Douglas White
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A life in motion: the many passions of Oliver Sacks

Sacks has written of showing “extreme immoderation” in his passions. His new book, On the Move: a Life, reveals them.

There is a photograph in Oliver Sacks’s new memoir of the author wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Welcome squid overlords”, a ­giant squid hovering like an alien behind the lettering. When I interviewed him at his New York office in 2001 (his first memoir, Uncle Tungsten, had just been published), he seemed a little diffident despite my keen regard for him – until I mentioned a friend of mine, Richard Ellis, a marine artist and authority on cephalopods, a subject in which I knew Sacks was interested. At that point he lit up. He knew Ellis’s work well and admired it. He pressed into my palm a plastic model of a giant squid and we were off.

This moving book confirms that it is Sacks’s expansive passions for learning and for experience that have made his such a vigorous, fascinating and influential life. “I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests – volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever – then I am instantly drawn into animated conversation,” he writes. Volcanoes! Jellyfish! Gravitational waves! No need even to mention the medical field in which he has made his name, neurology, for that is what underpins all the rest.

Sacks was born in London in 1933, the youngest of four sons. Both of his parents were doctors; his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. He recalls here how, at the age of 27, travelling through Canada (this is a book spanning thousands of miles of travel), he repudiated the notion that medicine was “his chosen profession”. “Others chose it for me,” he writes, noting the bitterness he felt at the time. And so he had to find his own way into medical practice. On the Move, more than any of his other books, shows the trajectory of that journey, what it cost him and what he gained.

This is by no means a “greatest hits” book, though it touches on all of the works that made his name in the world outside the medical fraternity: Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and Hallucinations, to name a few. Those were books that helped transform narrative non-fiction and revealed lives and personalities that most of us could never have imagined otherwise. Sacks’s work has always combined empathy with observation. “Neurologists, perhaps more than any other specialists, see tragic cases – people with incurable, relentless diseases which can cause great suffering. There has to be, along with fellow feeling and sympathy and compassion, a sort of detachment so that one is not drawn into a too-close identification with patients,” he writes here. That is a pithy reflection on his life’s work.

On the Move is written with energy but with the consciousness of mortality. Sacks is 81. For years now, he has struggled with poor health and in February he revealed, in a frank and moving piece for the New York Times, that he has terminal cancer. In that article, he reflected that he was not a man of mild temperament but rather one “of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions”.

This book gives a vivid sense of many of those passions. One of the most striking is the author’s youthful love of motorcycles. He left England for the US in 1960 and worked for a time in California before finally settling in New York five years later. Leaving the UCLA clinic on a Friday night, he would get on his bike “and ride through the night, lying flat on the tank; the bike had only 30 horsepower, but if I lay flat I could get it to a little over 100 miles per hour, and crouched like this, I would hold the bike flat out for hour after hour”. He would get as far as the Grand Canyon – a thousand miles in a weekend – and show up for work bright and early on Monday morning. The photo­graphs of him in his leathers are something of a revelation, too. As someone has remarked on Twitter, the young Sacks was a stone cold fox – that’s the plain truth.

It almost reads as if the speed of the bike allowed Sacks to leave himself behind. He also sought oblivion in drugs and weightlifting (he once held the California record for a full squat: 600 pounds) and swimming. He doesn’t speculate here on the reasons why he might have wanted to disappear but when just before he went up to Oxford his mother learned that he was gay (from his father; Sacks had asked him not to tell her but he had), she showed “a face of thunder” and said to her beloved youngest child, “You are an abomination,” and added, “I wish you had never been born.” He never stopped loving his parents and his relationship with his mother was repaired but such an encounter can only exact a heavy price.

In medicine, too, he was the odd one out. He fought against many of the conventions of his profession. He spent time in Guam among people afflicted by a syndrome similar to the sleeping sickness that had affected the patients in Awakenings, the difference being that in Guam the sufferers were fully integrated into the community. “This drove home to me how barbaric our own medicine and our own customs are in the ‘civilised’ world, where we put ill or demented people away and try to forget them.”

There is little that Sacks forgets. This book is a delight and a fine prompt to return to his earlier work. When he was 12, a schoolmaster noted: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It’s our good fortune that he nearly did, flat out on the ride of his life, yet returned home to his notebook and pen.

On the Move: a Life by Oliver Sacks is published by Picador, 399pp, £20

Editor's note: on 30 August 2015, it was announced that Oliver Sacks had died at his home in New York. He was 82.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage