Robert Rauschenberg (October 22, 1925 – May 12, 2008) was an American painter and graphic artist whose early works anticipated the pop art movement. Rauschenberg is well known for his "Combines" of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations. Rauschenberg was both a painter and a sculptor and the Combines are a combination of both, but he also worked with photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1993.
Rauschenberg lived and worked in New York City as well as on Captiva Island, Florida until his death from heart failure on May 12, 2008.
Rauschenberg was born as Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas, the son of Dora Carolina (née Matson) and Ernest R. Rauschenberg. His father was of German and Cherokee ancestry and his mother of Anglo-Saxon descent. His parents were Fundamentalist Christians. Rauschenberg studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Académie Julian in Paris, France, where he met the painter Susan Weil. In 1948 Rauschenberg and Weil decided to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Josef Albers, a founder of the Bauhaus, became Rauschenberg's painting instructor at Black Mountain. Albers' preliminary courses relied on strict discipline that did not allow for any "uninfluenced experimentation". Rauschenberg described Albers as influencing him to do "exactly the reverse" of what he was being taught.
From 1949 to 1952 Rauschenberg studied with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor at the Art Students League of New York, where he met fellow artists Knox Martin and Cy Twombly.
Rauschenberg married Susan Weil in 1950. Their only child, Christopher, was born July 16, 1951. They divorced in 1953. According to a 1987 oral history by the composer Morton Feldman, after the end of his marriage, Rauschenberg had romantic relationships with fellow artists Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. An article by Jonathan D. Katz states that Rauschenberg's affair with Twombly began during his marriage to Susan Weil.
Rauschenberg died on May 12, 2008, on Captiva Island, Florida. He died of heart failure after a personal decision to go off life support,. Rauschenberg is survived by his partner of 25 years, artist Darryl Pottorf, his former assistant. Rauschenberg is also survived by his son, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg, and his sister, Janet Begneaud.
Rauschenberg's approach was sometimes called "Neo Dadaist," a label he shared with the painter Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg was quoted as saying that he wanted to work "in the gap between art and life" suggesting he questioned the distinction between art objects and everyday objects, reminiscent of the issues raised by the "Fountain", by Dada pioneer, Marcel Duchamp. At the same time, Johns' paintings of numerals, flags, and the like, were reprising Duchamp's message of the role of the observer in creating art's meaning.
Alternatively, in 1961, Rauschenberg took a step in what could be considered the opposite direction by championing the role of creator in creating art's meaning. Rauschenberg was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert, where artists were to create and display a portrait of the owner, Iris Clert. Rauschenberg's submission consisted of a telegram sent to the gallery declaring "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so."
From the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1953 Rauschenberg traveled through Europe and North Africa with his fellow artist and partner Cy Twombly. In Morocco, he created collages and boxes out of trash. He took them back to Italy and exhibited them at galleries in Rome and Florence. A lot of them sold; those that did not he threw into the river Arno. From his stay, 38 collages survived. In a famously cited incident of 1953, Rauschenberg erased a drawing by de Kooning, which he obtained from his colleague for the express purpose of erasing it as an artistic statement. The result is titled Erased de Kooning Drawing.
By 1962, Rauschenberg's paintings were beginning to incorporate not only found objects but found images as well - photographs transferred to the canvas by means of the silkscreen process. Previously used only in commercial applications, silkscreen allowed Rauschenberg to address the multiple reproducibility of images, and the consequent flattening of experience that implies. In this respect, his work is contemporaneous with that of Andy Warhol, and both Rauschenberg and Johns are frequently cited as important forerunners of American Pop Art.
In 1966, Billy Klüver and Rauschenberg officially launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) a non-profit organization established to promote collaborations between artists and engineers.
In 1969, NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness the launch of Apollo 11. In response to this landmark event, Rauschenberg created his Stoned Moon Series of lithographs. This involved combining diagrams and other images from NASA's archives with photographs from various media outlets, as well as with his own work.
As of 2003 he worked from his home and studio in Captiva, Florida. His first project on Captiva Island was a 16.5-meter-long silkscreen print called Currents (1970), made with newspapers from the first two months of the year, followed by Cardboards (1970–71) and Early Egyptians (1973–74), the latter of which is a series of wall reliefs and sculptures constructed from used boxes. He also printed on textiles using his solvent-transfer technique to make the Hoarfrosts (1974–76) and Spreads (1975–82), and in the Jammers (1975–76), created a series of colorful silk wall and floor works. Urban Bourbons (1988–95) focused on different methods of transferring images onto a variety of reflective metals, such as steel and aluminum. In addition, throughout the 1990s, Rauschenberg continued to utilize new materials while still working with more rudimentary techniques, such as wet fresco, as in the Arcadian Retreat (1996) series, and the transfer of images by hand, as in the Anagrams (1995–2000). As part of his engagement with the latest technological innovations, he began making digital Iris prints and using biodegradable vegetable dyes in his transfer processes, underscoring his commitment to caring for the environment.
