3.5 acres it belonged to, and he, too, used the place as an escape, closing the drawbridge behind him. Now, it serves as a communal space for artists invited to the residency.
Walking along the dock, putting my hand on the pilings felt like chasing a ghost. I’d seen countless pictures of Rauschenberg here, heard the stories, cataloged a whole constellation of myth built around this place. Upstairs, we looked out over the Sound. I was curious what struck my friend from California about this place or rather how it affected her, and she wondered why Rauschenberg felt so buoyed here. I figured it was the clarity of mind this very spot afforded him.
The rhythms of the place lulled you into thought. Once in an interview here, Rauschenberg said, “A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”
As a Floridian myself, who left to live in New York City and then returned South, the idea haunted me. For him, it seemed as though the world fell away, and it quieted his mind. I imagined the conversations that took place at this very spot, the thoughts he chewed on looking out over this very body of water, and for a moment sitting there with the California friend, I felt less alone in the world.
Later, we moved into chairs on the deck of the original house Rauschenberg lived in when he moved here fifty years ago. It looked out over the Gulf, and for three hours, we listened as the queen palms whirred, and the light grew dim. Columns of light poured down through the layers of clouds moving east, and we talked story.
With our eyes trained on the water, it was easy to see the draw as little waves lapped the shore and a squall bisected the sky. As the night drew close, the sky and water lit up in a way that only those going slow enough to sit and watch for hours can truly know. I left that evening with some newfound sense of peace. It was good to be home—to be in a place so deeply defined by water and silence and light and land and lack of land. Or maybe, it was just that I felt in tune with it all. Chasing the specter of Rauschenberg all these years helped me return to the very shores I came of age.
For the first night of Hanukah last December, my mom gave me a book called “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. In it, Lamott recounts the cacophony of doubts looming over her at one point, almost crippling her. She nabbed this little prayer book one evening, and when she sat down to dinner later that night, she pried the book open and found this passage.
“The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it.” She applied the metaphor to her own work and shared it with her students, too, but it made me think in that moment how Rauschenberg, leaving New York City, and hemming himself into a haunt along the Gulf of Mexico was an attempt to align himself with that kind of energy. As he said, “It is the source and reserve of my energies.”
And as the finite goals and hopes and fears mapped themselves onto a calendar with the new year approaching, I thought of how I’d find my own Captiva.
If you’d like to see some of Rauschenberg’s work, you don’t have to travel to North Captiva. As part of its permanent collection, MOCA Jacksonville has Rauschenberg’s work on display indefinitely.
This column originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 9, Rad Pads.