Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
The Creative Artist
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During his long career, the American painter, sculptor, printmaker, designer, photographer, composer and experimental artist Robert Rauschenberg drew heavily on early 20th century modern artforms such as "found" objects (objets trouvés), collage and assemblage - pioneered by Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters and others - as well as conceptualist techniques initiated by Marcel Duchamp and Dada, to create his own unique blend of multi-media art, also known as junk art. Along with his friend Jasper Johns, and to a lesser extent other American artists like Joseph Cornell and Andy Warhol, he is seen as one of the most influential figures in Neo-Dada art which signalled a break away from Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated art in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. In effect, he was a link between the action-painting of Jackson Pollock and the emergence of 1960s modern art movements like Pop and Conceptualism, in all of which he was an active participant. A relative latecomer to commercial success, Rauschenberg's restless unconventional creativity and capacity for experiment lends his art a unique breadth of vision.
Born Milton Ernst Rauschenberg (he changed his name to Robert later in life to sound more like an artist.) in Port Arthur, Texas, he was part German and part Cherokee Indian. He had no contact with art in his youth, but during World War II when he worked in California as a mental nurse in a number of naval hospitals, he happened to pay a chance visit to an art gallery, and was intrigued by what he saw. As a result, when the war ended, he enrolled at the Kansas city art institute under the GI Bill of rights. After this he attended the eminent Académie Julian in Paris, which proved a big disappointment. Instead of taking to academic painting he fell in love with Sue Weil, a fellow American art student, and studied with her at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina under the ex-Bauhaus master, Josef Albers. He married Weil in 1950, had a son, Christopher in 1951, and divorced in 1953. It was during this period that Rauschenberg had romantic attachments with the calligraphic draughtsman Cy Twombly (b.1928) and the Pop-artist Jasper Johns (b.1930). His close friendship with Johns lasted nearly a decade.
From Black Mountain College he went to New York in 1951, where he had his first solo exhibition, at the renowned Betty Parsons Gallery of modern art. Unfortunately it attracted neither good reviews (the New York Times described his work as "stylish doodles" ) - nor sales.
Black Paintings, and Red Paintings
By the mid-1950s, despite his lack of commercial success, Rauschenberg was already beginning to formulate his brand of aesthetics, founded upon three strands of thought, all of which would be avidly seized upon and developed by the coming generation of Pop-artists.
First, he wanted to create a form of art with instant meaning - something the guy in the street could relate to - an aim which. was diametrically opposed to the intellectualism of Abstract Expressionism with its esoteric canvases. To achieve this goal, he took much of his imagery from everyday, easily recognizable objects. This strand is exemplified by his collages, assemblages, sculpture and combines.
Second, in contrast to many of the traditions of fine art painting but firmly in keeping with Dada philosophy, he believed that art could be made out of anything, no matter how low-brow or trivial. This strand, which questioned the whole distinction between art objects and everyday objects, an issue first publicised by Marcel Duchamp (in Fountain, 1917), is exemplified by his famous work Bed (1955), when he painted the quilt on his own bed, decorating it with toothpaste and fingernail polish.
Third, again like Dadaists, he believed that the idea behind a work of art was more important than the work itself - a belief he held in common with the growing Conceptual art movement. Like the use of low-brow materials, this emphasis on a work's concept and impact was partly an attempt to debunk the gravitas of the art world, which had yet to appreciate his work. His White Paintings were an attempt at Conceptualism, as was his work entitled Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) which comprised his erasure of a drawing by the Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning (1904-97) leaving only the faint indentations that pencil had made on the surface of the paper. (The work is now part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collection).
Another noteworthy example of Rauschenberg's conceptualism occurred in 1961. After being invited to participate in a group exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert, where participants were expected to display a portrait of the owner, Iris Clert, he simply submitted a telegram to the gallery stating: "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so." In much of this, Rauschenberg was strongly influenced by a fellow Black Mountain College student, John Milton Cage Jr, (19121992), the avant-garde composer noted for his controversial musical composition '4-33' - whose three movements contained not a single sound or note of music.
