Rauschenberg’s Throwdown at Sotheby’s

In 1973, Robert Rauschenberg confronted collector Robert Scull over his flamboyant profiteering. The Voice’s Alexander Cockburn covered the financial and personal fracas.


In art-world lore, the scene is famous: In 1973, artist Robert Rauschenberg shoved collector Robert Scull after the taxi-fleet owner raked in record profits at an auction of contemporary work. Rauschenberg had sold Thaw (1958) to Scull for $900; roughly a decade and a half later, at Sotheby Parke-Bernet’s Madison Avenue selling room, they both watched as the piece was hammered down for $85,000.

“For Christ’s sake,” the rangy, Texas-born Rauschenberg declared, as he gave the millionaire a shove, “you didn’t even send me flowers.” While the collector, recovering, laughed, Rauschenberg continued: “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit?”

Scull, still laughing, said, “How ’bout yours that you’re gonna sell now? I’ve been working for you, too. We work for each other.”

Rauschenberg, no fool, retorted, “You buy the next one, OK? At these prices. You buy the next one.” Scull answered, “Why not?” and they hugged, but in film footage from the time the artist looks skeptical through his smile.

Voice writer Alexander Cockburn was at the auction, and although he didn’t report directly on the altercation, he did capture a curious exchange between Rauschenberg and Ethel, Scull’s wife (who had already found more than fifteen minutes of fame as the subject of Andy Warhol’s first commission, Ethel Scull 36 Times). Cockburn reports that Mrs. Scull was “in evident distress. She stands nose to nose with Rauschenberg, framed nicely for photographers. ‘It’s disgusting, horrible’ she keeps saying.”

What had upset her? Rauschenberg’s anger? The stratospheric profit her husband had made on hardworking artists’ wares? The taxi drivers picketing the auction, claiming that Scull prioritized his art collection over his employees’ bottom line? Maybe it was just her fellow collectors/speculators: “Actually there are few things in life more depressing than an up-market art crowd,” Cockburn writes, adding, “somehow the tincture of aesthetic bathes every big occasion in hypocrisy, as though a napalm salesman kept asking you to admire the color of the flames.”

Cockburn notes that the taxi baron had amassed a large collection of “cheaply bought treasures” that were “a source of constant pleasure to him and Mrs. Scull. In 1965 he sold 12 of them for $165,000. In 1970 he sold four more for $197,000.” He later writes that in this auction, “50 pictures have been sold for $2,242,900.”

Speculating on the various financial machinations of the auction, Cockburn remarks at one point that the “onlookers are in a constant lather of ignorance. And even if you see the bidder, do you really, really know what he is up to? Is he a private buyer, or a dealer, buying for a buyer, and if so is the buyer Japanese or Texan. Or is he a dealer who is in some form of cahoots with the auctioneers? On such occasions there is generally enough insider trading going on to keep the SEC in business for decades.” Cockburn also scanned the scene for more personal observations: “Ivan Karp, who was the dealer for most of these artists originally, is listening to the Mets game through an earphone.”

Along with this first draft of art history we also get some intriguing ads on these pages. We here at Archives Central have our work cut out for us tracking down what, exactly, was “Village Voice Television.” We know this much, at least, from a contemporary account in the New York Times: “Pay television, the elusive bonanza of the electronic entrepreneurs, is coming to Manhattan next fall.” We’d love to see the episode referred to in the ad, in order to get Trump mentor Roy Cohn’s answer to the debate question, “Is Nixon outside the law?”

Well, as it turns out, he wasn’t. He resigned the presidency less than a year after the ad appeared.