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American Collagist, Painter, and Graphic Artist
Considered by many to be one of the most influential American artists due to his radical blending of materials and methods, Robert Rauschenberg was a crucial figure in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to later modern movements.
One of the key Neo-Dada movement artists, his experimental approach expanded the traditional boundaries of art, opening up avenues of exploration for future artists.
Although Rauschenberg was the enfant terrible of the art world in the 1950s, he was deeply respected and admired by his predecessors.
Despite this admiration, he disagreed with many of their convictions and literally erased their precedent to move forward into new aesthetic territory that reiterated the earlier Dada inquiry into the definition of art.
Engaged in questioning the definition of a work of art and the role of the artist, Rauschenberg shifted from a conceptual outlook where the authentic mark of the brushstroke described the artist’s inner world towards a reflection on the contemporary world, where an interaction with popular media and mass-produced goods reflected a unique artistic vision.
Rauschenberg merged the realms of kitsch and fine art, employing both traditional media and found objects within his “combines” by inserting appropriated photographs and urban detritus amidst standard wall paintings.
Rauschenberg believed that painting related to “both art and life. Neither can be made.” Following from this belief, he created artworks that move between these realms in constant dialogue with the viewers and the surrounding world, as well as with art history.
Preferring to leave the interpretation of the works to his viewers, Rauschenberg allowed chance to determine the placement and combination of the different found images and objects in his artwork such that there were no predetermined arrangements or meanings embedded within the works.
One of Rauschenberg’s first “combines,” Bed transcends the line between painting and sculpture through its Dadaist assemblage of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life.
Rauschenberg coined the term combine to describe a series of works from the 1950s and 1960s that literally combine the media of painting and sculpture within a single, three-dimensional art object.
Apocryphal or not, the legend behind the combine states that one day Rauschenberg ran out of canvas and turned instead to his bed linens, first scribbling on the pillow, sheets, and quilt with pencil, then rapidly dripping and spilling paint on them.
He then stretched the bed linens over a rectangular wooden support, in the place of a canvas, and attached the pillow and quilt in a way that made it appear as if the bed was made with only one corner un-tucked.
He applied the paint in a loose, dripped, gestural fashion that calls to mind the authorial marks of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
However, the brushstroke in the combine was no longer a mark indicative of the artist’s psyche, but an appropriated symbol designating a shift towards the external world within the avant-garde.
The found objects present more of an accurate portrait of Rauschenberg than the dripped paint, as they were items that he owned and used in his daily life, rather than an aesthetic sign borrowed from a previous generation.
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wooden supports – The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in the small refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas.
His father, Ernest, was a strict and serious man who worked for the Gulf State Utilities power company. His mother, Dora, was a devout Christian and a frugal woman.
She made the family’s clothes from scraps, a practice that embarrassed her son, but possibly influenced his later work with assemblages and collage.
Rauschenberg drew frequently and copied images from comics, but his talent as a draughtsman went largely unappreciated, except by his younger sister Janet. Until he was 13, he planned to become a minister – a career of high standing in his conservative community.
However, Rauschenberg discovered that his church called dancing a sin, and, as a skilled dancer himself, was dissuaded from a career in the ministry.
He asked for and received a store-bought shirt for his high school graduation present, the very first in his young life.
Following his parents’ wishes, Rauschenberg attended the University of Texas in Austin to study pharmacology, but was expelled in his freshman year after refusing to dissect a frog.
The draft letter that arrived in 1943 saved him from breaking the news to his parents. Refusing to kill on the battlefield, he was assigned as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps and stationed at a hospital caring for combat survivors in San Diego.
While on leave, he saw oil paintings in person for the first time at the Huntington Art Gallery in California. After the war ended, Rauschenberg drifted, eventually using the G.I. Bill to pay for art classes at Kansas State University in 1947.
On his arrival in Kansas City, he decided he would mark his new life with a new first name: Bob. The following year, the newly anointed Robert Rauschenberg traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian.
Robert Rauschenberg Biography
While in Paris, Rauschenberg met fellow American student Susan Weil, and the two became inseparable friends.
He saved up enough money and followed her to Black Mountain College in North Carolina after reading about, and admiring, the discipline of its famed director, Josef Albers. Ironically, after Rauschenberg entered the college, Albers criticized his work frequently and harshly.
