Part 1: “Art Has No Borders”: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange

The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative (ROCI) was a large-scale international traveling exhibition organized by American artist Robert Rauschenberg that doubled as a cultural exchange program. Between 1984 and 1990, Rauschenberg and his team held the ROCI exhibition in ten countries—Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Malaysia—before the project concluded in 1991. This is the first section of an essay by Hiroko Ikegami on the topic, excerpted from the exhibition catalog Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.

Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI USA. 1991. Silkscreen on aluminum-coated paper. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Rauschenberg made his first trip to China in 1982, to work on a project initiated by the Los Angeles print studio Gemini G.E.L.1The project was originally conceived by Stanley Grinstein, codirector of Gemini G.E.L., who was interested in the idea of Rauschenberg working with Chinese papers. The experience would change the course of his production. After traveling through China for three weeks, the artist worked for two weeks at the Xuan paper mill in Jingxian, Anhui Province, said to be the oldest paper mill in the world. The trip would have been impossible during the period of the Cultural Revolution; since then, Deng Xiaoping had initiated his open-door policy, but Rauschenberg still encountered difficulties in China. Although the central government had granted permission for the trip, for instance, officials in Jingxian at first feared that the Americans might steal their paper-making secrets and made the artist and his team stay at the Yellow Mountains, one of the most famous scenic sites in China, about forty miles away from the Xuan paper mill.

Even after entering the village, Rauschenberg was not allowed inside the mill and had to work in a “so-called VIP compound” where he gave instructions to craftsmen and created the paper-based collage series 7 Characters.2See “The Reminiscences of Donald Saff,” transcript of interviews of Saff by James McElhinney, August 15 and 16, 2013, pp. 99–100. Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. Columbia Center for Oral History Research, Columbia University in the City of New York and Robert Rauschenberg Archives. Meanwhile he was shocked to see Chinese people both deprived of the freedom to travel in their own country and completely disconnected from the outside world. Donald Saff, a print artist who accompanied him on the trip, would recall a conversation between Rauschenberg and the compound’s Chinese cook:

He said that he couldn’t see his family because he needed permission to go twenty miles away and he didn’t know what was happening there and he hadn’t been there for years or decades. Bob started thinking at that point that if these people didn’t know what was going on twenty miles away, they certainly didn’t know what was going on two thousand miles away or ten thousand miles away….This conversation —almost a singular conversation with this cook—somehow gave him the idea that what he needs to do is to introduce the world to itself through his art.3Ibid., pp. 101–2.

The idea led to the development of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or ROCI (pronounced “Rocky” after the artist’s pet turtle), a large-scale international traveling exhibition doubling as a cultural exchange program.4Rauschenberg had already entertained an idea of a “Rauschenberg Round the World Tour” after his 1976 U.S. retrospective, which was first presented at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), Washington, D.C., then traveled for two years, visiting The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, and The Art Institute of Chicago. Announced in 1984, the program was unprecedented in that Rauschenberg, through his experience in China, was determined to focus on what he called “sensitive areas” where freedom of expression was limited and people had little contact with democratic or capitalist countries such as the United States. He would therefore travel to Communist, totalitarian, or developing nations where people were unfamiliar with modern art or American culture. There he would create artworks based on local materials, hold a ROCI exhibition, present one work to the hosting institution as a gift, and then move on to the next country, where the ROCI exhibition would show works from the previous shows along with new ones made locally. Constantly incorporating new works as his response to different cultures, the ROCI exhibition was envisioned as an ever evolving enterprise to promote mutual understanding among diverse peoples.

ROCI coincided with a time of a radical change in the world order, the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the subsequent breakdown of the cultural blockade between East and West. Perhaps anticipating the times, Rauschenberg defined the project as a peace mission, explaining his belief that “a one-to-one contact through art contains potent and peaceful powers, and is the most nonelitist way to share exotic and common information.”5Rauschenberg, “Tobago Statement,” 1984, in ROCI: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991), p. 154. He envisioned his program as a way of enabling audiences in each country to see not only their own but also other cultures as interpreted through his art. For instance, visitors to ROCI Chile in 1985, the second country of the project, would see only ROCI Mexico and ROCI Chile works, as the tour would have just started, but would be able to see a variety of foreign works Rauschenberg had made earlier in the United States as well as in China and Japan. Meanwhile, audiences at ROCI USSR in 1989 would see a selection of all the ROCI works previously created, which would bring international audiences into indirect but mutual communication. Between 1984 and 1990, accordingly, Rauschenberg and his team held the ROCI exhibition in ten countries—Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Malaysia, in order of itinerary—before the project concluded in 1991 with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

