'I get all clogged up like bad plumbing,' he says, 'unless I work'

His hand tilting a wine bottle over a half-empty glass, the wisecracking waiter inquired, "More or less, sir?" The gentleman at the corner table in the white-wickered restaurant on Florida's Captiva Island chuckled, "Who would ever want less?"

Less has never been more in the life of artist Robert Rauschenberg. For the better part of 30 years, as the enfant terrible of modernism, Rauschenberg has spread his talent over an extraordinary range of expression—paintings, prints, photographs, combines, silk-screens and sculpture. Relentlessly, he has sought an answer to "What is art?", offering it in various forms—as a goat girdled with a tire, an umbrella, a closet door, a quilt and pillow and a paper bag. Rauschenberg popularized the notion that art may exist anywhere, at any time, on or off the wall. "I'm for 'yes,' " he says. " 'No' excludes. I'm for inclusion."

At 54, his prodigious talent shows no signs of strain. In the past year he has turned out 25 major paintings (which sell for up to $250,000) and 125 drawings and lithographs. On Dec. 30, 1979 the Miami Herald printed 650,000 Rauschenbergs as the cover of its Sunday magazine, Tropic. In essence an original lithograph, it showed images of south Florida. The artist went to the Herald pressroom and signed 150 of them, thus enhancing their value—and the jubilation of readers fortunate enough to find one on their doorstep. This spring Rauschenberg flew to three European cities for exhibits of his work. And last month a show of his photographs of Florida's Gulf Coast ("It's hard to explain to Southerners why you're photographing their laundry") opened on Sanibel Island, just south of Captiva. "If I were to go for a while without working I'd get all clogged up," Rauschenberg explains. "It's like bad plumbing. There is no way to carry an art idea comfortably. The only thing to do is use it."

Finishing his dinner at the island restaurant around midnight, Rauschenberg went back to work. Up the road is his print shop, one of five white frame buildings on his 30-acre seaside estate. It is some 25 miles west of Fort Myers. For the past decade Rauschenberg has spent most of the year on Captiva, which is known for shells, one of the few objects that does not tempt him artistically. "I also don't do windows or driftwood," he jokes.

With intense concentration the artist picked through cartons of newsprint and photographs, neatly labeled—Animals, Sports, Buildings and so on. He agonized over his choices and then arranged the clippings and pictures on pink-blue-and-white-striped cotton stretched over laminated wood. An assistant brushed the work with clear matte varnish, and put it through a press. Images from the articles and pictures were sealed into the cloth. The artist's face relaxed as he studied the print; then he smiled broadly.

Rauschenberg went to bed just before dawn. In the moments before sleep, a time he finds rich in thought ("The unconscious and conscious are both on the job...one cleans up after the other"), he may jump out of bed and return to work. "If an image is so intense that your body is shocked full of adrenaline," Rauschenberg explains, "then the only thing to do is to get up and do it."

After four hours' sleep Rauschenberg was once again on the move. First came a discussion of business matters with an assistant, who gets paid in part with paintings ("not major works on which he could retire," the artist admits). Then Rauschenberg was ready for windsurfing, a sport he mastered last winter in a few weeks. He drove to a nearby bay in a Jeep, passing under a cathedral arch of jungle, including trees heavy with limes from which he makes the traditional Key lime pie. He pushed his sail-equipped surfboard out to sea and soon was just a silhouette. (Sailing images have become a motif in his art.) "Physically, I'm experiencing all sorts of new things," he reflects. "Windsurfing. Bicycling. Running on the beach. Catching fish and picking salad in the garden."

He experienced few such delights as a child. Born Milton Rauschenberg in the Texas coastal city of Port Arthur, he changed his name in 1947 so he wouldn't be called Miltie. The only son of a utilities worker of German stock, Rauschenberg was afflicted with dyslexia, a disturbance of the ability to read. By the time he was 10 he had begun to draw because that was an easier medium of expression.

At 16 he was admitted to the University of Texas with the vague notion of studying pharmacy but was expelled in six months for refusing to dissect a frog in anatomy class. "I love animals too much," he insists. He owns three dogs and a snapping turtle, Rocky, which lives year-round in the bathroom of Rauschenberg's sprawling five-story Manhattan house. "Rocky doesn't want to move to Florida," Rauschenberg says. "He'd miss the fruit from Balducci's [a New York gourmet shop] too much." Friends come in and feed the turtle.

