A fateful visit to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino would change the so-far rather aimless direction of his life. At the Huntington, Rauschenberg saw Thomas Gainsborough's celebrated 1770 painting of young Jonathan Buttal, famously known as "The Blue Boy." He knew the illustrious painting from calendar reproductions and playing cards, but like many people from rural and small-town America, he was thunderstruck by an otherwise obvious fact: Pictures are painted by people.
After the war ended and he was discharged from the Navy, Rauschenberg settled in Los Angeles, where he worked briefly as an illustrator for a Westwood newspaper and as a packing clerk in a bathing suit factory. In 1947, Rauschenberg used the GI Bill to enroll at the Kansas City Art Institute. With his identity in flux and creativity his chosen direction, he decided to pick a new name. After carefully considering which one might be the most ordinary in the English language, he dropped Milton in favor of Bob (subsequently Robert).
Further convinced that real artists studied in Europe, he left Missouri for Paris the following year and enrolled in the Academie Julian. There he was shocked by the lethargy of the old-fashioned program, whose faculty and students produced works that differed markedly from those of Picasso, Matisse and the Surrealist artists that he saw in Parisian galleries. But it wasn't a total loss. He did meet fellow student Susan Weil, whom he would later marry, and together they spent productive time in the city's museums and galleries.
After reading an article in Time magazine, the two art students decided to return to the United States and enroll in the adventurous program at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., where Rauschenberg continued to study off and on through 1952. German emigre Josef Albers, formerly an instructor at the Bauhaus, ran the avant-garde school when Rauschenberg arrived, and he taught the basic Bauhaus principles of Werklehre -- or working with the inherent properties of materials. Although their relationship was often tense, and sometimes even combative -- Albers loathed the younger artist's work -- Rauschenberg later identified Albers as his most important teacher.
He also learned from Weil, who showed him how to make "drawings" on blueprint paper by exposing it to light, and from the young composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who courted elements of chance and random accident as central ingredients of their music and dance. Rauschenberg later designed sets and costumes for performances by Cage and Cunningham, as well as for choreographer Paul Taylor, and he collaborated with the Judson Dance Theater, the Trisha Brown Dance Company and other theatrical groups. On occasion he also performed.
Among the more outlandish and memorable performances was "Pelican," which Rauschenberg devised when his name was erroneously listed as a choreographer (rather than a technician) for the Judson Dance Theater at the 1963 Pop Festival, held at a Washington, D.C., skating rink. Taking advantage of the unplanned opportunity and the unusual location, he choreographed a work performed on roller skates and with a large, 10-foot-diameter circle of parachute silk strapped to his back. (Carolyn Brown and Per Olof Ultvedt completed the trio of dancers.) Pelicans are graceful swimmers and fliers but ungainly when earthbound; Rauschenberg's "skating dance" created a similar metaphor for human beings, transformed through art.
Rauschenberg's first solo exhibition was held in May 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, where Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still also showed. It was not well received, but it did include works that anticipated critical features of what later became the combines. He showed "grass paintings," made with bundles of soil and seedlings held onto the surface with chicken wire and in need of regular watering, as well as white paintings that reflected light and the shadows of passing viewers. The surface as a changing, impartial collector of transient images would become a key to his mature work.
Married and with a son on the way, Rauschenberg was supporting his small family (and his studies at the Art Students League) by doing window displays for designer Gene Moore at Bonwit Teller and Tiffany & Co. But strains in the marriage were starting to show. Divorce came in the fall of 1952. Rauschenberg left with fellow artist Cy Twombly for Rome, Casablanca, Tangier and Spain. Resettling in New York eight months later, the pair moved into an industrial loft on Fulton Street.