As a cultural-exchange project by a single artist, ROCI was extraordinary in its magnitude. By 1991, it had generated more than 125 Rauschenberg artworks, over 2 million people around the world had seen a ROCI show, and the project’s overall budget had reached $11 million—mostly funded by the artist himself.6See Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg: Art and Life, 1990 (rev. ed. New York: Abrams, 2004), pp. 22, 25. Because in many countries the ROCI exhibition was the first solo show by a contemporary Western artist, Rauschenberg and his team met many challenges. Organizing the exhibition often took a great deal of time and negotiation with foreign governments, and the team’s safety was not always guaranteed during their travels. Their visit to Santiago, Chile, in 1984, for instance, coincided with the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s declaration of a “state of siege,” creating a highly risky situation for the artist.7See Robert S. Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003),pp. 234–39. For the same reason, though, ROCI had a great impact in countries where people were hungry for information from the so-called “Free World.” The exhibition in China, for example, in 1985, fell during the “Culture Fever” period of the country’s interest in Western art and thought, and drew as many as 300,000 visitors.8See Hiroko Ikegami, “ROCI East: Rauschenberg’s Encounters in China,” in Cynthia Mills, Lee Glazer, and Amelia A. Goerlitz, eds., East-West Interchanges in American Art: A Long and Tumultuous Relationship (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2012), pp. 176–89. Similarly, ROCI USSR, in 1989, was made possible by the openings provided by glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, and met great enthusiasm in Moscow.9See Pamela Kachurin, “The ROCI Road to Peace: Robert Rauschenberg, Perestroika, and the End of the Cold War,” Journal of Cold War Studies 4, no. 1 (Winter 2002):27–43.

From the vantage of the twenty-first century, ROCI seems to have marked a significant moment, pointing not only toward the globalization of art today but also to an idea of socially engaged or community-based art. Since the target of Rauschenberg’s engagement was the “world” as one large community, his home audiences sometimes saw the project as too ambitious and optimistic. Addressing the ROCI exhibition at the National Gallery, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith described the concept as “at once altruistic and self-aggrandizing,”10Roberta Smith, “Robert Rauschenberg, At Home and Abroad,” New York Times, August 6, 1991. while another reviewer even called Rauschenberg an “art imperialist” who lived as a “big- time visiting American aided by ambassadors and surrounded by his entourage.”11Paul Richard, “Silk Sheets and Neon Bicycles: At the National Gallery, the Extravagant ‘Rauschenberg OverseasCulture Interchange,’” Washington Post, May 12, 1991, p. G1. Granted, video recordings of ROCI often capture the artist receiving media attention, sitting for Q&A’s before overflowing audiences, and autographing countless ROCI catalogues and posters at visitors’ request. One young man in China even asked the artist to autograph his clothing, while in Chile one of the medallions on the facade of Santiago’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, otherwise featuring portraits of old masters such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, was replaced by one of Rauschenberg.12See, for instance, the video posted online by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation at (accessed August 2016).

All this can make ROCI seem a project of hero worship as well as a peace mission, and Saff—the printmaker who had accompanied Rauschenberg on the trip to Jingxiang, and who was now hired as ROCI’s artistic director—noted a dichotomy in the artist, who could be very egocentric on one occasion and wonderfully supportive on another.13“The Reminiscences of Donald Saff,” p. 120. As a project addressing issues of creative expression under oppressive regimes, however, ROCI had a critical impact in the hosting countries outside the United States. The exhibition in China, for example, is still remembered there as a decisive catalyst in the emerging avant-garde art movement. In fact, in conceiving ROCI as a project of globally engaged art, Rauschenberg was trying to establish a model of cultural exchange where none existed.

Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI CHILE, 1985. Offset lithograph on cardboard on paper. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI JAPAN. 1986. Offset lithograph. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg . Poster for ROCI VENEZUELA, 1985. Offset lithograph. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI BERLIN. 1990. Offset lithograph on cardboard. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI MALAYSIA. 1990. Offset lithograph. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