Rauschenberg was drafted into the Navy in 1943. "I was pleased," he says. "I knew that the danger of being killed in the war would make everyone forget that I had been thrown out of school." Based in California, he served as a mental hospital technician for two and a half years and found that "insanity was terribly destructive, but sanity was equally so." While on leave Rauschenberg visited the Huntington Library in San Marino and happened on the first masterpieces he had ever seen: Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Mrs. Sid-dons as the Tragic Muse and Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy.

After his discharge in 1945 he went to the Kansas City Art Institute on the GI Bill and then made the obligatory trek to Paris. Knowing little French, he got almost nothing out of his studies, but did meet an American art student, Susan Weil, who later would become his wife. Reading in Time that the German-born abstractionist Josef Albers was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Rauschenberg decided he could learn some badly needed artistic discipline there. While at Black Mountain, he was influenced by avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, who were also studying and working there. They expanded his definition of art and the three of them later collaborated in multimedia shows.

Rauschenberg and Susan were married in 1950 and had a son, Christopher, the next year. In 1953 the marriage ended but they remain friends. Enormously proud and protective of his son, who is an artist-photographer in Portland, Oreg., Rauschenberg says, "I love it that he's an artist. It's such a rare privilege. I would be happy to help him, if he needed it. Starving is a bore. There's something really disgusting about not being able to take or give."

Rauschenberg struggled to survive in the early days. He was forced to design store windows to pay the rent. "I didn't have enough talent to be the super in the building where I was living," he recalls. "That was a better job."

Jasper Johns had a studio in the same building. His art was intellectual, Rauschenberg's earthier. Both remained outside the dominant Abstract Expressionism of the day, forging their own styles. Calvin Tomkins, author of the just published Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Doubleday, $15.95), compares the relationship between the two men to that of Picasso and Braque creating Cubism in the years before WW I. "Braque once explained they 'were like two mountain climbers roped together,' " notes Tomkins. "Working in a different area can be very scary. Without reinforcement, you are completely alone, out on a limb. A nourishment and kind of criticism between Johns and Rauschenberg was crucial to them and the kind of art they produced. Possibly neither one of them could have done it on his own."

Dismissed by the American art establishment as a buffoon, Rauschenberg was vindicated by winning the international first prize at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1964. His reputation soared on this side of the Atlantic. By then he had severed his tie with Johns and begun to work more closely with Cunningham and Cage. Under their influence, Rauschenberg shifted his art to a stage, rollerskating around it while harnessed to a parachute. It was an exploration of movement. In another of his creations, 30 desert turtles with lanterns on their backs crawled around the floor making a pattern of light. Earlier Cage had driven a Model A Ford over sheets of paper that Rauschenberg put down and smeared with ink. He hung the result and called it Automobile Tire Print.

By the mid-'60s Rauschenberg had become the darling of the art set, but was soon rankled by greedy collectors who were getting rich on his work. In recent years he has pressed for federal legislation to assure the artist a percentage of profits from resales. In 1970 he started Change Inc., a foundation that pays medical bills for artists in financial straits.

Rauschenberg's purchase of his New York house, which was once an orphanage and includes a chapel, was "a defense against artists always being evicted from lofts." He wanted security. However, he visits New York twice a year now and while there is attended by sycophants, much as Andy Warhol is.

In contrast, Captiva Island is Rauschenberg's creative environment. His studio has few visual distractions—only the natural light, a view of the sea and a thicket of tropical plants pressing against the windows. He retreated there one afternoon recently to put the final touches on a 14-foot-tall painting with a mounted and painted tarpon as its focus. The canvas, titled Periwinkle Shaft, was commissioned by Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. "They just wanted a painting," Rauschenberg says, "but I'm giving them more—I'm changing the whole environment." Three months ago he finished Bank Job, a three-dimensional work incorporating mirrors, magazine clippings, fabric and paint, for the Equitable Trust Bank in Baltimore. It cost $250,000.

Has such a profusion of work diluted its quality? Artforum critic Lawrence Alloway says no. "Some artists polish a few works. Others proliferate a huge number, and this is a style that suits Rauschenberg."

One evening not long ago, having completed Cloisters, a series of new paintings, Rauschenberg walked to the main house, stood on the balcony and stared out across the Gulf. He lives alone, and has for several years. "I can't afford anyone special in my life," he explained. "My art takes up all my energy. I was always bad at relationships. I have never been able to figure out how to avoid being jealous."

That night Rauschenberg did not dwell over his meal. He wanted to begin some new sketches. In his studio he joked that his artistic epitaph should be "I have just drawn my last breath." Then he added, "One of the reasons I'm not interested in death is because I'm going to lose this job." The man who survived Abstract Expressionism, Op and Pop art to give life to his own ideas summed up: "I mean, anybody can do Rauschenbergs. It's the future stuff that's interesting."