Throughout his career, Rauschenberg has put pressure on conventional boundaries and challenged accepted artistic conventions. Born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas, initially he imagined himself first as a minister and later as a pharmacist. After serving as a neuropsychiatric technician in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the young Texan realized his artistic aspirations while working briefly as an illustrator for a Los Angeles newspaper. After leaving the navy Rauschenberg traveled to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian in 1948; perhaps most significant for his ensuing development, there he visited numerous galleries, becoming acquainted with the work of the European modernists. After returning to the United States, he enrolled in Black Mountain College, where he studied with the disciplined former Bauhaus master, Josef Albers, whom he would later acknowledge as his most influential instructor. Albers encouraged his students to develop combinations of “structure, texture, and facture,” techniques Rauschenberg would employ in his combine paintings and his Hoarfrost series. (1) While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg also met two other individuals who would have a great impact on his art, the composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham.
In 1951, after participating in the show Abstraction in Photography, organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he received his first solo exhibition, at Betty Parsons Gallery; among the works on display were his multi-panel monochromatic paintings, minimalist works done in all black or white, which in their simplicity heightened the viewer’s attentiveness to the passing shadows and falling light in the gallery space. Later series, such as his “Hoarfrost Editions,” would revisit some of the formal motivations of these early works.
Ever experimental, in 1953 the artist collaborated with John Cage to produce Automobile Tire Print, an impression in black house paint of the tire of a Model A Ford on a 22-foot length of paper. That same year he also “created” the Erased DeKooning Drawing, which, as the title suggests, is a pencil drawing by the Abstract Expressionist artist which Rauschenberg erased and presented as his own art. These works expressed the artist’s interest in performance art, spontaneous events such as “Happenings,” and his active collaboration with other artists. During this period the artist also met Jasper Johns, with whom he would develop an intimate friendship, and even partner with in creating window displays for New York stores such as Bonwit Teller and Tiffany and Co.
In this period in the mid-1950s, Rauschenberg began to incorporate found objects, reproductions of art works, and assorted ephemeral materials into his paintings, such that they became increasingly three-dimensional, resembling both sculptures and paintings. To describe these new assemblages, he coined the term “combines,” which accurately captured the odd, and seemingly random, juxtapositions of differing elements. By exhibiting some of these works as freestanding objects, even on the floor (as in the case of his landmark 1959 work, Monogram), Rauschenberg’s combines questioned traditions of museum display. In 1958, the artist exhibited approximately twenty “combines” at Leo Castelli’s gallery, an event that brought the artist increased attention and acclaim.
That year he also began to use solvent-transfer techniques, in which turpentine or lighter fluid is applied to found illustrations to encourage their transfer to another surface. He subsequently turned to silkscreening, which allowed him the flexibility to resize and reuse imagery. In his works of the 1960s, the artist culled his imagery from the pages of popular magazines, such as Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated, and Life, drawing on the combinatory logic of his 1950s assemblages. His unusual pairings of silkscreened or transferred images, layered with brushstrokes, enabled the artist to bring together the inventiveness of his combines with his love for painting. These multi-image compositions also enabled to artist to come to terms with the changing world around him: “I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the excess of the world. I thought an honest work should incorporate all of these elements, which were and are a reality.” (2)
Firmly believing in the creative possibilities of artist cooperation, in 1966 Rauschenberg helped to found Experiments in Art and Technology, an organization dedicated to promoting collaboration between artists and engineers. At the heart of E.A.T. was the belief that cutting-edge technology could be beneficial not only for industry, but also for humanity and for the arts. Increasingly affected by the Vietnam war and the social activism of the late 1960s, Rauschenberg’s work assumes greater political overtones, particularly in his 1969 series “Currents.”
In the 1970s, after moving to Captiva Island, off the coast of Florida, he also traveled to more far-flung locales, such as Venice, India, and Egypt, producing such series as “Venetians,” “Pages,” “Fuses,” and “Pyramids,” all inspired by his global peregrinations. In 1985, he began an extended series of works, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), which he saw as evidence of the importance of world interaction and communication. The ROCI series was based on his travels and inspired by the particular environments he visited, among them Cuba, China, Venezuela, Japan, and the USSR.
Praised for his continual advancement of the field of modern art, Rauschenberg, from the very beginning of his career, was always “an original.” (3) Rather than working in established styles before developing his own methods, he deliberately “avoided using other people’s styles.” As the artist explained, “It seemed to me that it was more valuable to think that the world was big enough so that everyone doesn’t have to be on each other’s feet.” This sensibility, the continual drive to innovate and explore, has produced one of the most remarkable and acclaimed bodies of work in the twentieth century.
1. Ibid., 156.
2. Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 99.
3. Robert Rauschenberg, interviewed by Richard Kostelanetz, in Hunter, Robert Rauschenberg: Works, Writings, and Interviews, 147.
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