Beginning with his participation in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 1964 world tour as a set and costume designer,14 an experience he would later recall as a “good out-of-town rehearsal for ROCI,”14Rauschenberg, in Rauschenberg and Saff, “A Conversation about Art and ROCI,” in ROCI: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, p. 163. Rauschenberg often produced artworks in foreign countries, using local materials and working with indigenous artisans. In 1974, for instance, he created the sculpture series Made in Israel during a visit to that country, using local materials such as sand, newspapers, and found objects for his 1975 exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. In 1982, right after the visit to Jingxiang, Rauschenberg stayed in Japan twice to work on two ceramic series, Japanese Clayworks and Japanese Recreational Clayworks (which he continued working on intermittently until 1985), in collaboration with chemists and craftsmen at the Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics Company, Shigaraki. To realize ROCI in “sensitive areas,” though, required building a new team for the purpose, with new structures and procedures: whereas hosting institutions had once invited Rauschenberg to their countries, he now had to start by seeking out influential figures, who he hoped would be sympathetic to ROCI, in countries where he often had little or no connection.

Here Rauschenberg turned to Saff.15Saff, who had made a number of trips to China, first became acquainted with Rauschenberg in the early 1970s, when the artist had just relocated to Captiva Island. Saff was a director of Graphicstudio, the print workshop at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and invited Rauschenberg to do a project at the studio. See Saff, “Robert Rauschenberg: The art of collaboration and the ART of collaboration,” Contemporary Master Prints from the Lilja Collection (Vaduz: Lilja Art Fund Foundation, 1995), pp. 248–49. Joining ROCI in 1984, Saff almost singlehandedly performed such tasks as fundraising, location hunting, and negotiating with national officials. ROCI’s logistics generally unfolded as follows: Saff would travel to a potential host country to meet with important cultural figures (often liberal-minded poets), scout exhibition venues, and find a writer for the catalogue. If he received a positive response, Rauschenberg and one or two assistants would make a ten- or fifteen-day visit armed with a “Briefing Paper” prepared by the staff, including a variety of information on the country such as its history, political situation, and sites important to visit. During the artist’s stay, he would take photographs, gather materials, and sometimes work with local artists or artisans, with his staff video-documenting his activities. The team would then return to Captiva to create artworks in time for the ROCI exhibition, while Saffwould fly to another country to begin the whole process again. For the opening of the ROCI exhibition, Rauschenberg and the team always went back to the country with more staff to install the show and participate in events and lectures.

Besides the difficulties of mounting exhibitions in places unfamiliar with contemporary American art, what impeded the procedure most was the lack of funding. Saff hired professional fundraisers to help him raise money, but they kept failing to secure sponsorship for the project.16On fundraising efforts for ROCI see Saff, “An Incomplete History of Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” 1987, an unpublished and unpaginated interim report. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Rauschenberg himself admitted that he had been naïve in thinking that “collectors and corporations would be rushing to support something concrete like ROCI, which [was] dedicated to peace”—he had even made up a “list of contributors [he] wouldn’t accept.”17Rauschenberg, quoted in Kotz, “Captiva: The ROCI Road Show,” Artnews 88, no. 6 (Summer 1989):50. In fact a number of potential sponsors ended up withdrawing their support because Rauschenberg wanted to retain all artistic and logistical control.18At one point Rauschenberg had imagined that an American museum might become a sponsoring institution for ROCI, but his insistence on retaining control made these negotiations difficult. Before 1984, he and Saff talked first with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, then with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (headed by Pontus Hultén at the time), but no agreement materialized. Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, the artist’s main art dealers, were skeptical of the project: Sonnabend called it “professional artistic suicide” and Castelli was even reported to have delayed payments from the sale of the artist’s works lest the money should be wasted on ROCI.19For Ileana Sonnabend’s remark see Rauschenberg, letter to Leo Castelli, May 20, 1985. Leo Castelli Gallery Records, 1880–2000, Bulk 1957–1999, 84/9, Robert Rauschenberg, 1985–86. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. On Castelli’s payments see Saff, “An Incomplete History of Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” n.p.

The financial worries were such that Saff and his staff considered abandoning the project even after successfully presenting the first ROCI exhibition, in Mexico in 1985.20See Saff, “An Incomplete History of Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” n.p. Yet Rauschenberg was determined to continue, even at the cost of jettisoning the normal infrastructure of the art world. About a month after the opening of ROCI Mexico he asked Castelli to “put a freeze on the sales of [his] work until some sanity is realized financially for ROCI and the next four years,” partly because his “prices have not grown enough to support [his] late years work plans and artistic needs.”21Rauschenberg, letter to Castelli, May 20, 1985. Rauschenberg subsequently funded the enterprise mostly on his own, by mortgaging his house and selling a number of artworks from his collection, including Jasper Johns’s Alley Oop (1958) and Andy Warhol’s _Dick Tracy _(1960).22Rauschenberg and Saff, “A Conversation about Art and ROCI,” pp. 156–57. Rauschenberg hoped to recuperate his financial losses by selling ROCI works after the project was complete, but their sales were weak in both American and European markets. See Mattison, Breaking Boundaries, p. 229.

