Click here to read the first installment of Julie Martin‘s essay looking at the roots of Robert Rauschenberg’s social and environmental activism, and those ties with the ongoing Marfa Dialogues/New York program sponsored in part by the Rauschenberg Foundation.
E.A.T. board member Theodore Kheel had long been an advocate for public transportation, and as early as 1965 was proposing that subways be free in New York City. One of his affinities with Rauschenberg and Klüver was their shared belief in the power of art to communicate new societal ideas and the importance of artists speaking out on issues. He began a decades-long collaboration with E.A.T. and Rauschenberg to provide ways for the artist to “speak out” on local and global environmental issues.
In 1970 Rauschenberg had created his first poster dealing with the environment. Inspired perhaps by the Vietnam War protestor teach-ins, Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin called for an environmental teach-in, which he called Earth Day, to be held on April 22, 1970. The response was huge, over 20 million people participated that year, and Earth Day is now an annual event celebrated by more than 500 million people and 175 national governments. Rauschenberg created the first Earth Day poster, published in an edition of 300 signed and 10,000 unsigned copies to support the American Environment Foundation.
Lithograph and chine collé on paper, 521/2 x 371/2 inches
From an edition of 50 published by Gemini G.E.L. and The American Environment Foundation.
Art © Robert Rauschenberg and Gemini G.E.L./ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Two years later, Kheel asked E.A.T. to coordinate a project in which Rauschenberg and seven more artists, including Jared Bark, Romare Bearden, Christo, Tom Gormley, Alan Sonfist, and Margery Strider, were asked to create prints commenting on the importance of public transportation versus the use of private cars and the unfettered growth of highways.
The works were printed in the magazine LithOpinion, published by the Local One Amalgamated Lithographers of America union, to accompany articles by Kheel, Senator Edward Kennedy and writer Ben Kelley in a section called “Our National Transportation Mess.” Ben Kelly detailed the hold the “Highway Lobby” had on spending in the 1956 Federal Highway Trust Fund, which used some portion of the tax on gasoline to build highways throughout the country. Seen as necessary in the 1950s, by 1972 the program was so “successful” that, as Kheel noted in a 1992 “pledge for the environment” talk at the UN, “in less than two decades we had built enough highways to travel from here to the moon.” But along the way this highway system decimated the use of railroads, led to growth of suburbs that emptied cities of their middle classes, not to mention, “ traffic congestion, air pollution, ozone layer depletion, and the rapid deterioration of mass transit.” Senator Edward Kennedy outlined his attempt to pass legislation that use portions of the Highway Trust fund to fund mass transit initiatives, and Kheel wrote of his fight to have the Port Authority use funds for an effective transportation system in the New York City area.