(b. 22 October 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas), artist whose experimental style resulted in works that anticipated and defined the 1960s avant-garde.
Born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg, the artist was the elder of two children born to Dora Carolina (Matson) Rauschenberg, a homemaker, and Ernest Rauschenberg, a utility employee. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1943 and briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin before dropping out (largely due to undiagnosed dyslexia). He was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1944, was honorably discharged the summer of 1945, and worked in a series of jobs on the West Coast. A friend advised him to go to art school, and in February 1947 Rauschenberg enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute (today the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design) in Missouri, where he changed his name to Robert. A year later he went to Paris to attend the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil. In October 1948 they enrolled in Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, to study with Josef Albers and then moved to New York in fall 1949 to attend the Art Students League. In June 1950 he married Weil; they had one child before divorcing in October 1952.
The White Paintings (1949–1951) were Rauschenberg's first serious artistic endeavor. In fall 1950 he took them to the dealer Betty Parsons for a critique, and she offered him a solo show for the next season. Audacious in their simplicity, the starkly white canvases shocked the art world and presaged minimalism by more than a decade. "I did them as an experiment to see how much you could pull away from an image and still have an image," Rauschenberg recalled in a 1987 interview with critic Barbara Rose. He followed with his Black Paintings (1952) and Red Paintings (1953–1954) before devising a new art form he called Combines (1954–1965), because he merged aspects of painting and sculpture.
Between 1955 and 1960 Rauschenberg created more than sixty combines, works that influenced younger artists, such as minimalists, and that were considered forerunners of pop art. Bed (1955), one of Rauschenberg's most provocative combines, consists of an old quilt attached to a board over which he poured and dripped paint; he then added a pillow and part of a sheet folded down, followed by more paint. His seminal (and most widely reproduced) work, Monogram (1955–1959), is a stuffed Angora goat with a tire around its middle standing on a heavily painted and collaged platform with wheels. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein said, "[The work] marked the end of the abstract expressionist era. The beginning of something that developed in the 1950s and 1960s—the return of the subject." By 1960 Rauschenberg had established himself as one of the most controversial figures in the art world, largely due to his radical work and irreverent attitude. His reputation as an enfant terrible can be traced back to this time.
Although he continued to make combines until 1965, Rauschenberg had grown tired of them by the end of the 1950s. In 1958 he started a project of illustrating Dante's Inferno, which took him more than two years. He made one drawing for each of the thirty-four cantos and combined them with media images he had clipped from magazines, using a process he developed called solvent transfer (a printed image placed face down on paper, soaked in lighter fluid, then rubbed until the image is transferred). To carry the narrative, certain images were reused; Dante, for example, is a male figure wrapped in a towel that came from a golf advertisement in Sports Illustrated. Clever, irreverent, and technically inventive, the series received wide acclaim at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City in December 1960.
Rauschenberg's canny appropriation of the media immediately linked him to the pop artists just then emerging—to the extent that he has often called himself "Poppa Pop." He carried his use of media images further in his lithography and silkscreen experiments, beginning in 1962. The thirty-two-foot-long Barge (1962–1963) is a jumble of advertising and print images silk-screened directly onto the canvas, to which he added splatters and swipes of paint. It was included in his first retrospective held in spring 1963 at the Jewish Museum. In 1964 Rauschenberg received a second retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, followed by the International Grand Prize in painting at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Rauschenberg was at the height of his fame.
For Rauschenberg the 1960s encompassed mostly collaborative work. His most sustained involvement was with experimental dance and theater, especially with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with which he toured from 1961 to 1964. The avant-garde composer John Cage provided the music and Rauschenberg designed the sets, costumes, and lighting. Cunningham's philosophy was that the various elements of a production—dance, music, and design—should function independently. Rauschenberg's experiences led him to work with the Judson Dance Theater, which pushed the definition of dance far afield by exploring the structure of everyday movement. He debuted as choreographer (in addition to performer) with the company in 1963 in Pelican, in which he juxtaposed the movements of classical ballet with those of aeronautics. From 1963 to 1968 he choreographed and designed eleven theater pieces.