Meantime, the mid-1950s was an exceptionally busy time for Rauschenberg. In 1954 he had a second one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery, began work on his combine series, produced theatre designs for another Black Mountain friend, Merce Cunningham, and would shortly begin decorating the windows of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany under a joint pseudonym with Jasper Johns. Although still not famous, his reputation as a creative innovator and Neo-Dadaist was beginning to rise.
In his "Combines" (1954-62) - now considered to be his foremost body of work - Rauschenberg extended the conventions of collage and found objects, to produce combinations or hybrids of painting and sculpture in a manner comparable with Marcel Duchamps "readymades". An avid collector of trash and other interesting urban debris, his studio rapidly became a junk heap, containing items as varied as Coca Cola bottles, newspapers, magazines, clocks, radios, wire, metalwork, photographs, taxidermied animals and fragments of clothing, most of which would eventually be integrated into his work. Among his most celebrated works, Monogram (1955-1959) featured a stuffed angora goat with a rubber tyre surrounding his middle and daubed with paint. Monogram later appeared in London at the Tate Gallery show, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade (1954-64). In America, thanks to the marketing efforts of art dealers like Leo Castelli (1907-99), critics now started to see him as one of the leading lights of contemporary art in New York.
By the early 1960s, the established Rauschenberg, along with Jasper Johns were at the centre of the new and vibrant Pop-Art movement - which included new talents like Jim Dine (b.1935), Robert Indiana (b.1928), Alex Katz (b.1927), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), James Rosenquist (b.1923), Edward Ruscha (b.1937), and Andy Warhol (1928-87). Rauschenberg was one of the early innovators of silkscreen printing, taking advantage of new commercial printmaking processes, to transfer photographs and images to the canvas. Here, his work is contemporaneous with that of Andy Warhol, and both Rauschenberg and Johns are frequently cited as important forerunners of American Popular Art.
Using silkscreened mass media images, he also produced a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, creating 38 Inferno drawings as a modern accompaniment to Dante and Virgil's journey through hell, substituting his own heroes - like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning - for Dante's characters. In fact, silkscreen greatly extended his range, as it enabled him to incorporate almost any image into his paintings and drawings.
In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American artist to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale (Mark Tobey and James Whistler had previously won the Painting Prize) - an event which the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano described as "the total and general defeat of culture." Hereafter, Rauschenberg enjoyed a rare degree of institutional support. Nevertheless, he didn't forget the hard times he had experienced, and in 1970 he helped to establish Change, an organisation dedicated to furnishing emergency funds for artists.
Interested for some time in combining art with technological developments, in 1966 he and Billy Klüver launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) a non-profit organization established to promote collaboration between engineers and artists. In 1985, he launched Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) an exhibition dedicated to world peace that toured the globe, producing works created specially for each country visited. These included drawings, paintings, photographs, assemblages and other multimedia. ROCI was supported by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and went on view in 1991.
In the 1990s he commenced a new series of large-scale collage-style images entitled Anagrams, encompassing buildings, sculpture, table lamps, jetties, beach scenes, political processions, flags, posters from all parts of the globe, the images typically recurring in different combinations.
An outspoken, social, hard-drinking Southerner, Rauschenberg had a charm and linguistic tact that camouflaged a complex personality and an equally complex approach to art, which evolved as his stature did. Having started by creating unusual, small-scale assemblages out of urban junk retrieved from downtown Manhattan, he spent an increasing amount of time in his later years - having achieved a degree of international fane - on vast international, ambassadorial-like projects, many of which were conceived in his huge studio at Captiva, off the south-western coast of Florida. A risk-taker to the end, at 74 he famously declared that "Screwing things up is a virtue... being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea."
Rauschenberg died on May 12, 2008 of heart failure on Captiva Island in Florida. Now seen as one of the most innovative 20th century painters, his artworks can be seen in contemporary galleries and the best art museums across the world. (See: American Art:1750-present).