ROCI eventually traveled to ten countries—an ambitious calendar enough, but Rauschenberg had originally wanted to bring it to twenty-two (his favorite number; his birthday was October 22), including Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Saff traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Italy, Peru, Senegal, and Spain; by letter or through meetings in the United States, he also explored possibilities in Australia, Colombia, Greece, Israel, the Philippines, South Africa, Uruguay, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.23This list of countries was culled collectively from Saff, “An Incomplete History of Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” and Rauschenberg and Saff, “A Conversation about Art and ROCI.” Although Saff remembers that most countries were interested in the proposal, it often turned out to be impossible or undesirable to hold an exhibition there. In some countries security seemed too large a risk—Saff decided to drop Peru after being robbed in the Lima airport and observing the increasing activities of the Shining Path, a brutal communist organization.24“The Reminiscences of Donald Saff,” p. 113. In others the schedule didn’t work out: for example, plans for ROCI Africa, which was supposed to take place in Senegal, had to be abandoned because of the lack of time between ROCI Malaysia and the final exhibition in Washington, D.C.25“Chronology: 1984–1991,” in ROCI: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, p. 187.

Meanwhile some countries reached out for the opportunity. Japan, not a sensitive area by any means, was chosen for practical and economic reasons, as the country offered not only to host ROCI but to store Rauschenberg’s work between ROCI China and ROCI Cuba.26Rauschenberg and Saff, “A Conversation about Art and ROCI,” p. 171. Malaysia wanted ROCI partly because of its rivalry with Singapore:27Syed Ahmad Jamal, interview with the author, Kuala Lumpur, May 4, 2011. Jamal, who studied art in England and then in the United States, was known and respected as the first abstract painter in Malaysia. the president of the Balai Seni Lukis Negara (the National Art Gallery) in Kuala Lumpur, Syed Ahmad Jamal, wanted the ROCI tour to conclude in his country as its only venue in South Asia,28Zanita Anuarm, “The Artist, the Overseer,” Syed Ahmad Jamal: Pelukis (Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2009), pp. 482–83. and his plan conveniently coincided with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s 1990 “Visit Malaysia Year” campaign, bringing the museum a budget to realize the exhibition. ROCI’s itinerary was thus determined in a rather ad hoc way, with “possible” places sometimes chosen over “desirable” ones.

Robert Rauschenberg. Poster for ROCI CHINA. 1985. Offset lithograph on paperboard. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


Yet it was imperative to include China, where Rauschenberg had conceived the project in the first place. He had already approached the Chinese Ministry of Culture during his 1982 visit, but an “anti-spiritual pollution campaign” in the fall of 1983 put a hold on the negotiation. In the summer of 1984, when that campaign was over, Chun-Wuei Su Chien, a Baltimore-based Chinese woman who had acted as Rauschenberg’s coordinator and translator in 1982, went to China and resumed the discussion with the Chinese Exhibition Agency. By that time the central government had launched a massive program to open up the country to Western cultures.

The shifting political climate helped Chien to reach an agreement with the agency but the requirements were stringent: Chien was to assume responsibility for the selection of the show’s artworks and the production of its catalogue, and all correspondence on the subject would go through her.29Chun-Wuei Su Chien, “Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange in China (Beijing and Lhasa),” unpublished memoir, n.p., March 26, 1986. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives. The agency would review all works and video materials in advance, and Rauschenberg would be responsible for all exhibition expenses, including shipping, insurance, the gallery rental fee of the National Art Museum of China (which was $26,000 total), and the cost of a performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company that was planned in conjunction with the exhibition opening.30“An Agreement between the China Exhibition Agency and the Evergreen Cultural Exchange for the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange Exhibition in China.” Signed December 3, 1984, with its addendum signed on May 1, 1985. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives. Chien signed the agreement as a director of the Evergreen Cultural Exchange, an organization she set up to do the ROCI work.

