Robert Rauschenberg

Recognition

1974 AIGA Medal

Born

1925, Port Arthur, Texas

Deceased

2008, Captiva Island, Florida

Recognized for his demonstrated ability to broaden any definition of art

Robert Rauschenberg wasn’t a graphic designer, but he certainly had the mind of one. In a long career he combined photography, painting, screen-printing, and even physical objects in his artwork, and he collaborated with other creative thinkers to produce dance, music, and theater. But arguably his greatest contribution remains his prized sense of curiosity—a willingness to explore new concepts and flex the boundaries of what constituted art. Rauschenberg valued the element of curiosity as the “most important [quality] that any creative person can have.”

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, Rauschenberg grew up poor, and didn’t encounter art until World War II, when he visited the Huntington Art Gallery in California while serving in the Navy Hospital Corps. According to biographer Calvin Tomkins, when Rauschenberg set eyes on Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” (1770), it was the first time it occurred to him that someone could have a career of painting a portrait of someone else.

He eventually attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill, then enrolled in Paris’s Académie Julian and met Susan Weil, a New York painter whom he followed back to the States. The two of them enrolled in Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under Josef Albers (1964 AIGA Medalist), who had been both a student and a teacher at the Bauhaus.

During the summer of 1951, Rauschenberg created the controversial “White Paintings,” which were exactly that—white paint on canvases of one to seven panels, prompting plenty of head-scratching from mainstream audience. In interviews, he described the series as a way to investigate the purest form of a painting—one that reflects the lighting conditions and the occupants of the room it is in. Art critics have pointed out that it is, technically speaking, the realization of “pure color.”

Rauschenberg’s approach was more akin to the innocent explorations of a child, not an artist looking to impress or befuddle an audience. “He did not believe in art as self-expression,” Tomkins told NPR. “He thought of it more as collaboration with materials. His attitude to art was in reactivity, and that it could be anything at all.”

In 1953, Rauschenberg took his experimentation a step further, and wondered if erasing a piece of art could actually yield a piece of art.

“I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all-whites,” he said. “I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg, which was nothing—then I figured out it had to begin as art, and I thought it had better be a de Kooning if it’s going to be an ‘important’ piece.” Rauschenberg bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and knocked on Willem de Kooning’s door, hoping the artist wouldn’t be home and thus put an end to the idea. But de Kooning let him in, and after a few awkward moments, understood and agreed to it. “He said he wanted to give me something really difficult to erase—it had charcoal, oil, paint, pencil, and crayon; took me a month to erase that little drawing. And on the other side is one that isn’t erased, so the documentation is built in.” After removing the image completely, Rauschenberg and his friend Jasper Johns matted and framed the piece, and gave it the title “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953), which is the only thing allowing observers to distinguish the work from a nearly blank canvas. “People think it was a gesture, a protest against abstract expressionism or a pure act of destruction,” Rauschenberg said years later. “[But to me,] it’s poetry.”

Yet another piece that left art critics scrambling for insightful explanations was “Automobile Tire Print,” created that same year, 1953. Rauschenberg asked composer John Cage to drive his Model A Ford over a pool of black paint and onto 20 sheets of white paper that had been glued together in front of his studio in Lower Manhattan. The work prompted serious analysis from the art community—examining “visual and psychological dimensions of temporal experience”—but it was most likely Rauschenberg simply experimenting with the idea of making art without an actual artist, per se.

That purely physical expression was a natural bridge into the Combines, one of Rauschenberg’s most notable series—work that began with his attaching found objects (such as wooden boxes and stained-glass paintings) to two-dimensional paintings, and evolved to pieces like “Untitled (Man with White Shoes)” (1954), in which he attached fabric, newspaper, and photographs to wooden boxes and mirrors, with a stuffed hen for good measure.

“These Combines give a new dimension to the phrase ‘a loaded brush,’” wrote Vanity Fair art critic John Richardson, in a piece published shortly before the artist’s death in 2008. “It’s as if Rauschenberg has a brush so vast that he can load it with whatever he wants and slosh it all on in one great homogenizing avalanche of paint.”

This collaborative, cross-medium spirit established Rauschenberg’s fame within collage and screen-printing, which he discovered shortly after Andy Warhol began to popularize the idea in the early 1960s. It was another step away from the abstract expressionists de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko—for whom he had enormous respect, but, nevertheless, sought to distinguish himself from.

