Robert Rauschenberg: A Revolutionary Sculptor and Artist

Once the “enfant terrible” of avant-garde art, trendsetter Robert Rauschenberg bridged a creative gap between two modern eras, effortlessly combining Abstract Expressionism with Pop Art.

Jul 27, 2020By Christina Elia, BA Art History
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Retroactive I  by Robert Rauschenberg, 1964 (left) and Robert Rauschenberg In Front Of His Vydock Series by Ed Chappell, 1995 (right)


Robert Rauschenberg radicalized modernism as we know it today. From his bold monochromatic canvases to his later silk-screened combines, the self-proclaimed painter-sculptor spent six tumultuous decades in constant conversation with art history and contemporary culture. His biography reflects a zest similar to his brilliant body of work. 


Robert Rauschenberg’s Early Years

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Rauschenberg at Robert Rauschenberg: Paintings and Sculpture, Stable Gallery by Allan Grant, 1953, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


Born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925, the artist grew up in a tiny Texas town named Port Arthur. His austere parents imposed strict guidelines on him throughout his sheltered childhood, particularly his mother, a devout fundamentalist Christian. Equally frugal, she also fashioned his adolescent clothing from mismatched scraps, an idiosyncrasy that would greatly impact Rauschengberg later on. 


During his early years, however, he primarily spent time sketching coped images from comics, dyslexic, misunderstood, and undervalued by his peers. Rauschenberg thereby pursued a job as a minister to appease his conservative community, though he quickly surrendered that dream once he realized his church considered dancing, his favorite performative pastime, a sin. In 1943, he attended the University of Texas to study Pharmacology at his father’s behest, inevitably facing expulsion due to his refusal to dissect a frog. Luckily, an incoming WWII draft letter spared him the awkward conversation with his parents. 


Rauschenberg In The Navy

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Robert Rauschenberg by Dennis Hopper, 1966, via Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles


Robert Rauschenberg enlisted in The United States Navy in 1943. Stationed in California, he adamantly avoided the battlefield and served as a medical technician for the Navy Hospital Corps. In San Diego, he also used his free time to explore nearby San Marino, where he first witnessed an oil painting at Huntington Art Gallery. This experience profoundly impacted Rauschenberg’s decision to become an artist. Upon his 1945 discharge, the artist then pondered his next move, a government payout burning a hole in his pockets. Eventually, he gathered his money and enrolled in art classes at Kansas State University. Merely changing occupations proved insufficient for the insatiable Rauschenberg, however, who craved a stark departure from his old self. To anoint his new life as an artist, he also decided to change his name to simply “Bob.” A reborn Robert Rauschenberg emigrated to Paris a few months later to study painting at Academie Julian. 

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A New Identity In Paris

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Untitled (Red Painting) by Robert Rauschenberg, 1953, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


Instead of falling deeper in love with his craft in Paris, Robert Rauschenberg met Susan Weil, another American living abroad. He became so enamored by her he soon saved enough money to follow Weil to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His matriculation there could also largely be attributed to his admiration for its renowned director Josef Albers, notorious for his disciplined educational approach. Before long, though, their relationship had mounted with unsurprising tension, marred by Albers’s incessant criticism. In fact, his professor shunned his work so frequently, Rauschenberg considered himself the class fool, a perfect example of what not to do. Nonetheless, the artist’s time under strict instruction allowed him additional opportunities to sharpen his creative choices, including his sloppy texture and linework. While his enrollment at Black Mountain may have shifted abruptly in 1949, his fascination with assembling multi-media, fortunately, followed him to a fresh start in New York. 


Returning To New York

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White Painting (three panels) by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951, via SFMOMA


America’s new artistic epicenter anticipated his arrival accordingly. Married with a newborn, Rauschenberg spent the early 1950s dividing his busy schedule between NYC’s Arts Student League and Black Mountain. His palpable ambition also made him particularly well-liked among peers. Responding to his Abstract Expressionist milieu, Rauschenberg painted his first-ever groundbreaking canvas in 1951, composed of multiple modular panels. His White Painting lacked any visible mark of an artist, however, alluding to modernist forerunner Kazimir Malevich’s White On White. Removing any signs of his own creativity, Rauschenberg also asked friends like Brice Marden to co-experiment, each aiming to strip painting down to its purest form. However idealistic the idea seemed, though, audiences weren’t too keen on its execution. When later displayed in a 1953 group show at Betty Parsons Gallery, White Painting stirred a colossal controversy amongst its esteemed guests. Critics quickly deemed Rauschenberg a shoddy swindler for the ages. 


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Untitled (Glossy Black Painting) by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


As his art matured, so did Rauschenberg’s personal life. By 1952, he returned to New York a swift divorcee, seeking career advice from his contemporaries. Fellow painter Jack Tworkov had suggested Rauschenberg experiment with black, for example, which ultimately produced his Black Series (1951-1953). Unlike its colorless counterpart, however, Black Series abounded with pockets of coarse texture, interspersed throughout newspaper clippings. Black Series also evolved from Rauschenberg’s earlier paintings through its use of reflection, dependent on viewers to invent renewed meaning through each passing shadow. That same year, he accompanied Cy Twombly on a fellowship through Italy and North Africa, during which the two had an illicit affair. In Italy, Rauschenberg also wandered abandoned junkyards taking photos, searching for materials to incorporate into his canvases. His memorabilia soon resided in wooden boxes, titled Scatole Personali (1952-1953). Later labeled “assemblages,” these first innovations solidified Rauschenberg’s lifelong interest in ordinary objects.


