Robert Rauschenberg - Biography and Legacy
American Collagist, Painter, and Graphic Artist
Port Arthur, Texas
Captiva Island, Florida
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.
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, but when Rauschenberg discovered that his church called dancing a sin, and as a skilled dancer himself, he was dissuaded from a career in the ministry. In high school, he participated in theater, creating costumes and set designs for school productions. For his high school graduation, he asked for and received a store-bought shirt, 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, California. While on leave, he visited his first art museum - the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino - where he saw paintings by English artists Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence and was inspired to try his hand at being an artist. After World War II ended, Rauschenberg drifted, eventually using the G. I. Bill to pay for art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute 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, he traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.
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. Albers's course on materials, in which students investigated the line, texture, and color of everyday and natural objects, profoundly influenced Rauschenberg, despite Albers's criticism of Rauschenberg's own work. Rauschenberg and Weil stayed at Black Mountain for the 1948-49 school year and then moved to New York City to participate in the burgeoning art world and witnessed the rise of Abstract Expressionism. In June 1950, Rauschenberg and Weil were married, and in August 1951 they had a son, Christopher.
While in New York, Rauschenberg attended The Art Students League, where he studied with the instructors Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil and met fellow student Cy Twombly. He returned to Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951 and again in the spring and summer of 1952. His ambition secured him a solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1951, where many of the Abstract Expressionists, including Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock showed. While at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg embarked on a series of increasingly reductive, white canvases. The flat white canvases, influenced by their surroundings, reflected shadows of people and the time of day. The painter Jack Tworkov, who Rauschenberg met early on in New York and who was teaching at Black Mountain in the summer of 1951, urged Rauschenberg to explore black. A departure from the pristine surfaces of the White paintings, his Black paintings, which he started in 1951, were textured with thick paint and incorporated gravel and newspaper scraps. Also while at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg met and befriended the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham, who both taught at the college in the summer of 1952 and advocated the use of chance methods, found objects, and common, everyday experiences within high art - ideas that Rauschenberg would embrace and experiment with in his own creative practices.
Early Mature Period
While at Black Mountain College in 1952, Rauschenberg began a romantic relationship with fellow student Cy Twombly, and on Rauschenberg's return to New York, Weil filed for divorce and brought their son Christopher to live with her parents. Rauschenberg and Twombly embarked on travels in Europe and North Africa that fall. 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 painting with the Red series in 1953, which, like his Black paintings, included surface texture and collage elements. Branching out from newspaper print, Rauschenberg also began to include objects such as parasols and undershirts in the surface of his paintings. In 1954, Rauschenberg started using the term "combine" to describe his assemblages because they combined paint and objects (or sculpture) on the canvas. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Rauschenberg's combines became decidedly more three dimensional, moving off the wall and onto the floor.
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. The intensity of their artistic partnership has been compared to the partnership between Cubist pioneers 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 also lived in New York at the time. The four artists shared a similar philosophy, and their explorations of chance and use of non-fine art materials led to comparisons with the early 20th century Dadaists and earned them the label Neo-Dada. They rejected the existentialism and psychological rhetoric surrounding Abstract Expressionist painting and embraced the unplanned beauty in everyday life. Despite the closeness and camaraderie, Rauschenberg's relationship with Johns did not last. Johns's Target with Four Faces (1955) was featured on the cover of ARTNews in advance of his solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958, 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.
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 the 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. Commissioned by Life magazine in celebration of the 700th birthday of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, A Modern Inferno (1965), using photographs culled from Life's archive, portrays Dante as an astronaut. In the series Stoned Moon (1969-70), consisting of 34 lithographs, Rauschenberg paired NASA photographs of the Apollo 11 launch with drawings made directly on the lithography stone. 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 these 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 The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-98), an assemblage comprised of 190 panels that roughly measures the length of its title.
In 1984, Rauschenberg founded the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (R.O.C.I.) that integrated his interest in traveling with his belief that art could change society. 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, and a smaller show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibited 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 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that included over 450 works, ranging from paintings, combines, prints, and photographs, showcasing his multi-media experiments.
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.
The Legacy of Robert Rauschenberg
Rauschenberg's work of the 1950s and 1960s was consequential for the development of what came to be known as Postmodern art. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein traced their inspiration for British Pop Art to Rauschenberg's collages of appropriated media images, and his experiments in silkscreen printing. The foundation for Conceptual Art owes much to 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 untitled event in the summer of1952 that came to be known as Theater Piece #1.
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 aesthetics 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.