“Jasper Johns and I were the only people not trying to do abstract expressionism— the only two people trying to do something else,” Rauschenberg told Charlie Rose during a 1998 interview. “We were both an audience of one to each other’s work, [and the reason we got along so well] was the fact that we were so different from each other.”

“Johns and Rauschenberg were reintroducing recognizable imagery and objects from everyday life—things we recognize and understand and have direct experience with,” says Molly Donovan, curator of modern art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. “And that’s a big shift from the abstract expressionists of the so-called New York School, who are not working with recognizable images, but are using rather purely abstract images. By reintroducing recognizable signs, symbols, imagery, objects, they were bringing [the lofty ideals of ‘high art’] down to a recognizable level where anyone could understand elements of their work.”

Rauschenberg savored working closely with other creatives, including his romantic partners Johns and Cy Twombly, and many others. A June 2017 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art dubbed Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends focused almost exclusively on these collaborations. He worked with Merce Cunningham for more than a decade, after the choreographer approached Rauschenberg with the request, “I don’t want you to decorate a dance, but to make something we could use in a dance.” Rauschenberg also designed sets and costumes for Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown, and partnered with composer and musician Laurie Anderson on Set and Reset, calling it “one of the most unique theatrical challenges in my career.”

“Rauschenberg had a real generosity of spirit in his work,” says Donovan. “This notion that artists work by themselves is really unfair, and largely inaccurate—people don’t just spring from nothing and work by themselves to produce these masterpieces. Clearly, his creative juices flow when he’s working with others, which sets him apart from what a lot of people think of as the ‘modern master.’ Rauschenberg really destroys the mythology of the isolated genius artist.”

What better legacy for an artist with the soul of a designer?


Timeline:

1925 Born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas

1943 Enters the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology at parents’ recommendation; drops out due to the difficulty of the coursework (not yet recognizing that he is dyslexic) and to his refusal to dissect a frog in biology class

1944 Drafted into the U.S. Navy. Visits the Huntington Library art collections—his first visit to an art museum, realizing for the first time that he can pursue art as a career. Buys art supplies and begins painting.

1947 Enrolls in the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill

1948 Departs for Paris, enrolls in the Académie Julian, on the G.I. Bill. Returns to the United States, enrolls in Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina.

1949 Moves to New York, enrolls in the Art Students League, again on the G.I. Bill

1951 First solo exhibition, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Creates “White Painting” series. Also takes occasional work as a freelance window designer.

1953 Creates “Automobile Tire Print” and “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Designs costumes for Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Meets Jasper Johns in New York City.

1954 Begins to incorporate found objects, art reproductions, and constructed appendages in works such as “Untitled,” “Collection,” and ultimately “Charlene,” considered to be the first Combines

1962 Visits Andy Warhol’s studio in New York and begins to screen-print, including the well-known “Brace”

1970 Moves to Captiva Island, Florida

1974 Receives the AIGA Medal “for his demonstrated ability to broaden any definition of art”

1976 Becomes the first artist featured on the cover of Time magazine (November 29, 1976 issue)

1984 Wins a Grammy award for designing the limited-edition cover of the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues

1990 The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation is founded, with a focus on the arts, education, the environment, the homeless, medical research, and world hunger

2008 Dies on Captiva Island, May 12, 2008


Sources:

Hopps, Walter et al. Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective. Guggenheim Museum. 1997.

Museum of Modern Art. “Rauschenberg and the Art of Collaboration.” Accessed May 20, 2017. https://www.moma.org/slideshows/212.

Richardson, John. “Rauschenberg’s Epic Vision.” Vanity Fair. April 30, 2008.

“Rauschenberg Shifted Path of American Art.” All Things Considered. NPR. May 13, 2008.

“Robert Rauschenberg: ‘Erased De Kooning.’” Documentary short. Accessed May 20, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpCWh3IFtDQ.

Rose, Charlie. Interview with Robert Rauschenberg. Charlie Rose. PBS. February 27, 1998.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Robert Rauschenberg, Automobile Tire Print, 1953.” Accessed May 20, 2017. https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.296.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953.” Accessed May 20, 2017. https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.