Dr. John Fenning
Talks About His Friend
Bob Rauschenberg

an INTERVIEW by Andrew Elias

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG IS CONSIDERED one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Born in Texas, he became a fixture in the New York City art world in the 1950s & 1960s. He moved to Captiva island in 1970, becoming a mentor for artists and a supporter of charities in the Fort Myers area. In 2004 the Gallery of Fine Art at Edison Community College was renamed the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery.

Dr. John B. & Frances C. Fenning own one of the largest collections of artwork by Robert Rauschenberg. The Fennings began collecting Rauschenberg’s art in 1987 and met him that year as well. It was the start of what would become a close friendship over the next 21 years, until Rauschenberg’s death in 2008.

Over the years, the Fennings spent time with the artist at his home on Captiva and traveled with him around the world. They now display their collection at their historic Fort Myers home.

Dr. Fenning is an orthopedic surgeon, affiliated with the Lee Memorial Health System in Fort Myers since 1971. Fran Fenning is the proprietor of Royal Palms Antiques.

I spoke with Dr. John Fenning about his friendship with Robert Rauschenberg and about the upcoming exhibition of works from his collection of Rauschenberg’s art at the Naples Museum of Art.

How and when did you meet Robert Rauchenberg — and how did your relationship flourish?

DR. JOHN B. FENNING: We met him at a sculpture exhibition in 1987, but we really didn’t get close to him at that time. We initially bought a piece of art at the Arts For ACT auction. Bob supported Abuse Counseling & Treatment very strongly. At the auction we were bidding on the piece we were stimulated by and his colleague Darryl Pottorf got up and said, “whoever takes this will be having dinner with Bob at his home.” That piece was of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Restaurant’s white wine label.

We went to dinner with Bob at his home and he’s a charmingly friendly man. The next two or three years we took Bob’s pieces at the auction and ultimately were invited back to his place for dinner. Then he wanted to come to an open house dinner for other artists we had at our home. So that’s the way it started.

What was he like as a friend?

He was an amazing person. He has a large work group and we knew them through other local people that were artists in town, so we became a part of that friendship and because of that we became involved in the invitations to their parties. Everytime he finished a series and they were going to be shipped off to whoever bought it there was a party, so we were invited.

We have a unique situation in town. We have a house that was probably designed by someone who studied under Addison Mizner, the architecture is very much like Mizner. The house is on the National Historic Registry as an example of Mediterranean Revival. We began to invite people to share the house and the art that we had. He was very, very friendly. Initially, every time he came to the house I’d introduce myself thinking, “well this fella doesn’t recognize me” and finally he said, “I know who you are and I enjoy coming”, and our friendship grew from there.

When did you decide to — or realize — you were collecting his work?

As the auctions continued, we liked the collage work he was doing, the transfers. Those we found very attractive. We liked the subject matter which I think is one of the standout aspects of his work. He said, he worked “in the gap between art and life”. Life didn’t necessarily mean staid individuals and mansions and castles and all that. It was really attractive to us because he had pieces of life in his art. The photographs that he took around the world he introduced in his art. We’ve got such a broad art collection and just found that we liked the art.

We enjoyed the fact that there was this friendship between us and the artist. We have plenty of artist friends and we do like the art of our friends. To know the artist and know the motivation the artist used to create their art — we became attracted to that. Bob just happened to be a very prominent and personable person and he seemed to enjoy our company, too.

You mentioned his quote that his work was “in the gap between art and life.” What does that really mean to you?

I can give you an example. I was talking to him about Monogram [one of Rauschenberg’s most famous works], the goat, and I said, “Bob, how did you decide to take this goat and make it into what you did?”, and he said that everyday he’d walk past a used furniture business between his home and his studio, this was quite awhile ago while he lived in New York, and he saw this goat. So he went in and asked the gentleman, “Where did this goat come from?” and the guy said he gets his work from containers and it just happened to be in the containers.” Bob said it looked so sad in the window, it was all dusty, so “I thought I’d bring it home and do something with it.” So he did. He brought it home, washed it up and put the tire around its belly just because he had it there and, of course, a lot of things Bob did were just spur of the moment. Then he started painting it and then when he got it looking like he liked then he had to have a frame for it. So he got Jasper Johns and the two of them made the stand on which its positioned.