Albers’ course on materials, in which students investigated the line, texture, and color of everyday materials profoundly influenced Rauschenberg’s later assemblages.
Rauschenberg and Weil stayed at Black Mountain for the 1948 to 1949 school year and then moved to New York City, which Rauschenberg determined to be the center of the art world.
They arrived as the Abstract Expressionist movement was just reaching maturity. In June 1950, Rauschenberg and Weil were married, and in August 1951 they had a son, Christopher.
In 1951 and 1952, Rauschenberg split his time between the The Art Students League in New York, where he studied with the instructors Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil during the academic year, and Black Mountain College, where he spent the summer.
His ambition secured him a prestigious solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, exhibiting a series of White Paintings with scratched numbers and allegorical symbols (1953). Rauschenberg continued his paintings in white at Black Mountain College, where he rolled white house paint onto canvas with a roller.
The flat white canvases were influenced by their surroundings, reflecting shadows of people and the time of day.
He was also encouraged by the painter Jack Tworkov to explore black. His Black Paintings (1951), unlike the white series, were textured with thick paint and incorporated newspaper scraps.
Also while at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg met the minimalist composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham, who both taught at the college and advocated the use of chance methods, found objects, and common, everyday experiences within high art.
All of these ideas proved to be major influences on the young artist.
Early Mature Period
On Rauschenberg’s return to New York from Black Mountain in fall 1952, Weil filed for divorce and brought Christopher to live with her parents.
Rauschenberg left for Europe and North Africa to travel with Cy Twombly – a fellow student in the Art Students League and later an important Conceptual artist, with whom he was also romantically involved at the time.
During his travels, Rauschenberg made his first assemblages from junk he collected in the Italian countryside. When he returned to the United States, he continued his experiments in paintings with the Red series in 1953, which featured varied surface textures like the Black series (1951), and also incorporated newsprint.
Rauschenberg began to include objects in the surface of his paintings, from parasols to parts of a man’s undershirt. Rauschenberg called these assemblages “combines,” because they combined paint and objects (or sculpture) on the canvas.
Rauschenberg met the young painter Jasper Johns at a party in the winter of 1953 and after several months of friendship, the two became romantic and artistic partners.
In 1955, Rauschenberg moved into the same building as Johns, and the two artists saw each other every day, exchanging ideas and encouraging their mutual exploration of the boundaries of art.
Though their styles were initially too different to form a truly coherent movement, the intensity of their artistic partnership has been compared to the partnership between Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. As Rauschenberg said, he and Johns gave each other “permission to do what we wanted.”
The pair also developed a close friendship with Cage and Cunningham, who were also living in New York at the time. The four artists shared a similar philosophy, one that was labeled as the Neo-Dada style by later art historians.
They rejected the coded psychology of Abstract Expressionist paintings and embraced the unplanned beauty in everyday life. Rauschenberg’s close relationship with Johns did not last, however, Johns was featured on the cover of Art News in 1957 and The Museum of Modern Art bought three of his works.
This explosion of fame caused tension between Johns and Rauschenberg, who eventually ended their relationship in 1961, although they began moving apart in the late 1950s with each artist frequently working in studios outside of New York City.
Regardless, Rauschenberg remained a friend and collaborator to Cage and Cunningham.
Collaboration was a recurring theme in Rauschenberg’s career.
His interest in dance led to a ten-year partnership with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1954-64), as well as with choreographers Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. He created costumes and sets for Cunningham’s troupe while Cage composed the music.
He also choreographed and planned his own “theater pieces” with fellow artists throughout the 1960s. Rauschenberg’s interest in the promise of technology led him to co-found Experiments in Art and Technology(E.A.T.) in 1966 with Billy Kluver of Bell Laboratories, which encouraged collaboration between engineers and artists.
Rauschenberg sought collaboration in other media as well: he began to create lithographs in 1962 with Tatyana Grosman, the printmaker and owner of Universal Limited Art Editions.
He later collaborated with other printmaking studios, and in 1969, he bought a house on Captiva Island, which served as the home of Unlimited Press, a printmaking studio available to emerging and established artists.
Rauschenberg was himself rapidly becoming an established figure within the art world. He earned an early retrospective in 1963 at the Jewish Museum in New York, which was very well received by critics and viewers alike.