In 1951 Rauschenberg created his "White Paintings," in the tradition of monochromatic painting, whose purpose was to reduce painting to its most essential nature, and to subsequently lead to the possibility of pure experience. The "White Paintings" were shown at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York during October 1953. They appear at first to be essentially blank, white canvas. However, one commentator said that "…rather than thinking of them as destructive reductions, it might be more productive to see them, as John Cage did, as hypersensitive screens – what Cage suggestively described as ‘airports of the lights, shadows and particles.’ In front of them, the smallest adjustments in lighting and atmosphere might be registered on their surface. Rauschenberg himself said that they were affected by ambient conditions, "so you could almost tell how many people are in the room". The Black Paintings of 1951 like the White Paintings were executed on multiple panels and were single colour works. Here Rauschenberg incorporated pieces of newspaper into the painting working the paper into the paint so that sometimes newspaper could be seen and in other places could not. By 1953-1954 Rauschenberg had moved from the monochromatic paintings of the White Painting and Black Painting series, to the Red Painting series. These paintings were created with diverse kinds of paint applications of red paint, and with the addition of materials such as wood, nails, newsprint and other materials to the canvas created complex painting surfaces, and were forerunners of Rauschenberg's well-known Combine series.
Rauschenberg picked up trash and found objects that interested him on the streets of New York City and brought these back to his studio where they could become integrated into his work. He claimed he "wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing."
Rauschenberg's comment concerning the gap between art and life can be seen as a statement which provides the departure point for an understanding of his contributions as an artist. In particular his series of works which he called Combines served as instances in which the delineated boundaries between art and sculpture were broken down so that both were present in a single work of art. Technically "Combines" refers to Rauschenberg's work from 1954 to 1962, but the artist had begun collaging newsprint and photographic materials in his work and the impetus to combine both painting materials and everyday objects such as clothing, urban debris, and taxidermied animals such as in Monogram continued throughout his artistic life.
His transitional pieces that led to the creation of Combines were Charlene (1954) and Collection (1954) where he combined collage technique and started to incorporate objects such as scarves, comic strips, and faux architectural cornice pieces. Considered one of the first of the Combines, Bed (1955) was created by dripping red paint across a quilt. The quilt was later stretched and displayed as a work of art. Some critics according to The Daily Telegraph considered the work to be a symbol for violence and rape.
Critics originally viewed the Combines in terms of the formal aspects of art, shape, color, texture, and the composition and arrangement of these. This 1960s view has changed over time so that more recently critics and art historians see the Combines as carrying codified messages difficult to decipher because there is no apparent order to the presentation of the objects.
From the early 1950s until 2007 Rauschenberg designed for dance. He began designing sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Trisha Brown and for his own productions. In the 1960s he was involved in the radical dance-theater experiments at and around Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and was close to Cunningham-connected experimentalists like Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton; he even choreographed himself. Rauschenberg’s full-time connection to the Cunningham company ended with its 1964 world tour. In 1977 Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage reconnected as collaborators for the first time in 13 years, when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York, performed Travelogue (1977), for which Rauschenberg contributed the costume and set designs.
In 1965, when Life magazine commissioned him to visualize a modern Inferno, he did not hesitate to vent his rage at the Vietnam War and a whole range of horrors, including racial violence, neo-Nazism, political assassinations, and ecological disaster. In 1983, he won a Grammy Award for his album design of Talking Heads' album Speaking in Tongues. In 1986 Rauschenberg was commissioned by BMW to paint a full size BMW 635 CSi for the sixth installment of the famed BMW Art Car Project. Rauschenberg's contribution was the first to include the wheels in the project, as well as incorporating previous works of art into the design. In 1998, the Vatican commissioned (and later refused) a work by Rauschenberg based on the Apocalypse to commemorate Pio of Pietrelcina, the controversial Franciscan priest who died in 1968 and who is revered for having had stigmata and a saintly aura, at Renzo Piano's Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in Foggia, Italy.
In 1951 Rauschenberg had his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery and in 1954 had a second one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery. In 1955, at the Charles Egan Gallery, Rauschenberg showed Bed (1955), one of his first and certainly most famous Combines.
Rauschenberg had his first career retrospective, organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1963, and in 1964 he was the first American artist to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale (Mark Tobey and James Whistler had previously won the Painting Prize). After that time, he enjoyed a rare degree of institutional support. A retrospective organized by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), Washington, D.C., traveled throughout the United States in 1976 and 1978. A retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1997), traveled to Houston, Cologne, and Bilbao (through 1999). Recent exhibitions were presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2005; traveled to Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, through 2007), and at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (2009; traveled to the Tinguely Museum, Basel, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese, through 2010).
A memorial exhibition of photographs opened October 22, 2008, (on the occasion of what would have been his 83rd birthday) at the Guggenheim Museum.
Already in 1984, Rauschenberg announced his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) at the United Nations. This would culminate in a seven-year, ten-country tour to encourage "world peace and understanding", through Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Beijing, Lhasa (Tibet), Japan, Cuba, Soviet Union, Berlin, and Malaysia in which he left a piece of art, and was influenced by the cultures he visited. Paintings, often on reflective surfaces, as well as drawings, photographs, assemblages and other multimedia were produced, inspired by these surroundings, and this was considered some of his strongest works. The ROCI venture, supported by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., went on view in 1991.
In 2009, the Gagosian Gallery was selected to represent the estate of Rauschenberg; his work had previously been handled by Pace Gallery for more than 15 years. In 2010 Studio Painting (1960‑61), one of Rauschenberg's "Combines", originally estimated at $6 million to $9 million, was bought from the collection of Michael Crichton for $11 million at Christie's, New York.