Pushing New Boundaries 

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Erased De Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg, 1953, via SFMOMA


Robert Rauschenberg continued to advance artistically upon his 1953 return to New York. Continuing his monochromatic color palette, he then conceived a new Red Series (1953-1954), employing wide brushstrokes and other dripping methods. Painted over a ground of newspaper fabric, these canvases were comparably more buoyant than his past paintings. He also added arbitrary bits and pieces to them, from lightbulb shards to mirrors or umbrellas. To push boundaries even further, Rauschenberg subsequently engineered an Erased De Kooning (1953), producing a blank sketch reminiscent of its title. His motivation behind asking Willem De Kooning, an artist he admittedly admired, to partake in this erasure remains a mystery. Still tangible today, however, are light traces of their primordial touch, subtly recalling both Rauschenberg and De Kooning. Without sculptor Jasper Johns’s eventual inscription, Erased De Kooning’s meaning would have all but been lost, which is precisely Rauschenberg’s point made by actualizing it. 


What Is Neo-Dadaism? 

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Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in Johns’s Pearl Street Studio by Rachel Rosenthal, 1954, via MoMA


Moving through New York’s social circles, audiences soon defined Robert Rauschenberg’s 1950s practice by his sizzling companionship with fellow artist Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg had met Johns at a party in winter 1953, and the two quickly hit it off, blossoming from friends to lovers in a short span. Together, they also advanced artistically, particularly in their articulation of a new avant-garde painting genre: Neo-Dadaism. Proponents of the said movement rejected Abstract Expressionism and its rigid, formalist parameters, instead favoring the freedom found in life’s sudden surprises. Alongside his fairly flexible relationship with Johns, Rauschenberg also fraternized with other queer creatives in New York, mainly John Cage and Merce Cunningham. With Cage, he then constructed his Automobile Tire Print (1953), rendered by driving over twenty pieces of typewriter paper. His resulting piece subverted action painting by demonstrating how an artist’s mark could be absent from a final product, an adversely anti-aesthetic agenda. 


Rauschenberg’s First Combines

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Charlene by Robert Rauschenberg, 1954, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


Unfortunately, Rauschenberg and Johns proved a romantic mismatch. As the latter accrued public interest, Rauschenberg’s progress waned, jealous of his newly-famous partner. Their relationship ended in the early 1960s. Though the artist still spent the latter half of the 1950s working prolifically, planting seeds for his later trademark style. Collecting old scrap from the NYC streets, he continued to find harmony in the unanticipated, whether an old Coke bottle or a broken soap dish. He also coined the term “combines” to describe his blurred delineation of painting and sculpture. Early 1954 prototypes, like Charlene and Collection, indicate this migration toward complete collage, constructed using comic strips, scarves, and other ephemera. Bed (1955), Rauschenberg’s first official “combine,” also takes his technique one step further by drawing on stretched bed sheets and a well-worn pillow spontaneously splashed with paint in an undeniably Pollock style. These early experiments altered his creative trajectory forever. 


Robert Rauschenberg’s Prime

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Monogram by Robert Rauschenberg, 1955, via MoMA


Robert Rauschenberg hit his stride in the early 1960s, discounting a failed 1958 solo-show at The Leo Castelli Gallery. He co-founded a dance company with Cunningham, dabbling in costume creation and set production. In 1963, he also celebrated a premature retrospective at the Jewish Museum, an exhibition surprisingly well-received by critics. Among his works displayed were Monogram (1955), a shocking cross-over between a stuffed goat and a ratty tire. Alongside his amalgamated sculpture also lingered a more controversial combine, Canyon (1959), featuring wooden bits, pillows, and a stuffed bald eagle. Although Rauschenberg insisted his specimen had been acquired prior to the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, bureaucratic uproar questioned whether it could be sold legally. Nevertheless, Canyon’s poignant imagery still remains debated, particularly if the artist was alluding to a Greek Myth or intending to imbue nationalist notions. Like most of Raushcnberg’s 1960s collages, however, its interpretation counted on viewers. 


How His Work Matured

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Signs by Robert Rauschenberg, 1970, via MoMA


Rauschenberg’s success intensified during the late 1960s. Awarded a painting prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale, he broke records as its first American recipient. He also produced abundantly, advancing his visual language through current events. In Skyway (1964), for example, Rauschenberg implemented a new silk-screening technique to arrange his mass-media melody: a recently-assassinated JFK, an astronaut, a fragmented painting by Peter Paul Rubens. In his own words, he unified these elements to capture the frenetic pace of daily American life, which had been changing drastically due to emergent technologies like television. Sky Garden (1969) also immortalizes the painter’s preoccupation with the present, made in a series after Rauschenberg witnessed Apollo 11 launch. To summarize the societal cataclysm he’d witnessed throughout the preceding decade, Rauschenberg concluded his 1960s with Signs (1970), juxtaposing a hopeful Buzz Aldrin with the traumatic deaths of popular figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Janis Joplin. 


His 1970s Move To Captiva Island

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The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece by Robert Rauschenberg, 1981-98, via LACMA


New beginnings beckoned him again during the 1970s. On Captiva Island, his work adapted to its natural surroundings, veering toward abstraction through fibers like paper. Cardboard (1971) best communicates this mid-career interest in texture and color, a series of wall sculptures made from cut, bent, and stapled boxes. Ranging from cotton to satin, Rauschenberg also wrought a wide range of fabric in Hoarfrost (1974), utilizing solvent to transfer images from newspapers and magazines. By 1976, he mounted another retrospective at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, honoring the American Bicentennial. In 1981, he also undertook his biggest project to date, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, 190 panels measuring ¼ mile in length, completed over the course of seventeen years. Adamant in his belief art could be a vehicle for change, he then founded the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange in 1984, traveling around the world to educate underprivileged artists. 


Robert Rauschenberg’s Later Years

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Mirthday Man by Robert Rauschenberg, 1997, via MoMA


Notwithstanding support from his collectors, Robert Rauschenberg’s critical esteem plateaued following his prime. He nonetheless spent the 1990s testing budding mediums, like the Iris printer, which he used to make digital color copies of his old photographs. Iterations from his Waterworks (1992) series portray this dizzying visual effect, transferred to paper via lithograph. He also celebrated a prosperous retrospective at The Whitney in 1990, fortifying his legacy as an art world legend. Like Rauschenberg himself, the museum placed particular importance on his early works, underscoring their significance in demarcating a new American art path. In fact, most of Rauchenberg’s later oeuvre reads as auto-biographical, self-referential of his maiden combines. In a digitized collage centered by his own x-ray, Mirthday Man (1997), for instance, he marked the occasion of his seventy-second birthday. Rauschenberg also commemorated his release from rehab, which he had checked into during 1996 to curb his worsening alcoholism. 


His Health Declined During Final Years

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Bubba’s Sister (Ruminations) by Robert Rauschenberg, 2000, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


Luckily, he recovered enough to enjoy a gargantuan retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. Surveying 467 works, the exhibition’s curation took nearly six years to finalize, subsequently touring the U.S. and abroad. Rauschenberg worked in glass for the first time during this period as well, forging his personal Ruminations (2000) based on pivotal figures in his lifetime. This included his parents, ex-lovers like Jasper Johns, and collaborators like Tatyana Grosman. Given his deteriorating health, however, he also took steps to secure his legacy, among them testifying for artists regarding the National Endowment of the Arts. Rauschenberg also co-founded Artists’ Rights Today, a lobbying group demanding for resale royalties. Yet despite his best efforts, medical mishaps led him to break his hip in 2001, the complications of which inevitably caused a massive stroke. By 2002, he had lost all sensation in his right hand, forced to renavigate life as a lefty. 


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Rehab (Scenarios) by Robert Rauschenberg, 2005, via Waddington Custot, London


Even a neurological injury couldn’t stop Robert Rauschenberg from creating art. As longtime romantic partner Darryl Pottorf assisted him during his final years, he continued his visionary streak, committed to his cause like never before. From pineapples to pyramids, skyscrapers, and deer, his Short Stories (2000) counterbalanced primitive motifs with his signature symbols: trucks, road signs, and telephone poles. In Scenarios (2002), Rauschenberg also collages old photographs using past printing methods, this time rehashing reflections like his recent stint in rehab. Runts (2006), his last-ever paintings, incorporated duplicate themes on canvases half his usual size, hence its diminutive title. Untitled (Runt) truly encapsulates Rauschenberg’s attention to minutia, depicting an ordinary firetruck, parking garage, and motorcycle alongside an ornate sculpture. With that, Rauschenberg said his tearful goodbyes in May 2008, shortly before flatlining from heart failure. He’s alleged to have painted until his dying day. 


Robert Rauschenberg’s Legacy

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Robert Rauschenberg and David Byrne at a Talking Heads Concert by Terry Van Brunt, 1983, via The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York


Robert Rauschenberg is a revolutionary in his own right. While his art may not always appease, he’s garnered irrefutable respect among audiences and pundits alike, if not for his sheer determination to succeed. Inspiring artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein with his imaginative methods, he’s remembered today for paving new avenues of artistic ingenuity, no matter how kitsch his prospects seemed. Unlike his successors, however, the painter equally valued expression and execution, willfully redefining his role as an artist throughout his career. His artwork also largely emphasized audience participation, contingent on a mercurial society to master its meaning. Even though collaborations with contemporaries shaped his training, the artist will always be praised for his individualism, alongside his jarringly charming personality. Such is the indelible magic of Robert Rauschenberg, departed yet eternally etched in our memories. 

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By Christina EliaBA Art HistoryChristina Elia is a contributing writer whose work focuses on the intersection between visual culture and language. She was born and raised in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as The Odyssey, Select City, CURA, and has appeared in print in The Tishman Review and UP.