His booming popularity in America was followed by an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London, and then by an exhibition of his works at the Venice Biennale, which he visited while on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
At the peak of his career, he was awarded the Biennale’s first prize for painting in 1964, marking the first year this prize was awarded to an American.
Late Mature Period
In keeping with his interest in current events and culture, Rauschenberg began to integrate images of space flight into his work in the 1960s. A Modern Inferno (1965), an image created for Life Magazine in celebration of Dante’s seven-hundredth birthday, portrays Dante as an astronaut.
In the series Stoned Moon (1969-70), Rauschenberg incorporated photographs from NASA’s records in 33 lithographs. The 1970s also marked a return to assemblage as Rauschenberg embarked on the Spreads (1975-82) and Scales series (1977-81).
He used techniques and imagery from his early works, combining silkscreen prints, magazine images, and everyday objects, but with more color and on a larger scale than in previous works.
While several pieces in this series sold to collectors, critics were not impressed by what they perceived as a rehashing of old methods.
Rauschenberg continued to work in a large scale in 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-98), a collaged painting that grew to be even longer than its title implied.
In 1984, Rauschenberg combined his interest in traveling with his belief that art could change society, founding the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (R.O.C.I.). He traveled primarily to developing nations and Communist countries, in defiance of then-current American Cold War policies, learning craft traditions from the host country’s artists and artisans.
Each of the twelve trips resulted in a major exhibition of Rauschenberg’s works inspired by the host country. The culmination of the journey was an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. While Rauschenberg built ties with artists abroad, critics at home were unimpressed.
Roberta Smith writing for the New York Times neatly summarized the project as “at once altruistic and self-aggrandizing, modest and overbearing.”
Late Years and Death
In 1990, the Whitney Museum of American Art gave Rauschenberg a retrospective, accompanied by a smaller show at the Corcoran Gallery of his earlier work from the 1950s.
The exhibitions cemented his status as one of the giants of the art world while emphasizing the importance of his early work in the development of modern American art.
Rauschenberg won the Commandant de l’Ordre des Lettres from the French government in 1992, followed by the National Medal of the Arts in 1993.
In 1996, the artist checked into the Betty Ford clinic to recover from alcoholism, which had grown more severe in his later years.
He completed his rehabilitation program in time to celebrate the opening of his 1997-98 retrospective of 467 works at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a show that took six years to prepare.
Rauschenberg suffered a series of medical mishaps beginning in 2001, first breaking his hip, which led to an intestinal perforation and then a stroke in 2002 that paralyzed his right side.
With the assistance of his caregiver and friend, Darryl Pottorf, Rauschenberg learned to work with his left hand.
He worked until his death on May 12, 2008, from heart failure.
Rauschenberg’s work of the 1950s and 1960s influenced the young artists who developed later modern movements.
Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein traced their inspiration for Pop art to Rauschenberg’s collages of appropriated media images, and his experiments in silkscreen printing.
The foundation for Conceptual art in large measure lies in Rauschenberg’s Dada-based belief that the artist had the authority to determine the definition of art.
The most fitting example is his 1961 portrait of Iris Clert, made for an exhibition at her gallery in Paris, which consisted of a telegram that stated: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so/ Robert Rauschenberg.”
Additionally, happenings and later performances of the 1960s trace their lineage to Rauschenberg’s collaboration with John Cage at Black Mountain College in The Event (1952).
The postmodern aesthetic of appropriation that influenced artists like Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine is also indebted to Rauschenberg’s penchant for borrowing imagery from popular media and fine art.
His penchant for bricolage influenced the choice of many later artists, even land artists and feminist artists, to utilize non-traditional artistic mediums in their work.
While critics agree that Rauschenberg’s later works were not as influential as his earlier ones, his continued commercial success allowed him to support emerging artists.
He co-founded Artists Rights Today to lobby for artists’ royalties on re-sales of their work, after he observed the gains made by early collectors with the boom in the art market. In 1970, he co-founded Change, Inc., which helped struggling artists pay their medical bills.
He became more politically active as he grew older, testifying on behalf of artists for the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1990s. His undying energy was at the root of his success as an artist and as a spokesman for artists, and clearly drove the far-reaching influence of his work well beyond his lifetime.