He led the way to Pop Art
Robert Rauschenberg, the protean artist from small-town Texas whose imaginative commitment to hybrid forms of painting and sculpture changed the course of American and European art, died Monday night after a brief illness at his home on Captiva Island, Fla., according to New York’s PaceWildenstein Gallery, which represents his work. He was 82 and had been in poor health for several years.
Rauschenberg was widely regarded as a principal bridge between Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Pop Art in the 1960s, but he did not subscribe to any narrow doctrine. His work also influenced the emergence of Neo-Dada, Minimal, Conceptual, Post-minimal, Process and performance art. His deep and abiding interest in printmaking facilitated a major revival in the medium, and his achievements in lithography were instrumental in the creation of a contemporary market for prints. In Europe, the humble, everyday objects of the Arte Povera (“poor art”) movement expanded on his use of cast-off materials retrieved from the trash bin and the attic.
Rauschenberg’s art was instrumental in reintroducing representational imagery into common usage. Until then, avant-garde art on both sides of the Atlantic was most closely identified with pure abstraction, which the public regarded with skepticism. Rauschenberg mixed traditional forms of modern painting and sculpture with photographs, found objects, studio printmaking techniques and mass-produced pictures gathered in postcards, postage stamps and newspapers. In one of the most repeated, yet frequently misquoted, statements in postwar American art, he asserted: “Painting relates to both art and life. . . . (I try to act in that gap between the two).”
Together with painter Jasper Johns, with whom he was romantically linked, Rauschenberg was the most important American artist to emerge into prominence in the 1950s. When he was awarded the grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale in Italy -- only the third American to receive the distinguished honor, after James Whistler and Mark Tobey -- the surprise selection ignited a firestorm of controversy in Europe but secured his international reputation. Rauschenberg had been using commercially made silk screens to reproduce photographic images on his canvases, a technique that he picked up from Andy Warhol, and the imagery mingled with energetic brushwork in brilliant colors. The day after the Venice Biennale announcement he had all the silk screens in his New York studio destroyed, to forestall any temptation to repeat himself.
Rauschenberg’s voracious appetite for experimentation characterized his working method, which employed new techniques and unusual materials. In 1954, a decade before his Venice triumph, he began to make a new kind of art that combined traditional elements of painting and sculpture, together with collage and printing. He dubbed these works “combine paintings.” Two of the most famous are “Bed” (1955) and “Monogram” (1955-59). For “Bed” he scribbled pencil marks and smeared paint on a well-worn pillow, sheets and a quilt, which hang on the wall like a traditional painting. “Monogram” is a floor piece featuring a stuffed Angora goat with a used automobile tire around its middle; the goat is mounted atop a low platform covered with painted and collaged images.
“I often had a house rule,” Rauschenberg explained about his working method in the shabby neighborhood in downtown Manhattan where he lived. “If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough [trash] to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction -- but that was it. The works [I made] had to be at least as interesting as anything going on outside the window.”
The influential critic Clement Greenberg, who championed the Abstract Expressionists, wrote a 1955 essay extolling the rise of those artists and the decline of the School of Paris. Europe had been the home of the avant-garde, but Greenberg unfavorably compared postwar developments in Paris to the distinctive work he described as “American-type painting.” Conforming to Greenberg’s idea, Johns began to use the American flag and the map of the United States as subjects, while Rauschenberg made his canvas for “Bed” from a pieced quilt -- a unique bit of traditional Americana.
The rumpled combine, with its gestural smears and dribbles of oil paint, also made wry fun of the sometimes-grandiose claims for the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the generation that preceded him. Rauschenberg was friendly with many of those artists, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and he admired the fusion of liberating gesture, precise control and conceptual complexity embodied in their paintings. But he was equally ready to be sardonic and amusing.
The intimate precinct of a bed is inevitably associated with dreams, sexual activity and the private inner life of its inhabitant -- all subjects that figured prominently in the mythologies of Abstract Expressionist art. The much-romanticized notion of the social alienation of the Modern artist was even reflected in Rauschenberg’s choice of a single rather than a double bed as a painting support. His “Bed” is a bed for one.
The goat for “Monogram” was found in the commercial window display of a neighborhood store that sold used typewriters. The animal stands atop a collaged painting that lies flat on the floor. Like Rauschenberg rummaging on the streets of the city, the goat is grazing in a field of ordinary debris, prepared to consume just about anything. The artist later recalled that, as a child in rural Texas, he suffered emotional scars when his father killed his pet goat for food.
The candidly titled “Monogram” is also an unconventional declaration of identity. Western art has used goats as a symbol for priapic sexual energy ever since the Dionysian satyrs of ancient Greece -- half man and half goat, always merrily drinking and dancing. The outrageous interlace formed by the goat and the tire astride a landscape of cast-off debris dates from the conformist social atmosphere of the Eisenhower years, when an anticommunist “Red Scare” was accompanied by an anti-homosexual “Pink Scare.” Critic Robert Hughes described the unforgettable “Monogram” as “one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture” -- the complement to Meret Oppenheim’s famous Surrealist sculpture of a phallic spoon in a fur teacup.
Rauschenberg made 162 combines between 1954 and 1964, and they remain the most highly regarded and influential body of work by the unusually prolific artist. (During his career he produced about 6,000 unique paintings and sculptures, along with a sizable number of prints and multiples.) The largest collection of combines -- 11 works -- is housed in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chief curator Paul Schimmel organized an exhibition of 70 combines in 2005, which traveled to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and to museums in Paris and Stockholm.
Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born Oct. 22, 1925, in the Texas oil-refining town of Port Arthur, on the Gulf Coast near Louisiana. His mother, Dora Carolina Matson, and father, Ernest Rauschenberg, who worked at the local power and light company, were of Dutch, Swedish, German and Cherokee descent. Raised in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which forbade dancing, drinking and card playing, he was encouraged by his deeply religious mother to become a preacher. Instead, after public school he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology. But he soon dropped out, unaware that dyslexia was contributing to his difficulties as a student.
With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in spring 1944. Given his pacifist commitments, Rauschenberg was assigned as a neuropsychiatric technician in a San Diego hospital, while stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton. “This is where I learned how little difference there is between sanity and madness,” Rauschenberg later recalled, “and realized that a combination of both is what everybody needs.”
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.
“That just never occurred to me before,” he said, recalling the epiphany, even though he had been drawing avidly since the age of 10. Rauschenberg decided on the spot to become an artist.
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 G.I. 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 English, 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 met 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 10-foot-diameter circle of parachute silk strapped to his back.
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.
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 fall 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.
Rauschenberg asked his friend De Kooning, 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 gold-leafed frame.
He also enlisted the aid of Cage to make “Automobile Tire Print” in 1953. 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 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, 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.
For more details on artist Robert Rauschenberg’s life and work, go to latimes.com/rauschenberg.