Another example: Bob was driving through New York City with Don Saff, a professor of art at South Florida. Saff was driving Bob to go to an event and he said, “Wow! Bob I’m embarrassed, but I’m lost,” and they were driving through a rather seedy part of town and Bob said, “Don’t worry about it. This is life” and got out and started taking photographs and you know they’re in his art. These photographs of life in its most basic expression are in his art.

The second piece we bought was an artist proof of a series, with a beautiful angel [the Bellini series], and it has a dump truck and it has a bell, just all of these aspects that reflect life, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces we have.

How did the exhibition at the Naples Museum of Art materialize?

We’ve known Myra Janco Daniels (CEO of Naples Philharmonic & Naples Musuem of Art) for a number of years. She came to us about six months ago and asked if we would be interested in having our art sponsored in an exhibition and we decided we would. We’re very happy that she asked us to do this because we respect her and her museum and we thought it would be fun to share this art with as many people as possible. And she asked if me if I would consider being on the board of the Naples Museum of Art. So she submitted my name and I was voted in by the board,

What are some of your personal favorites in the exhibition and why?

As I mentioned, one of my very favorites are the artist proofs of the Bellini series of angels and I like the 7 Characters. Much of his art we bought at various exhibits locally and one of the 7 Characters was in this art show in Naples and we learned that there were seven of them and the only person who had all seven was Bob. So we talked to the lady who ran the exhibit and said we’d like to buy the series of seven. She said that they had one, but its never been opened. It was done in 1982 and its been in the box ever since. We said “Great!” and we bought it. We learned the story of those seven characters and how they came about in China with Bob going to the Xuan paper company, the oldest paper company in the world.

Rauschenberg’s been called one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. How do you see his place in contemporary art and why do you think he’s important?

Let me put it this way: I’m not an art major. I’m not an art historian. I can only learn about the importance of art from people we know and we know many artists and people who study art. I’ve had many people tell me that what he introduced into the field of art had never been done before and they weren’t sure what the next step could be. When I say that I mean his techniques of transfer and all of this different media.

We have everything from stainless steel to cloth. He gave us a piece of paper from France that he had transferred some features to. His experiences with Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown and John Cage — all these people that were expressing art in other ways and he wanted to be part of that.

I had a long conversation on a plane with him one time and asked him about his background and asked about Black Mountain [the college in North Carolina he attended with Cunningham and Cage, and studied under Josef Albers] and he said that he went to these various art schools but when they got to dwelling on the old masters he said “I’ve had enough. I don’t care about the old masters anymore. I want to move on.”

He started out when abstract expressionism was popular and he sort of bridged that gap between that era and pop art, but he never really was comfortable in either of those schools.

Exactly. I asked him one time about how they classified him and he said, “Pop art, but I don’t like that.” He said, “I don’t know how to classify me. I’m just me.”

You’re going to be having a discussion about the exhibition at the Philharmonic on February 22. What will you be talking about and what can people expect?

Similar to what we’re talking about today. Mary Lynn Kotz is going to give a talk on January 22. She’s his biographer and she’s brilliant, so we certainly can’t match something like that so our conversation is going to be about what it was like to be with Bob.

I think people are always interested in personal stories about anyone in the public eye. It’s interesting to know what they’re like personally.

I can tell you stories about his heart. I mean what he’s done for people. When somebody was in need he came forward. For instance, with the Arts for ACT auction. Bob’s art was always the cherry on top of the ice cream. And of course he knew all the celebrity auctioneers like Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone.

At a time when politicians are urging cuts in funding for the arts and school administrators are proposing cuts in arts programs, why do you think art is important?

There is a saying down at the Philharmonic: “A community without art is a community without soul.” •

from the January-February 2011 issue

Dr. John & Frances Fenning
illustration by Eric Elias
“We thought it would
be fun to share this art
with as many people
as possible.”
Works by
Robert Rauschenberg
from the
Dr. John B. & Frances C. Fenning

Patty & Jay Baker
January 22 - March 20

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