His theatrical experiments, coupled with his desire to break down the barriers between the arts, led to Rauschenberg's 1967 founding, with research scientist Billy Klüver, of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which sought collaboration between artists and engineers on technical works of art. Rauschenberg demonstrated the possibilities for such collaboration by installing an interactive sculptural environment, Oracle (1962–1965), in his studio. Oracle, which Rauschenberg made with Klüver's help, uses separate pieces that contain radios operated by remote control and a console unit with which the viewer can scan multiple stations. He made several more interactive, technical works of art; these efforts provided postmodern artists with the starting point for a range of experimentation in machine and light works.
Rauschenberg continued his activism and collaboration into the seventies. He lobbied in Congress on a number of campaigns for the rights of artists, such as retaining copyright to works of art and royalty rights when works of art were reproduced, and he helped found Artists Rights Today (A.R.T.). In 1984 he organized the ongoing Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange (R.O.C.I.). In his own work Rauschenberg continued to expand the definition of art, returning in 1970 to collage and assemblage with a series made out of cardboard boxes. His constant challenge of artistic boundaries resulted in work that helped inspire many of the artistic impulses of the 1960s and of postmodern art. "Painting relates to both art and life," explained Rauschenberg. "Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two)."
Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (1980), is a lively and perceptive study of the artist and of the period. Also good is Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life (1990). The best sources on Rauschenberg and his work are the two exhibition catalogs by Walter Hopps: Robert Rauschenberg (1976) and, with Susan Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (1997), which contains a detailed chronology.
Leigh Bullard Weisblat
The American painter and printmaker Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925) experimented freely with avant-garde concepts and techniques. His wild inventiveness and frank eclecticism were tempered by his almost unerring sense of color and design.
Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, of German and Cherokee lineage. He attended the local public schools before becoming a naval corpsman. He began his formal art education at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1946. The following year he went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.
In 1948 Rauschenberg returned to America to study with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers stressed design as a discipline, and Rauschenberg felt he needed such training. He later admitted that Albers was the teacher most important to his development. About 1950 Rauschenberg began to paint his all-white, then all-black, paintings. From these ascetic exercises in total minimalism he turned to making giant, richly textured and colored collage-assemblages, which he called "combines."
In 1952 Rauschenberg traveled in Italy and North Africa. The following year he was living in New York City and developing his concept of the combine. His best-known and most audacious combines are the Bed (1955), an upright bed, complete with a patchwork quilt and pillow, that has been spattered with paint; and the amazing Monogram (1959), a collagelike painting-platform resting flat on the floor, in the center of which stands a stuffed, horned ram with a rubber tire around its middle. About his art Rauschenberg explained: "Painting relates to both art and life. I try to act in the gap between the two." In the 1950s he participated in "happenings," an improvisational type of theater.
In 1958 Rauschenberg had an exhibition in New York City that catapulted him to prominence, and his paintings soon entered the collections of every large museum in America and abroad. Not satisfied with cultivating his career as a painter, in 1963 he toured with the Merce Cunningham Dance Theater as an active participant. In 1964 Rauschenberg received first prize at the Venice Biennale. In the late 1960s he concentrated on developing series of silk-screen prints and lithographs. Current (1970), a set of giant silk-screen prints, was politically inspired.
Rauschenberg remains active in the art world. Started in the late 1980s, he created the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange. The exchange was created to broaden cultural ties. In each county he visited, he would create art and leave one piece behind. The others were added to the ever growing collection.
Rauschenberg remained active with his art throughout the 1990s as well. In 1994, the World Federation of United Nations Associations selected his painting to appear on a stamp. He continues to create unique pieces of art.
The most extensive monograph on Rauschenberg is Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg (1969), which offers a comprehensive collection of illustrations, 47 of them in color, biographical material, and a brief autobiography. An essay on Rauschenberg and background material are in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965). □