American Collagist, Painter, and Graphic Artist
Port Arthur, Texas
Captiva Island, Florida
Summary of Robert Rauschenberg
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.
Biography of Robert Rauschenberg
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.
Important Art by Robert Rauschenberg
Originally viewed as a scandalous swindle, Rauschenberg's White Paintings were an early codification of the artistic ideals that dominated his entire oeuvre. The White Paintings currently exist in five different permutations of multi-paneled canvases, which Rauschenberg intentionally left free of any mark of the artist's hand. By removing any gesture, the works could be, and were, re-fabricated by his friends and assistants, including fellow artists from Cy Twombly to Brice Marden. This removal of an authorial mark presaged both the mechanical appearance of Andy Warhol's silkscreened works and the slick surfaces of Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Paintings (1952-67), while also hearkening back to earlier modernist works like the monochromatic paintings of Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. The seemingly blank canvases, evenly coated in white house paint, serve as a backdrop that activates as viewers approach, coming alive with their shadows while also reflecting the light and sounds of the room they occupy. Thus, Rauschenberg succinctly allowed the "subject matter" of the White Paintings to shift with each new audience and new setting, and illustrated his interest in aleatory, or chance, processes in art, while also questioning the role of the artist in determining the meaning, or subject, of a work of art.
The White Paintings were initially exhibited in the dining hall of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 as a backdrop for The Event (Cage's Theatre Piece no. 1) - a multimedia performance combining poetry reading, dance, music determined by aleatory processes. During the performance, four panels of the White Paintings were suspended from the ceiling in the form of a cross with films and slides projected on them. While Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Merce Cunningham danced through the audience, David Tudor played Cage's music on the piano, John Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen, and Rauschenberg himself played wax cylinders of old Edith Piaf records on an old Edison horn recorder.
In the early 1950s, Rauschenberg explored the boundaries and the definition of art, following from the radical modernist precedent set by Marcel Duchamp's earlier Dada readymades. In this "drawing," he set out to discover if erasure, or the removal of a mark, constituted a work of art. He realized in order for the piece to succeed, he required an already notable work of art. Willem de Kooning was an established, leading figure in the New York art world when the young Rauschenberg asked him for a drawing that he could erase. De Kooning eventually acquiesced to Rauschenberg's request, albeit reluctantly. He intentionally made Rauschenberg's act of erasure difficult by deliberately choosing a heavily marked drawing filled with charcoal and pencil. Rauschenberg needed two months, and dozens of erasers, to complete the herculean task of erasing the drawing; even after he finished, traces of De Kooning's work were still present. Through the erasure of De Kooning's drawing, Rauschenberg acknowledged his admiration for his predecessor, but also signaled a movement away from Abstract Expressionism. He framed the erased drawing within a simple, gilded frame, with a mat bearing an inscription typed by Jasper Johns that identified the significance of the seemingly empty paper. The absent drawing is presented as an art object, designating the act of erasure as belonging to the realm of fine art - a typically Neo-Dada act of questioning the definition and import of the art object.
Another collaboration between Rauschenberg and John Cage, this print redefined the medium for the 20th century in a fatalistically Neo-Dada fashion. Rauschenberg glued together 20 sheets of typewriter paper into a continuous scroll, and laid them out on an empty Fulton Street road in front of his studio. He poured black house paint in a pool in front of the rear tire of his Model A Ford, and directed Cage to drive over the 23 feet of paper, with the front tire embossing the scroll and the rear imprinting the paper with a continuous black tire tread mark. While this work is categorized as a print, it is the artifact from a collaborative performance that explored process printing, the artist's mark, and serial imagery. While it was his idea and direction that initiated the creation of the print, Cage acted as the printer and press. In the creation of this work, Rauschenberg effectively shifted the term "action painting" from the Abstract Expressionist active creation of the artist's mark with their own hands to the action of driving a car, part of his continued interest in the obfuscation of traditional notions of the artist and work of art.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Robert Rauschenberg
- Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert RauschenbergOur PickBy Calvin Tomkins
- Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-GardeOur PickBy Branden W. Joseph
- RauschenbergBy Mary Lynn Kotz
- Robert Rauschenberg: Works, Writing, InterviewsOur PickBy Robert Rauschenberg and Sam Hunter
- Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (1997)Our PickGuggenheim Exhibition Catalogue / By Robert Rauschenberg, Walter Hopps, Susan Davidson, and Trisha Brown
- Robert Rauschenberg: CombinesBy Paul Schimmel and Robert Rauschenberg
- Robert Rauschenberg: Transfer Drawings of the 1960sBy Lewis Kachur, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jonathan O'Hara
- Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related PiecesBy Yves-Alain Bois, Josef Helfenstein, and Clare Elliott
- Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking BoundariesBy Robert Saltonstall Mattison, and Robert Rauschenberg
- Transmuting Forms, Click by ClickOur PickBy Philip Gefter / The New York Times / October 17, 2013
- Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, Dies at 82Our PickBy Michael Kimmelman / The New York Times / May 14, 2008
- Rauschenberg's Epic VisionBy John Richardson / Vanity Fair / September 1997
- Art in ReviewBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / February 10, 1995
- Robert Rauschenberg RetrospectiveOur PickTrailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- Elegy for Robert RauschenbergOur PickCreated from footage filmed by Art21 at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles during the 2006 exhibition of "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines".
- Robert Rauschenberg on Erased de KooningOur Pick
- Inside New York's Art World: Robert Rauschenberg and Leo Castelli, 1977Our Pick
- Clip from Painters PaintingOur Pick
- John Machado and Denise Johnson, Iconomaniacs. Discussion of Man with White Shoes
- Robert Rauschenberg: Bed, 1955
- American Art in The 1960sTrailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- Dorothy Seckler Interviews Robert RauschenbergOur PickDecember 1965
- Obituary on NPR, All Things ConsideredOur PickMay 13, 2008
- Rauschenberg's BMW Art CarOur Pick
- Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work
- Robert Rauschenberg designed many album covers for musician Enoch Light's records