Even after the agreement was reached, the show was the first solo exhibition by a living Western artist in a country that had been culturally closed since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and mounting it was a daunting task. When Rauschenberg and his team arrived in Beijing, in November 1985, they found the staff of the National Art Museum “exceedingly cold” and unhelpful and the workers “lethargic and truculent.”31Saff, “An Incomplete History of Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” n.p. The gallery space was also in sorry condition—its walls had not been repainted since the museum’s opening, in 1962, as a showcase for idealizing and propagandistic Chinese art. To create an exhibition that approached American standards, Rauschenberg’s team, including the artist himself, cleaned the space, repainted the dusty walls, and installed temporary walls for exhibiting artworks. In fact, when Chien flew to Beijing in July to prepare for the show, she brought with her “rollers, trays, and 2,000 RMB [Renminbi, Chinese currency]” to ask the agency to paint the walls before the installation of ROCI China32Chien, letter to Saff and Terry Van Brunt, July 22, 1985. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives.—a job not completed, she would remember, until the morning of the exhibition’s opening.33Chien, “Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange in China (Beijing and Lhasa),” n.p.

As the first exhibition of Western contemporary art in the country, ROCI China set benchmarks. First, the scale was gigantic, four large galleries occupying 2,250 square meters (about 7,380 square feet). Second, the work spanned multiple media. While most of Rauschenberg’s works involved mixed media, for ROCI China he made strategic use of photography: Chinese people unfamiliar with Western contemporary art, he noticed, reacted enthusiastically to photography, which represented “truth” for them.34Rauschenberg and Saff, “A Conversation about Art and ROCI,” p. 163. The Chinese Summerhall series, comprising photographs taken by the artist in various parts of China, was installed as a hundred-foot photo installation on an arched wall and impressed audiences. Last but not least, TV monitors were scattered around the galleries. One, at the entrance, introduced Rauschenberg’s life and work, while others showed his activities in other ROCI-hosting countries, as well as elements of American popular culture such as cartoons and musicals. Thus presented, the exhibition itself was an artwork, and an educational tool to show how to make contemporary art and how to make an exhibition.

Among Chinese audiences who responded to ROCI, the general public found the photography and video easier to relate to, and visually exciting, while artists, both inside and outside the academies, found Rauschenberg’s readymades an effective alternative to socialist realism and traditional art, the two dead-end avenues of expression condoned by the Communist Party at the time. The critic Li Xianting— an editor of Zhongguo Meishubao Fine Arts in China at the time, who compiled two issues on Rauschenberg for the magazine—has observed that ROCI inspired many artists to experiment with readymade strategies.35Li Xianting, interview with the author, Songzhuang, July 21, 2009. In 2008, calling ROCI China an “earthquake that sent shockwaves throughout China,” he looked back on its impact:

Whether it was the containers, the taxidermied animals, the installations, or the ready-mades and found objects, every piece of Rauschenberg’s work made Chinese artists’ brows sweat as they tried to figure out what Rauschenberg was doing. It posed the classic question of modern art: “Is this art?” The value of this question lies in the fact that it challenged the prevailing aesthetic values; at the very least the Chinese came to know that this too could be art….It is not at all an exaggeration to say that overnight there appeared a wave of ready-made and found object art in China.36Li Xianting, “Rauschenberg and Chinese Modern Art’s Historic Opportunity,” Robert Rauschenberg: The Lotus Series, exh. cat. (Beijing: Da Feng Gallery, 2008), n.p.

Saff has similarly recalled that Chinese artists began talking about “art before Rauschenberg” and “art after Rauschenberg,”37“The Reminiscences of Donald Saff,” p. 134. and many artists outside Beijing traveled there just to see the exhibition, marking a decisive moment on the emerging avant-garde art scene. The year 1985 saw the beginning of radical art movements and groups throughout China, a development later called the ’85 New Wave Movement and coinciding with the student democratic movement.38See Gao Minglu, ed., 85 Meishuyundong: 80 niandai de renwen qianwei The ’85 movement: the enlightenment of the Chinese avant-garde, and Minglu, ed., 85 Meishu yundong: lishi zhiliao huibian The ’85 movement: an anthology of historical sources. Although both phenomena ended abruptly with the Tiananmen Square violence in 1989, ROCI China provided a much-needed impetus to the ’85 New Wave Movement. For Xu Bing, one of its representative figures who was then a young faculty member at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the show provided an occasion to think about his art and future, prompting him to decide to stop producing work in the official style.39Xu Bing, interview with the author, Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing, July 27, 2009. A few years later he completed A Book from the Sky—a book of pseudo-Chinese characters—and he emigrated to the United States in 1990.

This is the first section of an essay by Hiroko Ikegami on the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, excerpted from the exhibition catalog Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, available at the MoMA bookstore. Read the second and final section here.

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