A concurrent exhibition with Twombly at the Stable Gallery, where Rauschenberg also worked as a janitor, was greeted with half a dozen reviews, mostly negative. Undeterred, he went into creative overdrive and began experimenting with materials. He asked his friend De Kooning, now one of the most esteemed artists in New York, to give him a drawing for a project he had in mind. He wanted to see whether a work of art could be created by subtracting lines rather than adding them. "Erased de Kooning Drawing" required nearly a month of careful labor to remove every trace of pencil, crayon and ink from the sheet, which Rauschenberg then carefully matted and placed in a 25-by-22-inch gold-leafed frame.
He also enlisted the aid of Cage to make "Automobile Tire Print" in 1953. Coincidentally, it recalled the original 1951 manuscript for "On the Road," which Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac typed on a continuous 120-foot-long scroll. Laying down 20 sheets of paper on the pavement outside his studio on Fulton Street, Rauschenberg kept applying black ink to the rear tire of his friend's Model A Ford, which Cage drove slowly across the 22-foot length of taped-together sheets. The environmentally scaled mono-print recalls a Japanese scroll, while also revealing the process by which it was made. "Erased de Kooning Drawing" had been an homage to an established aesthetic achievement, as well as a poetic act of artistic patricide; likewise, the tire track made a deft industrial parody of his friend Barnett Newman's metaphysical "zip" paintings, in which a stripe of color delineated the space within a canvas.
Rauschenberg was also creating nominally monochrome paintings at the time -- canvases dominated by red, black or gold and incorporating bits of paper collage and swaths of fabric. These directions came together in "Untitled" (circa 1954), which he considered his first true combine and a work that is now in MOCA's collection. "Untitled" moved the collage into three dimensions. The boxy sculpture, taller than a standing person, is covered inside and out with photographs, newspaper clippings, a found painting and small drawings by Twombly and painter Jack Tworkov.
The leg of a table, which makes the construction like a piece of common furniture, holds up part of the work. A mirror on the bottom reflects a large black and white photograph of a dapper man dressed in a white suit, suggesting Narcissus at the pool; a pair of empty shoes further alludes to a disembodied person. A stuffed Plymouth Rock hen adds an all-American element. "Untitled" mixed references to personal experiences with functional elements that invited viewers' participation.
Following his international triumph in Venice, Rauschenberg pushed the experimental edges of his work. He founded E.A.T. -- Experiments in Art and Technology -- to collaborate with scientists and engineers from Bell Laboratories and elsewhere, just as he collaborated with master printers at Gemini G.E.L. to produce 1968's "Booster," at 6 feet the largest lithograph printed to date. For the 1971 "Art and Technology" exhibition at LACMA, he made "Mud Muse," a glass and aluminum vat filled with liquefied clay that, responding to a sound-activated compressed-air system, bubbled like the La Brea tar pits outside the museum. In the early 1970s, at his permanent residence and studio on Captiva Island, Fla., he began making large wall-reliefs from dismantled cardboard boxes and ethereal constructions of layered, printed silks. The gauzy fabrics, titled the "Hoarfrost Series," proved to be the final body of Rauschenberg's work to receive general acclaim.
Although political issues were almost never an obvious subject for his art, Rauschenberg expressed concern over the devastating uses of military technology arising from the Vietnam War. He preferred rockets to the moon over rocket-propelled missiles. Scientific energies should instead produce "the joy of art," as a Time magazine cover story about him described his artistic pursuit. He launched ROCI -- the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange -- in 1985, spending five years traveling the world to collaborate with artists and non-artists alike. The ROCI agenda was well received by more than 2 million participants in China, the Soviet Union and elsewhere, although few projects resulted in significant art.
In 2004, an illness left him partially paralyzed, severely impairing his ability to use his right arm and hand. Rauschenberg also struggled with the debilitating effects of alcohol, which almost certainly had an effect on his art in the last decades of his life. He enjoyed numerous museum retrospectives during the last 30 years, the most recent an enormous show of more than 300 works that traveled the United States and Europe in 1997 and 1998. His art is in the collection of virtually every important museum that surveys contemporary culture.
Rauschenberg is survived by his son, Christopher; a sister, Janet Begneaud; and his companion and frequent collaborator, artist Darryl Pottorf.